‘Candy’ girl: Maddy’s latest a bittersweet treat

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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.

Are media hounds gonna dog Madonna for this one like they do with Janet?

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You know, I love Madonna. She isn’t even the issue here.

But for the past few years, the mainstream media have been screaming for Janet Jackson to drop her affinity for all things randy and go the route of Madonna – in other words, grow the fuck up. Yet, here we have Madonna, half-naked and spreadin’ ’em on the cover of her upcoming album, “Hard Candy.” I ain’t hating, because I love the picture.

All I know is I better hear white folks like the assholes over at Entertainment Weekly who hate on Janet – who is EIGHT years younger than Madonna – flogging the Material Mom the same way.

Trust and believe I ain’t holding my breath.

Is Mrs. Ritchie the cure for hip-hop’s sweet tooth?

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I wanted to love Madonna’s new single, “4 Minutes to Save the World.” I really did.   

I’ve been a big Madonna fan pretty much all of my life. I’ve got all of her albums, tried to love the movies and been to two of her live shows. Twenty-five years haven’t put a damper on the excitement that surrounds anything the soon-to-be Rock & Roll Hall of Famer does, which says a lot about her ability to resonate with the public. However, I’m not so sure this single is a good look.

Unlike a lot of folks, my problem with the song isn’t the fact that she tapped Timbaland and Justin Timberlake to put the Midas touch called commercial appeal on it. While I’m not a fan of either of one, I genuinely enjoyed the work they did on Duran Duran’s latest album, 2007’s “Red Carpet Massacre.” I’m a long-time Duran Duran fan and was cautious when I heard they were going to be working with them. I was pleasantly surprised by the results, as the duo managed to produce a series of solid creations that didn’t wash out the glam and gloss of the band’s persona and approach. Surely they could do the same for Madge, right? While this song may grow on me, at this point I gotta vote no.  

It so pains me to say that.

My biggest complaint: It’s just too damn busy. Granted, the clip that my friend sent me was a rip from a French radio show, but I can’t even put the murkiness of the track on that. Amid the horns and clunky faux percussion, I can barely tell what they are saying, let alone who it is. Madonna and Timberlake trade vocals as Timbo gives up his characteristically mindless ad libs in what deteriorates into an aimless jam in the vein of Fergie and Gwen Stefani. If I’d heard it on the radio, I wouldn’t have even known it was a Madonna song. I’d say I was more confused than disappointed when it was done.

While I can’t decide if I’m feeling the cut or not, I haven’t given up hope on the forthcoming album, the hotly anticipated “Hard Candy.” After all, this is Madonna we are talking about here, and she’s rarely let us down. Each time people are ready to write her off and call her irrelevant, she brings the goods and reminds us never to sleep on her. I was excited to hear that she was ditching the electro-disco approach she’s been mining over the last several years, because it’s gotten pretty tired. I loved “Confessions on a Dance Floor” and the accompanying tour, but it was starting to become clear that the singer, as my friend would put it, was starting to “coast.” So injecting some hip-hop swagger into the mix may not be a bad idea, but it’s all in the execution. Advance buzz on the album has been generally positive, so I’ll withhold making any extreme judgments about her new direction until I get my ears around a finished product.

I wish I could say a lot of her other fans were doing the same.  

From the time news began to spread that Madonna was gonna get in touch with her inner hip-hop head, the stans went batshit. Cries of “she’s abandoning her dance and European audiences to court the tired American market” were heard all over the Internet and the free world, with the move being branded everything but treason. Some say she’s bitter about the fact that “Confessions” didn’t do the big numbers in the States it did elsewhere, while others say she is making a desperate stab at connecting with a generation that deems her too white, too old and too British. Maybe some or all of that is true, but what really gets me is the fact that some of the more die-hard, cosmopolitan (read: white) fans are bitching about her embracing a form of black music. I can’t understand why this is so upsetting to them, as one look into her history shows negro tendencies always permeated her music. 

Take her eponymous debut, for example. Produced by Reggie Lucas, it rested comfortably at the intersection of the synth sex of Donna Summer and the soul of early Stephanie Mills. If you listen to “Borderline” closely, the similarities between it and Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before” are obvious. Right down to the introductory bell, it’s clear Lucas – who, along with James Mtume produced the Mills hit – was looking to create a slice of blue-eyed soul. It’s not surprising that the album and its singles made modest showings on the R&B charts. Hell, some people even thought she was black.

Bounce forward to 1984’s “Like a Virgin” and the black producer-white ingenue combo emerges again, this time with Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers twisting the knobs. Thumpers like “Material Girl” and the title track bubble over with Chic sensibility, right down to Chic/Power Station alum Tony Thompson’s unmistakable speaker-blowing drumming. Again, she clicked with black record buyers, who helped push the album and its title track into the R&B top 10.

By the ’90s she had continued delving into urban grooves with “Vogue” and the polarizing opus that was “Erotica,” but nothing captured Madonna’s ability to let her soul glow better than 1994’s “Bedtime Stories.” Understated and stylish, it was a collection that radiated maturity and effortless sensuality, which is what good soul music should do. Enlisting an all-star team that included everyone from Dave “Jam” Hall to Babyface, there were some stunning moments that make for better aural sex than some of her more frank moments. The soft, pulsating “Survival” and the slick “Secret” brought out a subtlety rarely seen in her highness, while the Babyface-sweetened “Forbidden Love” and the hit single “Take a Bow” are pure pleasure. And who could forget the Dr. Dre-influenced, no bullshit “Human Nature”? If the chick was digging into West-coast influenced hip-hop beats 14 years ago, the moves she’s making now shouldn’t be that shocking.

So, as is the case with any Madonna release, it’s best to keep an open mind and not count her out. I’ve learned on more than one occasion that writing an album off due to one single isn’t smart, and “Candy” will likely be no exception. More importantly, I just hope as people get ready to get into the groove  – or diss the groove depending on how they are feeling – that they do it with a firm grasp of the singer’s journey and how black music has always fit into it.

There’s no denying it was always there.