When news spread that Madonna was reaching out to Timbaland and Justin Timberlake to produce her final album with Warner Brothers, the hype machine went into overdrive. But the first single from Hard Candy, the marching-band electro track “4 Minutes,” left some a little cold. The album, however, is a whole other story. Hard Candy finds Madonna in full dance mode over beats produced by Timbaland and Pharrell. Not only does she work surprisingly well with the two mega-producers, but she also manages to craft a pop album that encapsulates the current hip-hop/dance fusion that has taken over the underground scene.
Hard Candy is packed with surprisingly upfront hipster-friendly tracks that sizzle with pure dance-floor energy. While Timbaland and Justin Timberlake have been getting the most press for their work on the album, it’s actually Pharrell of the Neptunes that dominates the album’s feel. He produces seven of the album’s tracks--to Timbaland’s five--and at least four of them are better than “4 Minutes.” Not to say that the single featuring Justin Timberlake is a bad song, but one listen to the disco funk of “Beat Goes On,” featuring Kanye West, or the bass-knocking, Baltimore-club flavor of “Incredible” and it's easy to forget all about Justin.
Even the lyrics on Pharrell’s cuts have a more urban feel. The sexual come-ons of “Candy Shop” find Madonna bragging that her “sugar is raw” and “sticky and sweet.” The album highpoint is “Heartbeat,” a track that channels vintage Madonna even while she chants lines like “See my booty get down like uh” over a waterfall of synths and clattering percussion.
What Timberlake and Timbaland bring to the table is the album’s emotional side. Despite its title, “Dance 2night” is a subdued affair with a positive message of empowerment. “Miles Away” oozes with yearning thanks to JT’s well-crafted harmonies. But the fact remains that the only throwaway tracks on the album--the last two--are Timbaland and Timberlake productions.
Madonna and some of music’s edgiest producers have again brought an underground sound to the forefront of pop music. Many of the tracks on Hard Candy will likely crossover into the urban market, the underground scene, and clubland. As she nears the end of her third decade in the industry, Madonna continues to surprise and intrigue.
Judging by the cover of her Warner Brothers swansong, Hard Candy, Madonna's career-long exploitation of pop sexual iconography remains steadfast. The layout and wardrobe may have changed, but the open mouth and vacant stare remain. She suggests: Mr. Terry Richardson, I'm ready for my closeup. The album's contents are similarly in line with the proven Madonna aesthetic: mining that hot piff from a couple seasons ago. This time, Madge pulls a Nelly (Furtado) and contracts Pharrell, Timbaland and that "Dick in a Box" kid.
And you guys got excited when M.I.A. finally purred, "Mr. Mosely, I'm ready for my closeup."