Music Review: Madonna's 'Hard Candy' aims for urban dance

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Madonna, "Hard Candy," (Warner Bros.)

Madonna may be a 49-year-old working mom, but she still loves her dance floor, her catsuits and her pop hooks.

She's also an expert chameleon, co-opting current musical tastes for her own pleasure. In the case of "Hard Candy," her final studio album for Warner Bros. following a landmark deal with concert promoter Live Nation, Madonna aims high, enlisting two of music's heavyweight producers -- Timbaland and the Neptunes.

The album jumps off the disco of 2005's "Confession on a Dancefloor" with thunderous, uptempo club grinds but also some surprisingly dark moments. The Neptunes -- the production duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo -- add retro-synth beats while Timbaland punches up the power R&B, along with Justin Timberlake and Nate (Danja) Hills.

Madonna co-wrote and co-produced the album's 12 tracks, which swerve from the psychedelic-horn blitz of the Timbaland-produced hit "4 Minutes" to the swooping drama of "Voices."

The album's sound is not original: After all, the Neptunes and Timbaland are arguably the most ubiquitous hitmakers in the business, and have done the urban dance pop treatment for the likes of Gwen Stefani and Nelly Furtado (Chad Hugo and Timbaland are even on the new Ashlee Simpson record -- enough said). But while the tunes are not edgy, they still make your booty shake.

"My sugar is raw/ Sticky and sweet," Madonna intones on the Neptunes-produced intro "Candy Shop," fusing heavy beats with "Like A Virgin" coy sex appeal and a later falsetto reminiscent of Britney Spears.

"4 Minutes," one of the album's best tunes, explodes with Timbaland's repetition of "fricke-fricke-four minutes!" as Madonna and Timberlake exchange shout-outs. Their voices, oozed through thick production, complement each other nicely (although their sexual repartee can feel a bit forced).

CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: Save for its overly dramatic "Phantom of the Opera" swell of violins, "Voices" closes out "Hard Candy" with a catchy yet philosophical slant. "Who is the master? Who is the slave?" Timberlake trills to his Material Girl maestro. We wonder that too.

On "Confessions on a Dancefloor," Madonna delved into her religious beliefs with a song about Kabbalah; on 2003's "American Life," she jumped into political commentary. Here, she steers clear of family, religion and politics, sticking to mainstream fodder: sex, dancing, relationships. But there are three tunes that shed the party vibe and reveal some necessary vulnerability.

"Miles Away" laments being far away from a love, while "Voices" focuses on demons plaguing a romance. "The Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," made theatric by an interlude of thunder and rain, recalls Timberlake's bitter hit "Cry Me A River" (produced by Timbaland). Touching on manipulation following a dead relationship, Madonna croons over a dark pop refrain, "I've been on that ledge before, you can't hide yourself from me."

However, there's still a tendency on "Hard Candy" toward too many throwaway dance cliches. "Get stupid, get stupid, don't stop," she proclaims teen-style on "Give It To Me," a catchy synth jam with sputtering riffs sure to be another single.

The lyrics pick up on anthem "She's Not Me." In feisty form, over funky bass and guitar lines and electro claps, Madonna let's her diva flag fly: "She started reading my books and stealing my looks and lingerie ... she's not me and she never will be," she sings, slamming a gal trying to cop her style and take her man.

Disappointingly, "Beat Goes On," Madonna's outing with Kanye West, recedes into retro disco territory with a tired callout: "Get down, beep beep, gotta get up out of your seat." Yawn.

Still, the beats boom out loud and clear. Madonna may be strutting her way into AARP-teritory but she still belongs on that forever shimmering dance floor.

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