I'd been collecting Madonna memorabilia in between releases, and when leaks from the Material Girl's 11th studio record starting to leak onto fan forums, I was a like a giddy child on Christmas morning, until I opened up my packages and realized that I got nothing but coal. Original demos were cringe-worthy with terrible production and obnoxious vocals-- and when obnoxious vocals are combined with bad lyrics, there's just no hope. Though excited, I can't say I was pining for Hard Candy to drop anymore. But word started getting around that the album was far better than the demos indicated. Super fans, who were invited to advanced listening parties, gave essay-length updates for all us who weren't invited, sitting around the forums like it were the 1920s and we were listening to broadcast radio.
Then, about a month prior to Hard Candy's release, the first single leaked on French radio, and, once again, we weren't impressed. But that is something we can all attribute to low quality, because we'd soon each our words when the CD quality version of 4 Minutes came out, a song that would prove to be a scorching hit for Madonna-- her highest selling in the US since Vogue in 1990. The song may not have much to it lyrically (I tend to tune them out), the horn-sample that lasts throughout the track is one of the hottest Madonna's ever used. Justin Timberlake's all over this damn album, but he's got a comfortable home on 4 Minutes. For Hard Candy, previously known as "Block Party" and "Give It 2 Me," Madonna teamed up with the hottest hip hop producers and contributors of the time-- and that's what kills the little magic the record had on its own. For the first time...ever, Madonna chose to jump on a bandwagon rather than create her own. 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor was the freshest album of that year and one of the best of her entire career, but Hard Candy has a future timestamp all over it. The clip-clopping of Timberland's now overplayed beats comprise too much of the album to have it stand out from the work he's done on his own records, with Nelly Furtado, and with the Pussycat Dolls. Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes don't add much here either. By the middle of the record, you'll wonder if Madonna is the star or the featured guest.
Hard Candy is all over the map in terms of quality-- we got from amazing, to mediocre, to absolute crap, so there's something for everyone! On the sunnier side of the Candy, we've got Miles Away, a slower, sad hip hop ballad with an overly catchy chorus that kept this song on repeat ever since the preview was put on www.madonna.com. Give It 2 Me, produced by Pharrell, pokes fun at Madge's 50th birthday, telling critics and haters that she "don't need to my breath, I can go on and on and on," and she proved it in the music video (a strange mix of Vogue and Erotica), in which she grooves like she's on ecstasy. The beat is an acquired taste, but the bridge or chorus and clever lyrics are too perfect for a pop album: If it's against the law, arrest me; If you can handle it, undress me! Unfortunately, in the United States, these two singles would prove to be technical flops, though GI2M did manage to crack the Top 60. In the UK, contrarily, the song was another Top 10 smash.
The singles dried up after Miles Away, a release that went unnoticed due to lack of promotion and lack of music video. If Warner Bros. had any talent for marketing at all, they would have released Beat Goes On, a weird combination of hip-hop and disco featuring Goldenboy Kanye West. This song, when first leaked, was terrible. Madonna's vocals were downright abysmal, and the lyrics were cringe-worthy: "Here comes your smile...hope it stays for a while..." What? Is she 12? Well, the album version is a complete 180, going from a crappy black spot on her career to one of the best tracks on the record. The 6-minute She's Not Me and epic Voices are also stand outs, bringing back the tongue-in-cheek aspect to Madonna's music (something that we hadn't seen since the 1990s.)
The great thing about Hard Candy is that most tracks end with a shift in musical direction. The Vandross-bass-soaked Dance 2Night, She's Not Me, 4 Minutes, and Voices all end with an entirely different melody or beat than the actual song. It's a cute little recurring theme. But you know what's not cute? The fact that Justin Timberlake gets more vocal time than Madonna herself. Whether providing backup on the last two tracks of the album or performing a duet, Justin took over Hard Candy to the point where he seems like a cheap gimmick in order to keep Madonna on the charts. Other reviewers have stated that Devil Wouldn't Recognize You is the third or fourth time Justin's produced Cry Me a River (a song from his debut record); good thing I don't keep up on Justin Timberlake, because Devil is one of the best songs on the album, but the cheap thunder and rain sound bytes need to go.
But, by far, the biggest crime on this record is the latter half of Incredible, a song that should land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but immediately turns into a giant pile of crap. The first three minutes of this song are catchy and fun-- an enjoyable song, but still far from being incredible. Then, in the middle, the beat changes entirely, and the listener is treating to a spiral of tacky dance beats that seem to be the sound of a rave going up in flames. The lyrics and vocals also are some of the worst in her entire career, but we do know one thing: "sexwithyouis....INCREDIBLE!!" That's awesome, Madonna, but we just don't care.
There are a handful of really fun tracks on Hard Candy, and even the mediocre songs are ones to have on repeats. It just goes to show you that even Madonna's crap is fun and enjoyable. That said, a few songs make my ears bleed like they never have before.
Give It 2 Me
She's Not Me
Beat Goes On
Devil Wouldn't Recognize You
Repeat: Give It 2 Me, 4 Minutes, Dance 2Night
Skip: Incredible (3 minutes in), Spanish Lesson