Madonna’s’Hard Candy’ Is Listless In Any Language
The Hartford Courant
Attention, foreign language students: Madonna makes a lousy Spanish tutor.
The pop icon takes poetic license in translating a few phrases on “Spanish Lesson,” one of a dozen songs on her beat-heavy new album.
“Besame means ‘give me love,’ ” she suggests, in robot-like tones over thudding rhythm. Er, sorry to contradict, Madge, but it means “kiss me.”
Her shaky language skills aren’t the only problem with “Hard Candy.”
Madonna’s 11th and last studio album for Warner Bros. finds her doing what she’s done for at least the past decade: assiduously attaching herself to the latest trend in an effort to keep her music current.
It was different earlier in her career. When all eyes were on her, there was no telling what she would do next: One day she was the tramp tarted up in a wedding dress, and the next she was making out with a black Jesus in front of a burning cross, and making memorable music in both cases.
Now, though, you can spend 10 minutes listening to Top-40 radio and know exactly what direction she’s going. Electronic music bubbling up from the underground? She hires William Orbit to produce. Teen pop reaching its apex? She locks lips with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on MTV. Hip-hop absorbing dance music? She calls in Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams.
That last one is a smart move, given that those three are responsible, together and individually, for some of the biggest hits on the charts in recent years. But it’s a dangerous move, too, for the same reason: All those hits they’ve launched mean we’ve heard this stuff before, and from artists who are better suited to the style. Madonna remains interested in communicating Higher Truths, and pop philosophizing is a poor fit for music designed for dance-floor grinding.
That’s certainly what these tunes are for. The sound of “Hard Candy” is brutish and bumping, with hard-slashing electronics, throbbing synthesizers and buzzing, lo-fi beats.
Sometimes Madonna plays into it. She sings coquettish come-ons on “Candy Store” over tumbling percussion and what sounds like sharp intakes of breath, and she trades lines with Timberlake on the single “4 Minutes” as brass accompaniment blares behind them like a marching band bent on mayhem. “Dance 2nite” has the best groove on the album, mixing funky bass with sparkling synthesizers and whirling little cyclones of wah-wah guitar.
Elsewhere, though, she sounds out of place. The relentless beat on “Miles Away” all but drowns out her sorrowful vocal melody as she sings about a relationship that seems to work best over distance, and “Heartbeat” turns into a shallow rehash of her 1984 hit “Into the Groove” when she sings, “When I dance I feel free.”
She rehashes more than her own material, too: “Spanish Lesson” sounds like a mash-up of Timberlake’s 2002 song “Senorita” and his 2006 hit “SexyBack,” and despite a credit from Americana singer-songwriter Joe Henry, “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” echoes any number of Timbaland tracks from recent years.
Williams provides the freshest sounds here, with chittering double-time synths on “Give It 2 Me” and a looping, loping bass line on “She’s Not Me.” In fact, if it weren’t for the insipid lyrics she sings, it would be easy to forget the latter is a Madonna song at all.
That puts her in a difficult spot: Modern hip-hop is a producer’s game where the track is the focal point, yet Madonna has built a career out of being the center of attention. She ends up outmatched on “Hard Candy,” where the best and most danceable songs would work just as well without her.
It’s a strange circumstance when Madonna isn’t the most interesting part of her own album, but “Hard Candy” is missing the larger-than-life superstar personality that infused even misfires like 2003’s “American Life.”
This time, Madonna is just another singer drawing on the chart appeal of Timbaland, Timberlake and Pharrell, which makes this particular piece of candy taste like a sour ball: It’s appealing to fans, but it’s not for everyone.