On her previous 10 studio albums, control was never questioned because Madonna had it. She co-wrote and co-produced everything she did. She always called the shots.
But throughout "Hard Candy" - filled with the work of superstar producer Timbaland and his collaborator, Justin Timberlake, as well as hit-making production team The Neptunes - the issue is front and center. It's no longer a question of whether she can play nice with others, but how much she's willing to compromise to guarantee another hit.
The first single, "4 Minutes," finds Madonna overwhelmed by Timbaland's production and Timberlake's vocals. It's a good song, but it's not really hers. She could be one of any number of singers in Timbaland's stable, from Nelly Furtado on down.
Rest assured, that doesn't happen again. Even on other songs from the Timbaland-Timberlake team - especially "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," which sounds like a remake of Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," complete with water sound effects, or "Miles Away," which could be "Like I Love You II" - she remains the focus.
Her work with The Neptunes fares far better, as their collaboration seems to push them all to be better. After all, head Neptune Pharrell Williams and Madonna share a love of the stripped-down, freestyle dance vibe that first swept her to the top of the pop charts on a wave of synthesizer banks, black rubber bracelets and mesh shirts.
"Give It 2 Me," both lyrically and musically, could have easily sat next to "Lucky Star" and "Burning Up" on her debut. The same goes for the discofied dance-floor-filler "Beat Goes On," which features verses from Kanye West that still can't wrest the spotlight from Madonna working the groove.
For so much of "Hard Candy," Madonna mines familiar territory expertly, so that by the time she reaches the dramatic closer, "Voices," and asks "Who is the master? Who is the slave?" the answer is clear once again.
She may still have to fight to remain queen of the pop-culture castle, but despite a few bumps, she is still clearly the master of her domain.
HARD CANDY. Madonna indulges in some sweet, radio-friendly dance-pop. In stores Tuesday. Grade: B+.
- Bron: amNewYork