Is it her Confessions on an Urban Dance Floor? Madonna dabbles in hip-hop on her latest album, the recently leaked Hard Candy, coming out with tracks of almost every flavor.
“Candy Shop,” the lead track, sets the agenda, alerting us amid bongo-like paint-can beats that “my sugar is raw.” In case you haven’t already guessed, with Madonna, candy is a metaphor for sex. So is dance. So are a lot of other topics repeated throughout Hard Candy, on which the actual sex itself is reduced to lines like “Sex with you is incredible.” The same sentiment sounds a lot better in song when it becomes “Come into my store/ I’ve got candy galore.” Produced by Pharrell Williams (who actually helmed the bulk of the tracks that made the album), “Candy Shop” is designed to generate heat.
“We were just in a studio,” Pharrell told MTV News, “and she was like, ‘Look, give me some hot sh–.’ I was looking at her like, ‘She’s saying hot sh–?’ She was like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’ So we just worked and made it.”
By “Give It to Me,” the album’s second single, she’s worked into a frenzy, merging what sounds like an early-Madonna bounce-beat, a funky bass line and driving-turned-skittering synths. “If it’s against the law, arrest me,” she sings. “If you can handle it, undress me.” A strange interlude has Madge flatly repeating, “Get stupid,” over and over as Pharrell chants, “To the left, to the right,” but soon passes. (The Paul Oakenfold remix tightens the beat and straightens the synths.)
On “Heartbeat,” Madonna fluctuates between the sweet and the tart, in one breath singing, “When I dance, I feel free,” as if the sun were shining on her, and then chanting, “See my booty get down,” as if she were in a club corner. She stays on the sweet note for “Miles Away,” the most deceptively simple track on the album. Unlike the disjointed structure of songs like “Incredible” (which could be two or three songs in one), “Miles Away” is straightforward, but it has a lot of technical trickery underneath it to give it layers. It’s also one of the few songs on the album that departs from the “Let’s dance” theme to delve into the difficulties of long-distance love. “Uncomfortable silence can be so loud,” Madonna sings wistfully.
If the relationship Madonna sings about in “Miles Away” is slowly disintegrating, by “She’s Not Me” she’s been replaced — and she doesn’t like it one bit. Blasting the competition with a disco funk, Madonna sings jauntily, “She started dressing like me and talking like me/ It freaked me out/ She started calling you up in the middle of the night/ What’s that about?” She doesn’t sound threatened, because she knows “I can do it better.”
Even so, it’s always better at the beginning, she insists in “Incredible.” The track starts off like a love song but reveals itself to be a plea to someone to start over, and then morphs yet again into a joining of the pair. With each theme, the song seems to throw itself into a new gear, and the constant shifting can be disorienting, especially with Pharrell chanting, “Boom!” and then moaning. But perhaps the shifts reflect Madonna’s own confusion about how she feels. “Can’t get my head around it,” she sings. “I, I need to think about it.”
She’s more certain by “Beat Goes On,” which takes her back to the disco days, then back to the future in time for a guest rap by Kanye West, who claims that “fame is a drug.” Madonna adds to the thought on “Dance 2night,” on which Justin Timberlake is getting her into the groove, when she sings, “You don’t have to be beautiful/ To be understood/ You don’t have to be rich and famous/ To be good.” At this point, she’s ready for a little whimsy in “Spanish Lessons.” “If you do your homework/ Baby I will give you more,” she taunts. And work is a turn-on for her, Pharrell revealed. “Her work ethic is different from everybody else’s,” he said. “She’s like, ‘Look, we can joke, but let’s work and really get a lot done.’ And I love that.”
One of the songs that Madonna worked on before teaming with Timberlake and Timbaland, another collaborator, is the dark “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You.” It feels like it could have belonged on Ray of Light or Music, with its harmony and sense of mystery. It starts softly and slowly, like a piano ballad, but then becomes thick and lush as the melancholy builds: “Your eyes are full of surprises/ They cannot predict my fate.” Here, as on “Miles Away,” Madonna shifts between vocal registers not for sexual come-ons, but to impart meaning to the soundscape. The trip-hoppy “Voices” also brings the album to a down note, with unresolved chords and sweeping strings, as she questions who is really in control: “Are you walking the dog?/ Is that dog walking you?” she asks. Intriguing, but ever the tease, she never answers.