Thursday, December 30, 2010

Madonna’s Hard Candy: Spit or Swallow?

When she’s not busy picking kids up in Malawi, dressing them up and making them call her “Mama,” Madonna still occasionally makes music. Her latest album “Hard Candy” has been eagerly awaited not just by her by her cross-dressing, cone bra-wearing and die hard following, but by newer audiences who probably weren’t around yet when she sighed her first chorus back in the early 80’s. The reason is simple: the motley team behind this latest exercise includes the biggest and hottest names in music today. We’re talking of course, of the current urban, hip-hop royalty of Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams.

Our first taste of this “Candy” was expectedly sweet; her collaboration with Timberlake on the frenetic “Four Minutes” has just the right amount of pulsing beats and dance pop energy, not to mention an irresistible, catchy chorus (Timberlake breathlessly proclaiming, “We only got four minutes to save the world!”), to put Madonna back on the pop music landscape since her bestselling “Confessions On A Dance Floor .” The original Material Girl however tends to be overshadowed by the flashy Timberlake and at times seems to fade in and out of the song. (So that’s why Timbaland keeps reminding us about “Ma-DON-Nuh” every other line in the song).

The rest of the album teeters on that line between Madonna’s specialty of fine, dance-driven exploits on sex and more sex, and the producers’ slick, familiar grooves. Williams tries his darndest to reach new heights with the Madge, but watered-down songs such as the unexciting “Candy Shop” and the tepid and at-times ridiculous “Incredible” don’t seem to stick with Madonna’s often over-the-top interpretation of her own material. The original Material Girl seems to have more luck with her collaborations with hotshot producer Timbaland. We’ve heard his sonic Midas touch on records by Nelly Furtado and frequent collaborator Timberlake, as well as with rock group One Republic with the massive hit “Apologize,” and he brings with him his knack for both subtle and grandiose productions in “Candy.’ Apart from first single “Four Minutes,” I expect “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” and the decidedly slower and more wistful “Miles Away” to be definite fan-pleasers.

Still, it must be said that, knowing Madonna’s almost iconic reputation for reinvention, it’s just the tiniest bit surprising for me that there is less of her forging into new territory on this album and more of making use of what’s already there and what’s already been done. Along with her producer-friends doing what is expected of them, the unmistakable sound of the 80’s permeate many of the tracks on the album. While there is nothing wrong with looking back to find inspiration to create something meaningful and fresh, I would’ve thought she had it in her to twist something from the past around and make it more current and relatable.

And therein, I think lies the problem. “Hard Candy” is easy enough to swallow and digest as a better-than average dance pop album from the reigning Queen of Pop, but you have to wonder how much Madonna is invested in keeping herself relevant in a music scene that’s churning out fresher and newer acts by the second. The feisty maven we grew up with who simulated sex onstage and burned crucifixes in her videos is turning 50 this year, but there’s no question she’s still got it (“Hard Candy” peaked at the top of Billboard charts, her seventh number one album). The question is, does she still have that fire and determination to buck trends and go her own way to give us something truly exciting and memorable, similar to her work on “Ray of Light” and “Music?”  For the moment, we’ll just have to chew on her “Hard Candy” while we wait for an answer.

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