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Reviewed by David Medsker
They’re not the only ones. While it has been decades since Madonna felt anything remotely resembling pressure when releasing a new album or movie, we’re willing to bet that she’s sweating her latest, Hard Candy, just a tad. She is about to begin a 10-year, $120 million fling with concert promoter Live Nation (three studio albums are included in the deal), and she needs to show them that they made a sound investment. That means that there will be no messing around with that disco crap that made up her last album, Confessions on a Dance Floor (though that disco crap generated some of her best reviews in years). Nope, Hard Candy is a full-fledged stab at contemporary R&B and hip-hop, guest drop from Kanye West and everything. Madge knows that if she is going to survive as a pop entity, she has to tap into the youth market. And those awkward S&M-lite photos in the artwork aside (quote from one BE staffer: “Stop it, Grandma, you’re embarrassing me!”), damned if Madonna doesn’t pull off the new school with relative ease.
One look at the producer credits will tell just how much Madonna is so not fooling around; Timbaland and the Neptunes are on the clock, and while this writer thinks Timothy Z. Mosley is one of the most overrated producers of all time, there is no denying Tim’s improbable ability to spin gold. Luckily for him, Madonna is too good with a pop melody to keep him from doing too much damage, and his work here, while inferior to the Neptunes tracks, certainly makes up for, say, his work on Duran Duran’s “Skin Divers.” However, to show just how few tricks he truly has in his playbook, he opens Hard Candy’s first single, the Justin Timberlake duet “4 Minutes,” with the same wicky-wicky nonsense that killed the aforementioned Duran Duran track. Yikes. No wonder the majority of his tracks are on the album’s back half.
The album’s opening song, “Candy Shop,” is most amusing because one pictures Madonna listening to Madge wannabe Gwen Stefani’s The Sweet Escape and thinking, to quote a line from a later track called “She’s Not Me,” “I know I can do it better.” And, of course, she would be right; “Candy Shop” contains more melody and pop smarts than Stefani’s entire album. (In fact, one could argue that the lyrics to “She’s Not Me” are one giant Stefani smackdown.) “Dance 2Night,” another duet with Timberlake, will thrill fans of Madonna’s early work and stands out for actually using more than one non-programmed instrument (it has guitar, bass and drums!). “Spanish Lesson” has an irresistible Latin sleaze beat, along with some of the dumbest lyrics ever assembled on a Madonna record (“’Calla te’ means close your mouth / ‘Besame’ means give me love”), while “Heartbeat” has both the album’s prettiest melody and most awkward attempt to be seductive; during the break, the 49-year-old singer tells her producer partners, “See my booty get down like this,” to which they reply, “Uh huh, a little lower now.”
And that, in a nutshell, is Hard Candy’s biggest dilemma: reconciling Madonna’s need to remain relevant with her ever-advancing age. The two are at odds throughout the album – the former trendsetter now playing the role of the follower – and despite how well-made Hard Candy is, it’s a little uncomfortable to listen to at times. She wisely sticks to innuendo on “Candy Shop,” but after the booty drop of “Heartbeat” is “Incredible,” which gets straight to the point: “Sex with you is incredible.” She laments about how her ex’s new girl will love him in the shower in “She’s Not Me,” and the 25-year-olds to which these songs are aimed can surely relate on some level. The problem is the person singing those words is nearly twice the age of the people listening to them, and decades removed from such petty issues. Does she mean a word of what she’s singing? And do we want her to mean any of it?
Given Madonna’s commercial crossroads, you can see why she felt that she had to make an album like Hard Candy. Live Nation wants someone who’s both an established act and still hip with the kids, so this was no time for Madonna to begin acting her age. However, we are officially putting her on notice; if she tries to come back at 52 with an oversexed pop record like this one, she stands to go from megastar to laughingstock in seconds flat. Love you, Madge, but please: retire the bondage gear to the bedroom, and give Patrick Leonard a call.