When I first heard that Madonna was going to work with Timbaland, Danja and Pharrell Williams on this album, I had reservations. These are very popular producers, known for infusing a modern hip-hop sensibility into whatever project they deem worthy of their vast talents. They turned staid, folksy Nelly Furtado into a glam, sexy vixen. They turned boyband hopeful Justin Timberlake into this decade's hottest male pop star. Furtado needed a makeover, Timberlake needed a boost, both got exactly what they needed.
So what would Madonna, a tried-and-true veteran with decidedly the longest active pop career in the business, need with them? Well, for one thing, a U.S. hit. Madonna's last American #1 was "Music" in 2000. Her clubby 2005 album, Confessions on a Dancefloor, was a hit in Europe but not at home, and 2003's American Life was a disaster. Madonna was a major pop force in the U.S. in the '80s and '90s, but this decade, that baton has passed--unwillingly for sure--to other, younger stars like Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera.
While Madonna has frequently switched up her producers--opening the door for lesser knowns whom went on to great heights, like William Orbit, Mirwais and most recently Stuart Price (who, by the way, is producing the next album from The Killers)--only once before has she turned to well knowns. That was for 1994's Bedtime Stories. Following the commercially disappointing clubby Erotica (sound familiar?), Madonna wanted a hit, and turned to well-known Pop/R&B producers Nellie Hooper, Dallas Austin, and Babyface, the last of which gave her a big U.S. #1, "Take a Bow." Bedtime Stories wasn't a smashing success, but it did the job, returning Madonna to #1 and repairing her damaged image.
Mostly I was worried Hard Candy would sound like Timbaland and Pharrell and not like Madonna, but thankfully that isn't the case. Hard Candy is way less hip-hoppy than Furtado's Loose or Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds. The album successfully straddles R&B, house, and pop--i.e. it's dance pop, the sub-genre of pop that Madonna pioneered and has reveled in for decades. Sure the beats are harder, more street, but the vibe is Madonna through and through. Double entendres, naughty lyrics, and delicious hooks permeate throughout, such as opening track "Candy Shop's" "Sticky and Sweet" lyric, which is surely waiting for some budding DJ to loop continuously through a club remix. The Pharrell-produced track is relatively stripped down, featuring acoustic percussion and guitar, as well as synths for the chorus. It's a nice understated opener.
By contrast the heavy production of "4 Minutes" is an assault on the senses. It took a few listens to sink in, but once it does it works really really well. I love how the opening slowly builds with Timbaland, horns, beats, and synths, before breaking through to the melody and bass before the opening verse. It's a great first single, pulsing with energy--more so than "Hung Up," which I liked, but never loved. Justin Timberlake and Madonna work great together too, and she's so rarely shared vocal duties with anyone. The energy accelerates with Pharrell-produced "Give It 2 Me," a very clubby song and future single in waiting. It has a really great middle section with cowbells and Madonna rapping "get stupid...get stupid...get stupid...don't stop it." Totally cool. I was wondering whether I'd prefer the Timbaland/Danja or Pharrell tracks, but I can't say that I do. They both have some great moments here. "Heartbeat" throttles back a bit, but boosts the melody and synths. Another winner.
Then there's "Miles Away," which is instantly stunning--you know this one will be a single. It's a great blend of the harder Timbaland beats with the lush dance-pop Madonna sound. Acoustic guitars kick it off, followed by heavy bass beats and percussion. Think "Nothing Fails" or "Power of Good-Bye" with a little more juice. The opening five tracks are all fantastic, making the album's first half particularly strong. The sixth track, '80s groove "She's Not Me" isn't as good, but it's not bad though, just a little more understated. It's also pretty long--6 minutes--with the last couple sounding a bit like "Get Together."
The second half isn't as immediate as the first, but there are some really great tracks here, their charms emerging upon repeat listens. "Incredible" is kind of a quirky track, which I wasn't sure about at first, but now I really like. I has an unusual beat and vocal for a Madonna song. The danceable and retro "Beat Goes On" brings us the album's other guest--Kanye West--and frankly, he's the least interesting part of the song. I rather like everything else about it. It's got a great groove, and I feel like he doesn't really add that much. Justin Timberlake shows up again although not as prominently on "Dance 2Night," which has a particularly great chorus. It's slower than you'd expect and very '80s, bathed in rich synths.
"Spanish Lesson" is the album's low point, and in fact, the only track that hasn't yet won me over. What is it with Madonna's Spanish/Latin interest? "La Isla Bonita," the "Who's That Girl" chorus, "Spanish Eyes" the matador in the "Take a Bow" and "You'll See" videos, Evita. I guess being a Catholic Italian-American from Michigan turned British Kaballah follower just isn't enough.
The last two tracks are the slowest, and by that I mean mid-Tempo as opposed to dance floor stomping. Both are from Timbaland, Danja and JT. "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" is dark and moody with a layered synth production, piano, even a rainstorm (borrowed no doubt from Janet Jackson, who I don't believe used her signature storm sound on Discipline). "Voices" is a little more upbeat, although still pretty dark in tone. "Who is the master, who is the slave?" intones Madonna and Justin at the beginning, recalling the dark fetishism of Erotica. This is another lovely track, awash with the hard/soft contrast of hip-hop beats and lush strings. That's kind of the point of the album, it's very title "Hard Candy" implying the combination of something hard and something soft.
I really love this album, much better than her last. I like that Hard Candy is a little bit messy--sticky and sweet, in Madonna's words. Confessions on a Dancefloor, while great, was just a little too tame, a little too formal. This album feels much freer and more personal. There's also no "weird" track on this, like "Mer Girl," "Paradise (Not for Me)" or "Isaac," that provided head-scratching moments on otherwise great albums. It's definitely Madonna's best album since Music, and I'm looking forward to a year of hit Madonna singles, for there are surely many here.
Now my quandary...what rating to give. While I'm a pretty easy reviewer, I don't give out "5s" lightly. Only one album got it last year, Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, and since then there have been two albums I gave 4.5s that in retrospect I should have given 5s (Radiohead's In Rainbows and Duffy's Rockferry). There aren't any tracks I don't like, save for one that's just so-so, and a whole bunch that I really like a lot. So there it is Madonna...a "5" for you. And at nearly 50, how amazing that she can still churn out such a thrilling pop album.
Best: 4 Minutes, Miles Away, Give It 2 Me, Heartbeat, Candy Shop, Beat Goes On, Dance 2Night, Incredible, Devil Wouldn't Recognize You, Voices