Madonna knows her own mind, so the decision, in 2007, to pair with the team that was then dominating pop radio – Timbaland and his matinee-idol protégé Justin Timberlake – for her Hard Candy album was less a case of following trends than it was seizing an opportunity to reshape them in her own unique style. This is the story of how Madonna’s Justin Timberlake collaboration, 4 Minutes, resulted in a song that became one of both stars’ biggest hits.
The song: a riff-heavy earworm
Work on what became Hard Candy, issued in the spring of 2008, resulted in five songs bearing a Timbaland co-credit: Miles Away (the album’s third single), Dance 2Night, Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You, Voices and the track that would launch the record, 4 Minutes.
A chart-topper in the UK, Europe and the US dance charts, 4 Minutes continued the “Queen of Pop”’s domination of the international singles market that had endured, largely without pause, since her breakthrough almost a quarter of a century earlier, and which included a record-breaking run of No.1 singles. The song is a riff-heavy earworm, with Timbaland’s trademark beats and tics anchoring the strong pairing of two of music’s biggest stars. Justin Timberlake and Madonna proved a strong match vocally, with Timbaland joining the opening of the cut, and the lyrics complementing the apocalyptic techno ticking-clock trickery that underpins the song’s production.
The video: one of Madonna's most conceptual dancing performances
Environmental issues are certainly high in Madonna’s catalogue of causes, but 4 Minutes has perhaps as much to say about the urgent rush of desire as it does about global warming – as us no more evident than in the song’s promotional clip. There is plenty of heat between the two stars, and the video, directed by Jonas Euvremer and François Rousselet, knowingly dials up the erotic charge between Madonna and Timberlake. Jamie King’s choreography is ambitious, ranking among Madonna’s most conceptual dancing performances. If Timberlake was struggling to keep up, he masks it well!
Co-crediting Justin Timberlake: a first on a Madonna record
Timberlake’s billing marked a first on a Madonna record: she won’t shy away from collaboration, but her partners are never usually given so much prominence. (In 1994, when she essentially duetted with Babyface on Take A Bow, he didn’t secure a formal performance credit.) In fact, Hard Candy’s broader collaborative approach is reminiscent of Madonna’s sixth album, Bedtime Stories, which saw her work with hot R&B producers to reposition her sound away from the club grooves of Erotica (and some of the controversy generated by the Sex book). In the late 2000s, Madonna was less concerned with career repositioning, but the Euro-disco success of 2005’s Confessions Of A Dance Floor album hadn’t been replicated stateside.
The release: a singular mission - to become an enormous hit
Hard Candy was an attempt to remedy that, while the album also marked a more reflective period in her writing – the fractures in her marriage to Guy Ritchie perhaps becoming something of a source for the album’s more personal lyrics. Released as a single on 17 March 2008, 4 Minutes didn’t delve as deep as tracks such as Miles Away; it had a singular mission in mind: to become an enormous hit. And it certainly succeeded. In the US, where radio play remains the critical factor, the single made it to No.3 – Madonna’s best placing since 2000’s Music album – and in the UK it topped the charts for four weeks. 4 Minutes proved a similar success globally, with more than 20 chart-topping peaks.
The meaning: "I think the song is about having a sense of urgency. We are living on borrowed time"
The track, recorded at London’s SARM Studios, was a technical challenge, with scores of vocal, synth and brass edits constructed to create the layered recording we know today. Critics were generous to the single, while Madonna acknowledged the complex themes at play, suggesting: “I don’t think it’s important to take it too literally.” She told MTV: “I think the song, more than anything, is about having a sense of urgency; about how we are, you know, living on borrowed time essentially and people are becoming much more aware of the environment and how we’re destroying the planet.”
Timberlake managed to join Madonna on stage for a couple of live collaborations of the song in the year it was released, but most of Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet concert dates saw her perform it alongside a video screen. Ultimately, she needn’t have shared her commanding presence with anyone. If a lead single’s primary purpose is to provide a hit, 4 Minutes delivered that generously. Madonna proved that time had not yet run out for her.