The great thing about following Madonna’s musical career is to see just exactly what sort of musical guise she’s going to adopt next. She’s always been heralded for her chameleon-like ability to change her image, but she’s equally restless with her musical style, letting her brand of dance-pop change along with her image.
Her latest, her last for long-time label Warner Brothers, before her switch over to the record-breaking deal she inked with Live Nation, Hard Candy _partners Madonna with some of the best urban-pop producers working today. The last time she embraced her R&B roots was 1994’s _Bedtime Stories, where she hooked up with Babyface, Nellee Hooper, and Dallas Austin. This time she’s teaming up with Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, and Justin Timberlake. Like with her last album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, this is a non-stop dance record without any ballads. Also like that chart-topper, this album continues Madonna’s reign as pop queen.
Timbaland’s gaudy, overly-produced sound works very well with Madonna’s pop smarts. She’s never been a genuine musical talent; instead she thrives when the music she’s performing is expensively produced. Timbaland’s patented honking synths, blaring horns, and off-kilter beats are all in display. It’s a testament to Madonna’s star power, musical ability (typical for the singer, she had a hand in crafting all the tracks on the record), and personality that she doesn’t come of merely as a cipher (Timbaland’s productions for Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake tend to blend the performers out).
The album’s opener, “Candy Shop” sets the sonic tone for the album. Pharrell Williams provides catchy beats, purring bass and moaning synths; the lyrics are nonsensical, but then again, Madonna never was Joni Mitchell, and she shone best when she was allowed to sing sound bites. “4 Minutes” is the album’s first single (already a top 5 hit in the US, and a chart-topper in the UK) and is a typical Timberlake-Timbaland collaboration: blaring horns, marching band percussion, Timbaland’s chiming and Timberlake’s nervous, edgy singing. Madonna overshadows Timberlake (not with vocal power, but with attitude); she plays the sexy cougar to Timberlake’s slightly overawed boytoy.
Madonna’s interest in sex has been rather dormant for a bit (she indulged in spirituality), and she kind of revels in the sort of ironic smutty sexuality she was damned for. “Give It 2 Me” is the sort of song she produced in the 1980s that landed her on Tipper Gore’s pop hit list. It’s got a dirty, 1980s porn beat, with a see-saw beat; it’s unashamedly ugly and extremely clever.
Madonna’s fondness for 1980s nostalgia finds its way to other tracks that boast loud, sparkly synths. “Heartbeat” with its swoony chorus and lyrics that celebrate the importance of dancing (she has a history of songs that praise dancing: “Get Into the Groove,” “Vogue,” “Don’t Stop,” “Jump”). “Dance 2Night, which seems to borrow from David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” as well as every Prince song, is another tight-fisted funk number, which like “Give It 2 Me” revels in a sort of dirty, smarmy sex-pot beat.
“Miles Away” is one of the few spots on the album that Madonna tries for some lyrical depth – writing about her husband, British director Guy Richie. Far from being sappy and sacharine, it’s a great song about how their love endures, despite travel demands that separate the two. It’s a gentle nod to the new romantic synth pop bands of the 1980s like New Order, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran, who crooned about the pitfalls of love over swirling synthesizers and drum machines. Despite her musical limitations, Madonna has always been able to write humane and touching records and this song just confirms that fact.
“Beat Goes On” (not a cover of the Sonny & Cher hit) is a great disco number with a great dance beat and twirling chimes, and maintains its excellence despite a tired cameo by Kanye West who simply rehashes his self-congradulatory theme. “Spanish Lesson” is another nod toward Madonna’s mild obsession with all things Latin (“La Isla Bonita”), and it’s really the only the song on the record that doesn’t pass the musterd.
The record ends on two moody notes: “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” and “Voices.” The former is a dark, dramatic pop number that casts Madonna in a very credible performance as an R&B chanteause, spitting her breakneck paced lyrics over a 2-step beat. “Voices” another Timberlake/Madonna collaboration isn’t as fun as “4 Minutes” but still maintains the fresh sound Timberlake and (mostly) Timbaland has created for her.
Hard Candy is probably the best dance-pop record of the year, so far. Both Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey released decent albums as well, though Madonna’s is far more ambitious sonically. While her peers play it safe, Madonna has always been ready to risk (this sort of confidence also comes from years of selling millions of records). This isn’t the best Madonna record (Like a Prayer, Ray of Light, and Music vie for that title); the lyrics – the singer’s weakest point – are still trite; and though the record’s crammed with dance beats, it would’ve been nice for Madonna to record a nice, classy ballad. Still a veteran like Madonna would be forgiven if she lolled about on her laurels. The fact that she’s still making great, exciting music is thrilling.