Madonna is one of the few people who can work with just about anyone she likes — yet she's often chosen to work with relative unknowns, such as William Orbit, Mirwais and Stuart Price.
Some might say that since working with Madge was a big break for them, they gave it their all and gave her some of the best music of her career. On Hard Candy, however, Madonna turns the beat around and works with the most known collaborators she could choose: Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. So why switch up the formula?
"Because they're good, and I like their sh--," Madonna put it bluntly when sitting down with MTV News' John Norris after her show with Justin at NYC's Roseland Ballroom. "I mean, I don't like to repeat myself, and I was sitting around thinking, 'What music do I love right now?' And it was actually your record," she added as an aside, turning to Justin Timberlake, who was sitting next to her.
"Yes!" he said with a fist-pump.
"I was listening to it obsessively," she admitted, as he touched his heart.
So is that why some people are already comparing the standout tracks "Miles Away" to Timberlake's "What Goes Around ... Comes Around," and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" to "Cry Me a River"?
"Really?" Madonna asked in astonishment upon hearing the comparisons.
"People actually say that because it's close to the same beats-per-minute," Timberlake explained. " 'It has a beat like blah-blah-blah,' but to me, 'Devil' reminds me of a modern-day 'Frozen.' It's not as venomous as 'Cry Me a River.' It was so cool for her to have a song with that groove, but it's more of a way that she has of making statements. Her lyrical contribution, her line, is, 'The devil wouldn't recognize you, but I do.' And I thought, 'Wow, how do I turn that into a hook? How do we make that a concept?' That sounds prolific to me, with the same dynamic as 'You're frozen, your heart's not open.' "
"Devil" gave the pair their first collaboration (although, to be fair, Madonna has been working on a demo of the song for years). Madonna had already started on the album with Pharrell, and during one of her breaks, her manager Guy Oseary mentioned to Justin, a mutual friend, that it "would be cool" if he did a little with her too.
"I said, 'That would be awesome,' but I thought, 'That'll never happen,' " Timberlake said. "But it's a testament to Pharrell. He had already laid the groundwork where she was going with it. She played 'Candy Shop' for me, and a couple of other songs, and I thought, 'What a cool direction.' I thought she could essentially do the whole record with Pharrell if she wanted to, and I asked Tim, 'How do we fit in?' And it basically came down to how we did my record, co-producing, and just throwing Madonna in the mix."
Luckily for Justin, he and Madonna connected so well, he instinctively "knew what she wanted to do." For "Miles Away," he sat down with her and played a guitar riff, and then he asked, "How do we want to do this? What do we want it to be about? What do we want to say?"
Justin was intimidated a bit by just how much material Madonna would already have at her ready. He doesn't normally write down his lyrics, since his handwriting can't keep up with his mind, but Madonna had "all these thoughts, riddles, poems, feelings, all written in huge notebooks," he said, "and she kept handing them over. It was amazing, taking these little bits here and there and putting them together like a puzzle."
So to sort them out, "We'd have shrink sessions," Madonna laughed. "We had to get a concept going."
One of the ideas they connected on was the universality of long-distance relationships, the pain and heartache of which they poured into "Miles Away."
"It got personal," Justin said.
"We put our stuff out there," Madonna confirmed. "And after we did the song, everybody in the studio was like, 'Oh, I can relate to that.' "
"That's how we want people to respond to the records as well," Timberlake said. "It wasn't so specific as, 'This is my life.' It was more the feeling you get."
The combination of their two sides of the coin, yin and yang, complemented the process for both "Miles Away" and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You." "I have a tendency to be more male-istic," Justin laughed. "That's a new word. You can use that. She's a little more centered."
"I'm a female," Madonna laughed. "Compassion, you know? He wants revenge."
But by the time they were done, Justin felt he accomplished a miracle — with "Miles Away," he had helped create what sounds like a classic Madonna song. "I couldn't do a song like that," he said. "I thought it was completely her. That was the trick."
"Completely us," she corrected.