In 1983, at age 11, I saved up the appropriate funds earned from doing chores around the house to buy Madonna’s self-titled debut record. When I had first heard “Holiday” on the radio that previous summer, I was entranced. It sounded a little like the disco my aunts and uncles used to listen to and a little like the R&B songs that were popular at the time but overall it was dripping with a confidence and personality I had never heard before.
25 years later, I’m still a fan and throughout her career Madonna has continued to produce pop songs that entered uncharted territory. Snobbishly, Madonna has produced hit singles that go against the grain, popular opinion be damned. That’s exactly why her latest release, Hard Candy, is a puzzling collection of songs that shockingly plays it safe. Producers and collaborators like Pharrell, Timbaland, and Justin Timberlake are pros at churning out ditties that are annoyingly catchy and light on lyrical content so it’s no surprise the results for Madonna are the same as they have been for Missy Elliot, Gwen Stefani, and Ashlee Simpson. And that’s not always a good thing.
First the bad news. The opening track “Candy Shop” is a springy, albeit trite, track tricked out with vocal layering, dated sexual innuendo(“My sugar is sweet”), and the requisite thumping drum machine beats. It’s sugary for sure but like a cheap butterscotch, it’s sucked on and then quickly forgotten. “Spanish Lesson”, “Incredible”, and “The Beat Goes On” will serve their purpose on tredclimbers around the globe but a closer listen is not recommended as the weak lyrics and cliched production value might very well drive you insane. Album closer “Voices” seems to be directly lifted from the Erotica recycling bin right down to the S&M references and tired 90’s house-beat. Even a hardcore fan like myself can acknowledge the fact nearly every Madonna record has a few songs that might have been better left on the cutting room floor but never have the missteps been so glaring obvious as they are on Hard Candy.
Now for the good news. “Four Minutes” is a great lead single, although heavier on the Timberlake than I would prefer, that manages to get stuck in your head.If the case of Hard Candy is to prove that Madonna can still keep up with the youngsters on the radio then “Four Minutes” is great supporting evidence. “Give it Me”, the purposed second single is another catchy bouncy treat, if not terribly original. “She’s Not Me” is a disco fidelity epic that would do her Like A Virgin producer and Chic frontman Nile Rodgers very proud. Dripping with handclaps, dramatic violins, and funky guitar riffs, the song is at once defiant and danceable. “Miles Away”, the best song on the record lyrically, profiles a strained relationship hurt by distance. ”Heartbeat” is a classic Madonna get-on-the-dancefloor track. She generally seems to be having fun as she whispers “see my booty get down” and it’s infectious. “Dance 2 Nite” is another floor-filler with Justin Timberlake that’s thankfully more “Into the Groove” and less “SexyBack”. Speaking of JT, slipped in towards the end of the album is “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” is another collaboration that recalls his “What Goes Around(Comes Around). It’s the closest thing Hard Candy has to a ballad and it’s a damn fine one.
So the bottom line is this- Hard Candy is at once an overcooked record with too many uninspired chefs in the kitchen and an addictive piece of ear-candy handmade for the headphones. Filled with triumphs, frustrations,contradictions, risks, and vanities, it’s pure Madonna, like it or not. And if you’re not crazy about this incarnation, stick around. 25 years listening to Madonna have taught me to never expect the same thing twice and Hard Candy proves she far from finished evolving.
(Originally published at blogcritics.org on April 26th, 2008)