To best savor the sweet-tart sound of Hard Candy, it’s best to heed Madonna’s introductory come-on.
“Get up out of your seat,” she coos over one of Pharrell Williams’ trademark spare grooves. “Come on up to the dance floor.”
Indeed, Hard Candy, online and in stores today, is designed for nonstop club play and serious hip-shaking. (The hip-hop touches, at least to these ears, are minimal.)
The pop queen gets into a serious groove throughout the disc’s dozen tracks, even boasting, “See my booty get down” during Heartbeat.
As a sit-down listen (in the car, through headphones or via a computer), Hard Candy doesn’t have the same immediate spark or insightful lyrics as 2005’s gorgeous Confessions on a Dance Floor. A few moments feel anonymous and underwhelming.
Take first single 4 Minutes, a blaring, brassy collaboration with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland. Madonna, for the first time in her career, gets lost in the busy production and ticky Timbaland-isms. It’s an obvious bid for radio play (and has worked), but the result is a generic pop trifle that sounds like something from Nelly Furtado’s last record.
Maybe Madge just wanted to go out on a commercial high. Hard Candy is her last studio album for longtime label Warner Bros. before she locks into a $120 million, decadelong contract with Live Nation. (A third greatest-hits package is also due on Warner Bros.) She’ll be the flagship artist for the concert promoter’s music division, Artist Nation, which will oversee albums, tours, merchandise and promotion.
Under the disco ball, however, Hard Candy proves a sparkling after-hours soundtrack. DJ Ed Bailey spun several of the new tunes during Saturday’s fourth annual Madonnarama event at South Beach nightclub (an all-Madonna music and video extravaganza), and they flowed seamlessly with her astonishing catalog of hits.
Williams’ adventurous production gives Hard Candy its sweetest kick while still letting Madonna take the lead. He even gives the silly Spanish Lesson (“If you do your homework/Baby I will give you more”) a thundering, marching-band flourish.
A swirl of furious house grooves and thundering beats anchor Give It 2 Me, and Heartbeat pulses with a sensual arrangement that recalls the Pet Shop Boys and Kylie Minogue. (Expect both of these tunes to soon dominate deejay playlists.)
She’s Not Me starts with a basic disco bassline and whistles straight out of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls. But soon it morphs into a flood of vocal effects and trance-y flavor.
It’s also a lyrical standout, Madonna sizing up what could be competition for her man — or pop-music dominance.
“She’s not me/She doesn’t have my name,” she insists. “She’ll never have what I have/It won’t be the same.”
Sly moments like that are what give Hard Candy its heart. Madonna’s career has always been about reinvention and relevance. Her work with Williams hits both targets without sacrificing so much artistic integrity.
Incredible, like so many of Madonna’s best tunes, feels familiar and fresh at the same time. Williams’ kitchen-sink production reflects the joy in the lyrics. (“And all of those things that used to get you down don’t have no effect at all/’Cause life is beautiful.”) He layers a twirling, stop-and-start arrangement with crunchy guitars and shout-along backing vocals.
The Madonna/Williams pairing sours when the payoff is too obvious: Candy Shop‘s sex-as-candy imagery (“My sugar is raw — sticky and sweet”); the especially disappointing Beat Goes On, a limp disco homage featuring Kanye West.
It’s Timbaland who proves the real killjoy, sucking Madonna’s heady personality out of Dance 2night and replacing it with a bland, disco-diva arrangement. Even Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You, a lyrically dark moment, is undermined by generic production that just doesn’t feel like Madonna. It’s hardly worthy of a B-side.
Slightly better are the galloping beat and melodic backing vocals of Miles Away, which sounds like late-’80s Madonna; and Voices, the ominous closer that proves a much more powerful marriage of Madonna’s exploratory nature and Timbaland’s commercial instincts.
“Who is the master? Who is the slave?” Timberlake wonders during the song’s intro. But despite her mix of collaborators, it’s clear Madonna is in charge of this bittersweet Candy store.