Madonna: Hard Candy

I read vaguely somewhere that reaction to news of Madonna working with Pharrell Williams went along the lines of "OH NOES! MADONNA HIP-HOP ALBUMZ! DO NOT WANT!"

This from a woman who has sung Andrew Lloyd Webber, got Björk to write the title track of Bedtime Stories and jumped on an electronica bandwagon that ultimately went nowhere (Ray of Light not withstanding)? Should working with Pharrell or Timbaland or Justin Timberlake be that much of a stretch?

Honestly, I’m surprised such a collaboration hasn’t happened sooner.

More pixels and ink seem to be expended over the fact Hard Candy is the last album Madonna will record for Warner Bros., as she embarks on a new-fangled 360 deal with LiveNation. Never mind the music — this album can already be seen as a significant marker in both the career of Madonna and the history of the major label business.

It’s easy to assume both parties would feel like phoning it in since the album notes the end of a relationship. Can’t speak for the efforts of Warner Bros., but Madonna certainly didn’t slouch on this one. If anything, Hard Candy is her most listenable album since Ray of Light.

Madonna rode the aforementioned electronica bandwagon longer than most. It was 10 years ago, in fact, when she recruited William Orbit to helm Ray of Light. Since then, she’s attempted to drag club music kicking and screaming into the mainstream. To have stayed that course for a decade is actually something of an anomaly.

Which makes the reboot in sound welcome and, well, expected.

Would it really be Madonna if she didn’t tap into whatever was the zeitgeist? Granted, Timberlake, Timbaland and Pharrell are kind of 2002, but they all seem to have some sort of magic touch, no? They certainly do well by Madonna.

"4 Minutes" is a far more successful Timberlake-’80s icon collaboration than the dismal "Falling Down" single he did for Duran Duran. Speaking of Duran², Pharrell evokes the more Chic influence of the English band on "She’s Not Me". It almost sounds like John Taylor on the opening bass guitar.

Although the album sounds incredibly consistent, careful observation reveals a distinction between the work of Pharrell and the duo of Timberlake and Timbaland. "Miles Away", "Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You" and "Voices" have a bit more grit, while "Candy Shop", "Beat Goes On" and "Incredible" emphasize rhythm over texture. Hard Candy sounds streamlined next to the clutter of Confessions on a Dance Floor or Music.

The final two Timberlake and Timbaland tracks, in particular, show a more poignant side, the distortion of "Voices" heightening the minor key darkness of the song.

Although Confessions on a Dance Floor did much to wash away the dreariness of Madonna’s lost years with Mirwais, it didn’t actually possess much to nudge into the long-term consciousness of the listener. Hard Candy does a better job emphasizing the hooks, as evidenced on "Give It 2 Me" and "Miles Away".

And no, Hard Candy is not hip-hop Madonna. American Life hopefully would have schooled her on the rapping thing. But it is Madonna at her most refreshingly coherent.