As the release of “Hard Candy” approached, Madonna and company praised the record as a sweet, ass-kicking return to the roots of her self-titled debut, “Like a Virgin” and “True Blue.” Hailed as a hip-hop infused dance party helmed by everybody from Timbaland to The Neptunes, it’s definitely filled to the brim with energy and a skyline vibe. But in translating Madonna’s sound from the posh throwback disco of “Confessions on a Dance Floor” to the of-the-moment groove of her latest release, Madonna was lost. As a result, the album feels more like a hard pill to swallow than a hard candy.
As I said in a previous post, the issue is not Madonna working with producers like Timbaland, which left a lot of her fans questioning her judgment. His work with Madonna’s fellow MTV veterans Duran Duran on last year’s “Red Carpet Massacre” was quite good, because despite all of the trademark Timbaland production touches it still sounds like a Duran Duran album. “Hard Candy” falls short because while it’s high quality, it’s not Madonna quality. It sounds like leftovers from Nelly Furtado and Fergie sessions, an undercurrent that leaves the album a bit stilted. There are some transcendent moments that remind you of why Madonna’s one of the world’s premiere divas, but more often than not it sounds like a new artist gunning for a hit rather than a seasoned pro about to become a quintagenarian.
If she wanted a hit, she got one with “4 Minutes,” a grating collaboration with Justin “I’ll throw ya under the bus” Timberlake that’s already landed in the Top 5. Things improve a bit with the fuzzy, bubbly beats of “Candy Shop” and “Incredible,” but characterless cuts like “Give it 2 Me” and “Heartbeat” are boilerplate Neptunes and break no new ground. Still, there are remnants of the ragtag “Lucky Star” Madonna those of us raised in the ‘80s know and love. “Beat Goes On,” which features hip-hop divo Kanye West, is a colorful swirl of squiggly synths and hand claps that brings to mind the boom box Saturdays of years long gone. (I have visions of Saturdays at the roller rink with my big sister each time I play that one.) The slinky “Dance 2Night” is another highlight, a pop-funk ditty that channels the spirit of the Chic sound of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers – icy vocals, chunky bass-line and all – in what’s clearly a nod to the Rogers-produced “Like a Virgin” and its respective era. With the right push, either could be her next hit.
Though the singer’s much-improved vocals don’t get much shine this time around, the atmospheric “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” showcases a solid performance and displays the growth she has become known for more than anything else on the record. A synthesis of classic Timbaland and the quiet Madonna of the “Ray of Light” years, it’s an interesting reflection on looking through someone despite the many faces they wear. When you think about the fact that the song is being rendered by a pop queen who built her career around donning a slew of faces, hairstyles and philosophies that still leave her court guessing about who she really is, the song takes on a new resonance.
Ultimately, I guess you could say “Hard Candy” is bittersweet. It’s the Material Mom’s eleventh time at bat and the bitch is swinging hard, but one can’t help but wonder exactly what her target is. She got a hit and some attention from kids who in truth are attention span challenged, but at what cost? The mark of Madonna’s greatness was always her refusal to play second fiddle to anyone, a tactic that made her brand a bit stronger that those around her. She’s an icon who’s earned the right to enjoy the ride and coast in and out of any sound she chooses, but hopefully next time she’ll remember that, much like fabulous disco diva Sylvester once said about himself, nobody conceptualizes her.
Madonna’s the concept all on her own.