A couple of years ago, 50 Cent opened a boutique with the hit Candy Shop. Now it’s time for Madonna to lead us up the path to her own confectioner’s shop, one that is alas limited in flavours. There are only two, to be precise: not so sweet and downright unsavoury.
Hard Candy, the star’s 11th studio album (and last on her Warner contract), is an odd concoction of the ’80s synths of her very beginnings, her foray into disco royalty and her desperation for street cred. The queen of pop, once a creator of trends, now simply follows one. Well, two. Says the lady herself: “The title is a juxtaposition of tough and sweetness… kind of like I’m gonna kick your ass but it’s going to make you feel good. And of course, I love candy.”
After Confessions On A Dance Floor, where she revived disco and brought legwarmers back in style, we thought there was no musical stone left unturned by Madge. And yet we were sure she would surprise us once again. But at almost 50, the inspiration well seems to have run dry. The solution is a good supply of musical Botox, and who better to supply it than the “It” producers of the moment? By enlisting the aid of The Neptunes and the inseparable Justin Timberlake/ Danja /Timbaland team, Madonna, once a creator of trends, is following the lead, desperate for some street cred, especially in America. American audiences, still recovering from the revival of bellbottoms and platform shoes, hadn’t quite caught on to her disco hot pants frenzy.
The Neptunes-produced Candy Store opens, its synths puncturing through low-key skittering drum beats, enticing you in: “Come on in to my store, I got candy galore.” Lyrically, Hard Candy is themed with love, sex, revenge. Innuendos abound and her only social message is to celebrate music and hit the dance floors – a message she’s said plenty about already in her career. But she’ll also leave you wondering whether she is addressing hubby Guy Ritchie in some of the tracks. In between the pulsating beats of the Neptunes-produced She’s Not Me, she reaffirms her status and sings her own merits: “She’s not me, She doesn’t have my name.” And she loves him even if he cheats (does he? Would he dare?): “The thrill is momentary/ Because she doesn’t have what’s ours.”
While the Pharrell Williams collaborations somehow respect Madonna’s signature, the Timberlake co-penned tracks are the least inspired. It’s Justin meets, well, Justin. Never one to miss a bankable opportunity, Madonna even chose their 4 Minutes as the first single, a space age discotheque somehow gone awry.
The most notable track is the healthy Give It 2 Me, the future second single where Danja employs the same synth tone he used on Britney Spears‘ Blackout. Co-written with Pharrell, it is refreshing, heavily synthesized but also misleading. This third track makes you believe that the rest of the 12 tracks will be as fun.
The ubiquitous ballad appears halfway through the record and seems to carry another message to Guy. “Let’s finish what we started”, “I don’t want this to end,” and finally “Sex with you is incredible,” she sings in Incredible. Soundwise, perhaps ballad isn’t the best way to describe Incredible. The track contains at least four different styles, as if she’s testing to see which one sounds best and, unable to decide, settling on all four. It wades itself through disco, soppy ballad, Middle Eastern hints and ’80s dance music. At first boring, the Neptunes-produced track shows potential – too bad, it’s almost the end.
There is a very unnecessary rap, performed by Pharrell, in Beat Goes On. She’s in Kool & The Gang gone hip hop mode. However, the variations in its tempo make it the perfect dance floor tune, merging old school and modern takes on urbanity.
Then it’s a downward spiral as Timberlake increasingly imposes his presence. Dance Tonight is a recycled disco version of one his typical songs. When it goes full on dance midway, it brings the hope that the track will make it beyond Timberlake’s realm. Then come the Red Hot Chili Peppers style riffs, as if waging a battle of the sounds. It’s Madonna vs Justin from now on. He even kicks off Voices with the pertinent question: “Who is the master? Who is the slave?”
Overall, Hard Candy lacks subtlety and is overworked and overproduced. Including Timberlake just reeks of marketing. And Madonna doesn’t seem to mind. Granted, there are so many times she can reinvent herself – it’s easier to pretend she’s Nelly Furtado in 15 years. Instead, she basks under the mirrorball, which reflects a thousand spotlights on her, allowing herself to play second fiddle to the clattering beats and fussy production of Timbaland. Hard Candy is overwhelming at times, but underwhelming most of the time.