It is not yet time to stick a fork in Madonna. The grande dame of pop isn’t done just yet.
Pop music is supposed to be a young person’s game, but Madonna, as she’s done so often throughout her quarter-century career, ignores the rules by sounding vital and relevant, even as she approaches her 50th birthday.
“They say that a good thing never lasts, and then it has to fall,” she sings on her new album, “Hard Candy.” “Those are the people that didn’t amount to much at all.”
The 11th studio set of her career — and her last for Warner Bros. Records, the longtime label that she’s leaving for a wide-ranging deal with concert promoter Live Nation — “Hard Candy” is a heady, frisky sugar rush of urban dance-pop come-ons in which Madge finally gets into the hip-hop groove.
“See which flavor you like/And I’ll have it for you,” she coos in album opener, “Candy Shop,” a hooky song driven by a twitchy, syncopated drum pattern. “Come on into my store/I’ve got candy galore.” Advertising herself as “your one-stop candy store,” she purrs: “Sticky and sweet/My sugar is raw.”
The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has succeeded for so long, with more than 200 million records sold worldwide since 1982, in large measure because she’s always had a knack for identifying interesting trends and adopting them as her own. (Well, that, along with self-promotional genius and sheer personality.)
Though lust is hardly a new addition to the “Sex” author’s repertoire, the sound on “Hard Candy” represents a welcome new twist for Madonna: It’s dance-pop pressed through a hip-hop filter with the help of several urban-music studio heavies — namely Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Nate “Danja” Hills. (It’s another signature Madonna move, as she’s been collaborating with hot producers since the early days of her career, when she teamed with the likes of Jellybean Benitez and Niles Rodgers.)
Given hip-hop’s long-standing ubiquity, Madonna is arriving late to this particular party, suggesting that she might be slowing down in her advanced age. But even if she’s not starting any new trends in following the lead of Nelly Furtado, Gwen Stefani and such, Madge still manages to sound perfectly at home in the hip-hop world, where her sharp pop sensibilities — particularly her ability to craft killer hooks — are given a mostly fresh rhythmic framework.
If it’s not the boldest move of her career, it’s still a successful gambit from one of the great all-time shape-shifters.
It works best when Madonna isn’t trying to act like she’s down with the hip-hop kids, which just sounds weird. In “Heartbeat,” for instance, over a stuttering beat accented by a cowbell, we find Madonna quasi-rapping the line “see my booty get down” over and over as Pharrell eggs her on: “A little lower, baby.” Awk-ward!
More cowbell, less of Madonna’s booty raps, please. (She should leave that to the pros, as with Kanye West, who cameos on “Beat Goes On.”)
Much better is the album’s lead single, “4 Minutes,” which Madonna co-wrote with Timbaland, Hills and Justin Timberlake, who also makes a vocal cameo. It’s a busy, brassy song propelled by a detonative marching-band beat, and it’s one of the most thrilling things Madonna has done in this decade.
“Give It 2 Me” is also a highlight, a thumping, super-sexualized banger in which Madonna demands “it” over lurching synth stabs and a rump-shaking rhythm. “Don’t stop me now, don’t need to catch my breath/I can go on and on and on,” she sings convincingly. Maybe 50 is the new 25.
And, in fact, it’s easy to forget that Madonna is just months removed from the half-century mark and that Timberlake wasn’t yet 2 years old when her first single, “Everybody,” was released in 1982.
This is not the soundtrack to “The Cougar Den,” though, as Madonna wears her youthful sexuality well, managing to avoid sounding creepy during her multiple come-ons.
Pop music’s Everlasting Gobstopper, she keeps on ticking — and, um, licking — as time and trends march on.