Madonna’s Hard Candy turns 12 this month (on April 19, to be exact) and I decided to mark the occasion by revisiting the divisive opus. Full disclosure. The Queen of Pop’s 11th album didn’t exactly fill me with joy when it arrived in 2008. After the dance-pop mastery of Confessions On A Dance Floor, Hard Candy felt like a step backwards. Instead of breaking new ground, she decided to tap into the pop-meets-hip-hop sound that The Neptunes and Timbaland were already exploring with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Gwen Stefani.
As one of the few Madonna albums I don’t regularly play, I was able to reassess Hard Candy with semi-fresh ears. And it’s less one-note than I remember. The production is very much of its time, but there’s an outrageousness to the project that I appreciate more with the benefit of hindsight. Instead of repeating herself (as much as I would have killed for Confessions 2), the living legend decided to dabble in urban beats — without the buffer of house music as she did on Bedtime Stories — at the age of 49. Oh, and she also had the audacity to open the album with a song about her vagina.
Candy Shop is, without a doubt, the most iconic moment on Hard Candy — massive hits like 4 Minutes and Give It 2 Me, which has held up incredibly well, can’t compete. The song is such a staple of her live show that its absence from the Madame X Tour felt like a slap in the face. “Don’t pretend you’re not hungry, there’s plenty to eat,” Madonna coos on the Grammy-robbed bop. “Come on into my store, ’cause my sugar is sweet.” The Neptunes’ production is airy and multi-layered, while the bridge (“my sugar is raw, sticky and sweet”) should be carved on the statue of liberty.
Apart from Candy Shop and the aforementioned singles, another track that has aged handsomely is Miles Away. Co-produced by JT, Timbaland and Danja, there’s an emotional gravitas to this song that other cuts are missing. In some ways, it reminds me of “Love Profusion” — perhaps it’s the palpable sense of longing. Other highlights on Hard Candy include She’s Not Me, which really should have been a single, and the lightweight and very lovable Dance 2Night. I remember adoring Incredible upon release, but it sounds a little creaky in 2020.
The rest of Hard Candy is forgettable by Madonna’s standards. It is lacking the layers and hidden gems of American Life, the insight and creativity of Madame X and the wall-to-wall bangers of Rebel Heart. In its defense, the album is cohesive and achieved what it set out to do. Namely, remind the new wave of divas that Madonna could beat them at their own game. After all, Hard Candy sold four million copies worldwide and the tour remains the highest-grossing by a female artist of all time. Legends only.