Is Madonna still relevant? This seems to be the question that everyone is asking with the release of her 11th studio album (and final release from Warner), Hard Candy. While listening to the album, you might think Madonna is cool, if only because she refers to her coolness about 30,000 times. Madonna used to be constantly on the cusp of hipness, but frankly, she can't keep up with an age where everything is viral and the elapsed time of trends is less than a week. The evidence of this can be seen in Madonna's choice of producers: The Neptunes, Timaland, and Justin Timberlake are masters of current pop trends, but they are no longer innovative. However, Madonna doesn't need to be innovative to make a good pop song and her ability to produce instant club hits is probably the only thing that keeps her reviewers from writing her off. Sure, she's just copying her copycats, but that doesn't mean the result isn't enjoyable. The collected lukewarm reviews, after the jump.
There's no denying that the album sounds youthful. Producers the Neptunes, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland protege Nate "Danja" Hills give the album a very of-the-minute sheen; the overheated "Incredible" bowls you over like the first lusty phase of a relationship; "Give It To Me" rides along on an insistent synthesizer bounce that could make it a summer favorite. [...] But for the most part, the album is suffused with a predatory desperation that's not pretty at any age. Here, it's as taut and affectless as the Botoxed faces of "The Real Housewives of Orange County."
Given hip-hop's long-standing ubiquity, Madonna is arriving late to this particular party, suggesting that she might be slowing down in her advanced age. But even if she's not starting any new trends in following the lead of Nelly Furtado, Gwen Stefani and such, Madge still manages to sound perfectly at home in the hip-hop world, where her sharp pop sensibilities — particularly her ability to craft killer hooks — are given a mostly fresh rhythmic framework. If it's not the boldest move of her career, it's still a successful gambit from one of the great all-time shape-shifters.
Between the fountain-of-youth dalliances and hookups with hip-hop kingpins, we know what you're thinking: Just how massive is this midlife crisis of hers? Pretty major, probably, but she makes it work with this surprisingly rejuvenated set. Now 49, Madonna has spent the past decade unevenly exploring moody trip-hop, chilly Eurodisco, and ethereal electronica — all of which are absent here. Candy finds her dropping her Kabbalah string on the dance floor and readopting an American accent to offer up an unpretentious, nonstop dance party.
Perhaps Hard Candy is simply one last roar before Madonna mellows into the autumn of her years, reflecting upon all she's accomplished and throwing down wisdom instead of a gauntlet. But even if she gets this latest fight out of her system, Madonna already might be done with nostalgia. Her last album, the house music-warmed Confessions, was as sweet as Hard Candy is lip-puckering. Madonna knows better than anyone that looking backward is dangerous for pop stars, especially women. It can lead them into the most vicious competition of all — with their younger selves.
Sex is always lurking — but not just where you bump and grind it. It's a form of self-expression and liberation, like dancing, which "makes me feel like the only one the light shines on" in the percolating Heartbeat. It's a feeling that every woman aspires to in some way, but few get to experience on a regular basis. With Hard Candy, Madonna at least lets us sample the sweet sound of success.
Timberlake and co's approach is firmly rooted in R&B. It's about grooves rather than memorable songs, and Madonna just doesn't make for a convincing soul diva.
But the days of Madonna bending the mainstream to her enormous will apparently are over. Her latest album, Hard Candy (Warner Bros.), in stores Tuesday, finds her working with established collaborators in an effort to keep up with trends, instead of starting them. Mega-star collaborations always look promising in theory, but rarely live up to expectations. The same can be said for Madonna hooking up with four of the biggest names in pop on Hard Candy: Timbaland, the Neptunes, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West.
The album's weakest moment is its most emotionally vapid. Madonna dips into Español for the painfully literal "Spanish Lesson." She has said the music was inspired by a Baltimore dance called the Percolator but seems more indebted to Timberlake's fast-strummed "Like I Love You." Fortunately, there's also the bass-popping retro-boogie "She's Not Me," where Madonna imagines her lovers feeling buyers' remorse for being seduced by a copycat who "doesn't have my name." The offender who's "reading my books and stealing my looks and lingerie" could be any young pop starlet. But it also seems like an oddly timed barb at Madonna's now-fallen successor, Britney Spears, who has teamed up with many of the guys on Hard Candy — Pharrell, Danja and (ahem) Timberlake — and Madonna herself.
"Hard Candy" is released today.