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Apr 28 2008
Hard Candy Reviewed: Give Me A Chance To Grow And I’ll Take It Comments (21)

Who knew when “Candy Shop” leaked—or oozed—months ago that it wasn’t a sneak peek at a future single, but a viral invitation to Madonna’s next phase, as a guilt-free purveyor of guilty pleasures more closely resembling her first-album self than any other persona in her extensive inventory?

When that song first began making the rounds, the reactions were mainly...underwhelmed. The chief complaints were that Madonna sounded awkward, dare we say too white, to pull off the urban mer-girl routine, and that the lyrics were both insipid and undignified...why should a 49-year-old sing about the virtues of her Turkish delight?

Madonna successfully turned around expectations with lead single “4 Minutes,” a bombastic hit that I have predicted will go on to become one of her big signature tunes over time. It didn’t win over Perez Hilton (easy enough to fix; send him a personal video), and there are still some grumbling music purists who feel pop is art and hip-hop is noise, but the staying power of “4 Minutes” in the realms of sales and airplay has candy-coated those sourballs.

And now, we have Hard Candy unwrapped...and, considering advance promises of extensive contributions from Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Kanye West, surprisingly un-rapped. The album has an obvious urban feel, but not in the overt, trying-too-hard way that killed “American Life” or that made Bedtime Stories arguably her most dated collection. Instead, what we have is a Halloween bag full of delicious goodies that range from favorite indulgences to new sensations and even an M-Dolla...but absolutely no annoying pieces of fruit or bundles of pennies.

Covertoback

And just like on October 31, it’s time to spread out the loot and see what the nice lady up the street treated you with this time.

“Candy Shop,” which I never hated and never loved, is clearly one of Madonna’s most beloved tracks—it opens the record, inspired the title and all the album art, was leaked first in what now seems must have been an intentional ploy and is rumored to have made the cut for Wednesday night’s Roseland show (tickets for which are turning her fans into would-be prostitutes). Heard as a free sample of what’s to follow, this song is very likeable. With a Bee Gees command to “get up outta your seat” (not the last time you’ll be asked to leave it) and a nod to Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” sounding under the title verse, it’s easier to see why Madonna would think this will have us “begging for more.” The parts I always liked—her suggestive “sticky and sweet, those thumping beats—are somewhat hypnotic now that they have context, now that the waiting game is over and we know the record has more than lived up to its potential. I would not skip this song after all, even if it’s not one of my preferred cuts, even if it’s the least interesting of Pharrell Williams’s many contributions. 7/10

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“4 Minutes” has been described as a “Timba-lake” song on which Madonna guests. The original leak that played on French radio did sound that way, and I admitted as much, but the final version—while remaining the most obvious stylistic departure for Madonna on the record—is the first hint that perhaps Madonna will hold her own against/with her hired guns. Timbaland reserves a lengthy intro for his combo of beats and tics to get listeners marching to the beat of his own drum and Justin Timberlake trades lines equally with his hostess, but Madonna’s voice is strong. She sounds invigorated to be singing in a different way, one that leaves no room for her preferred hard “Rs” or other reflexive inflections. “4 Minutes” fits nicely with the album’s unapologetic, yet not thoughtless, exploration of dance, possibly being about the irrational feelings of salvation and empowerment that can be gleaned from listening to short, simple pop songs. It’s a strong enough song to overcome the vague memory that, gee, didn’t she just use ticking and tocking on her last lead single? 10/10

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“Give It 2 Me” would be this album’s “Sorry,” except that as much as I love the latter, the former has evolved for American radio, taking on a more contemporary feel rooted in its eclectic combination of ‘80s pop (the throbbing opening reminds me of cheesy hits like Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride”), techno and a pleasantly jarring hip-hop interlude: “Get stupid! Get stupid! Get stupid! Don’t stop it!” Compare that to Madonna’s lofty, “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” from 1994’s “Bedtime Story.” Lyrically, this song is fascinating for how much of the Madonna mystique it spells out despite being a straightforward, accessible club banger.

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For example, Madonna’s motivational-speaker element has been present from her earliest songs (“Dance and sing/Get up and do your thing!”) and this verse:

“What are you waitin’ for?
Nobody’s gonna show you how.
Why wait for someone else
To do what you can do right now?”

...instantly reminded me of a throwaway song she repurposed for her 1987 compilation You Can Dance, “Spotlight”:

“No one knows you better
Than you know yourself.
Do the thing you want,
Don't wait for someone else.
Life is just a party—
That's all you need to know.
It's your turn to shine, baby,
Let yourself go!”

The new take in “Give It 2 Me” is streamlined and feels more directly aimed at her aging fans’ career doldrums, though it would also work on teenagers for the same reason it worked on them in the first place—it’s encouraging and it’s fun.

Speaking of fun, how about:

“Don’t stop me now,
Don’t need to catch my breath.
When the lights go down
And there’s no one left
I can go on and on...”

These words are pure party magic, but in a bigger sense can apply to Madonna’s own legendary stamina, both physical and professional.

More threateningly, Madonna seems to be throwing down the gauntlet to all challengers:

“Give it 2 me!
No one’s gonna show me how.
Give it 2 me!”
No one’s gonna stop me now.”

Certainly not—not 26 years in. And finally, here, she could be addressing her decision to work with proven hitmakers, which some critics feel is a disappointing concession to the realities of the marketplace from an artist who has somehow managed to be at once supremely popular and to seem supremely indifferent to her own popularity:

“Give me the bassline and I’ll shake it.
Give me a record and I’ll break it.
There’s no beginning and no ending.
Give me a chance to go and I’ll take it.”

and

“You’re only here to win,
(For)’get what they say.
You’re only here to win,
(For)’get what they do.
They’d do it, too, if they were you.
You’ve done it all before—this ain’t nothin’ new.”

I may be wrong in hearing “forget” implied rather than simply “get,” but it makes more sense that way. She sounds defiant, and she could easily be talking about plastic surgery or working with other popular artists for a change of scenery (and a change or continuation of fortune).

Regardless of the song’s deeper meanings or deeper possibilities, it works as fantastically as “Deeper And Deeper”—a joyous pop song destined for success. 10/10

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I think “Heartbeat” is a gem, even though its, “See my booty get down” sounds exactly like Nelly Furtado. (I do like how Madonna was forced to do something totally new with her voice—that little gulping u-up/d-down is sweeter than, well, “Up Down Suite.”) Opening with what could be a fetal heartbeat and going on to define the life force of music from an almost childlike perspective, the song offers an abruptly softer Madonna both vocally and lyrically, but one who matures to a state of ecstasy with this observation:

“You know, I feel it in my heartbeat.
It may feel old to you, but to me it feels new.
You know, I feel it in my heartbeat.
Don’t you know—can’t you see?—
When I dance, I feel free.
Which makes me feel like the only one—the only one!—
That the light shines on.”

and

“For me, it’s an escape
’Cuz dancin’ make me feel beautiful...”

These sentiments echo 1985’s “Into The Groove,” which I would argue is Madonna’s best song ever. At worst, it’s in her Top 10. “Only when I’m dancin’ can I feel this free!” she exulted back then, and millions danced along in our bedrooms in front of the mirror. It wasn’t—and this song isn’t—about narcissism, they’re both about unlocking your feelings, your true self, through music and through dance, a whole-body version of automatic writing. Madonna’s voice is supple, pregnant with the song’s precious if, again, simple message. One woman’s obvious is another’s universal is my 10/10.

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“Miles Away” is a possible future single, and one that could attack radio in the same slow-unfolding way that made Music’s “Don’t Tell Me” into a long-legged hit. The guitar in the beginning recalls that earlier tune and Madonna’s voice is absolutely gorgeous as she recounts “a fuzzy dream” from which she’s just awoken. The first song on the record to touch on a personal issue outside of the freeing nature of dance, “Miles Away” is not angry like previous relationship songs (“Till Death Do Us Part” from Like A Prayer), even though its lyrics paint an unhappy moment between two people whose lives keep them geographically, and sometimes emotionally, distant:

“You always love me more
Miles away.
I hear it in your voice when you’re
Miles away.
You’re not afraid to tell me
Miles away
I guess we’re at our best when we’re
Miles away.”

As painful as the last line is, try this one on for size:

“You always have the biggest heart
When we’re six thousand miles apart.”

Despite the sting, the delivery is mournful, pleading. The lines are not sung in a nagging way, more in a beseeching way. There is something to be worked out here. After all the worry from fans that Timbaland would dominate Madonna, it’s worth noting that he and Timberlake turned in what is probably the album’s most recognizable “mid-tempo Madonna” number, a successor to songs like “The Power Of Good-Bye” and “Bad Girl," albeit a direct descendant of Nelly Furtado's "All Good Things (Come To An End)." 9/10

Following a song about marital distance is, logically, “She’s Not Me.” Coming on strong—the “Bette Davis Eyes” opening could be a series of sampled bitch-slaps even if the music is a heavenly wash of ’70s disco strings—“She’s Not Me” brings out Madonna at her cattiest. This song would rip her “Thief Of Hearts” to shreds. Any woman competing with Madonna for a man should be prepared for a battle, as evidenced by this epic (6:03) layered song. Toward the middle, after a cold laundry-list of reasons why Madonna would win any man-battle, she says in a voice that could be a 20-year-old’s, “I know I can do it better.” Then out comes the Donna Summer whistle from “Bad Girls” and, eventually, Pharrell chimes in with a Sylvester falsetto that weirdly works. Not believing well enough wouldn’t be happier with company, Wendy Melvoin from Wendy & Lisa is name-checked and contributes a riff. The most exciting song on the record for me, “She’s Not Me” is a bizarre mix of three or four songs—it finally winds down with an orchestral flourish reminiscent of “Deeper And Deeper” or even “Paradise (Not For Me).” This song is paradise, for me. 10/10

“Incredible” is the song I will have to skip in listening to this album, but it’s far from a loser. An exhausting, rockin’ Prince-esque number, “Incredible” starts almost mid-sentence, full of bluster and energy. Its content pairs it with “Miles Away” in that it’s Madonna’ plaintive call for a relationship intervention. It works best for the first two minutes, when it calls to mind “Dear Jessie” and her voice almost manages to float above the instrumentation. Pharrell’s vocals are odd and distracting. It’s my least favorite Pharrell song, but it’s so adventurous it deserves credit—and it has been singled out in some reviews as a stand-out. 6/10

Out of nowhere, “Beat Goes On” (another of Pharrell’s) might just be my favorite song on Hard Candy. When it was originally leaked, I liked what I heard, but loved the ensuing bootlegged remixes that changed it into a much faster song. Sure enough, Madonna and Pharrell sped it up, but that’s the least of the improvements, which have made it almost unrecognizable. For me, while the fabulous “Heartbeat” and “Give It 2 Me” do a great job of explaining why dancing is transformative, “Beat Goes On” dispenses with the reasoning and shows how it’s done.

With the pure, infectious fun of “Holiday” or “Into The Grove” and the call to action of “Express Yourself” (“Say what you like, do what you feel, you know exactly who you are!” could also be a lost “Lucky Star” lyric), Madonna and a spirited Pharrell sing of the need to hurry and “get up outta your seat” over a posh house beat and a twinkling sonic blanket of bells. This should be a massive summertime hit if the timing works out—“gotta get up outta your seat,” indeed.

One part of the song that I was surprised to love so much comes when Madonna chants as Kanye West smoothly inserts a cocky, devilish rap. Her “hey!” could be sampled from “True Blue”’s “Hey, you guys!” or a worked-on piece of her dirge “Hey You”—but it most prominently reminds me of Art Of Noise’s “Close (To The Edit).”

Kanye’s rap is slippery because it could almost be read as a cynical explanation for working with Madonna: “It’s an impromptu ‘I want you’” could refer to Madonna bumping into him while recording, “I used my celeb to get this one” is obvious, “What’s left now?” could refer to Madonna trying the urban route, “I’m a professional, I admit that” sounds like a defense. And “Fame is a drug, wanna hit that? ’Cuz I know exactly where to get that—did you get that?” might apply to Madonna’s fame or to Kanye’s more current strain of it and her need to co-opt that to stay relevant. I’m not sure what Kanye’s rap means, but I’m convinced there is a venomous narrative in there that reviewers are overlooking. I don’t mind it; in fact, I love it.

If I’m not mistaken, Kanye gives Madonna her money’s worth by gamely chanting, “Get down, beep-beep, gotta get up offa your seat now.”

It’s a song that I can’t imagine any Madonna fan rejecting and one that I can not wait to hear live. 10/10

Hey, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland worked on this record, too, remember? “Dance 2night” is a slinky slow-grind that seems tailor-made for American radio, even if it lacks some of the pure-Madonna personality that emanates from some of Pharrell’s contributions. Madonna’s voice is again prominent, and yet put through some unfamiliar exercises—her lower range is put to use, but she never stagnates into her tired “Erotica” intonation. This song comes closest to offering one of her patented non-sequiturs (“Poor is the man whose pleasures depend/On the permission of another” from “Justify My Love” comes to mind), suddenly noting, “You don’t have to be beautiful/To be good/You don’t have to be rich and famous/To be good.” An after-hours sizzler. 8/10

“Spanish Lessons” is an uninventive kind of song for both Madonna and Justin in that she's each have had their slightly condescending Spanish flirtation (“La Isla Bonita"), but the actual execution is tarted up a lot with an urgency to Madonna’s vocal that echoes “Incredible” but works much better here. I love the fast-and-loose translations (“’Etiendo’ means ‘I get it.’”) and Madonna’s seductive, hushed voice on, “If you do your homework...” All in all, this song works and I won’t want to skip it, but it feels less inspired than its surrounding sisters. 7/10

Much has been made of how much “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” resembles “Cry Me A River”—the comparison is apt, but I wouldn’t describe it as being so similar as to render it ineffective. In fact, Madonna has had the skeleton of this song for years—it was meant for her abortive musical movie project—which might explain why she is so married to it vocally. The refrain is so edgy and deeply felt and she allows the story to unfold as dramatically as “Hotel California.” It’s hard to make such a slow song so hummable and catchy, but that’s what happens here. If in some bizarro world Madonna is granted multiple singles from this excellent album, I could easily hear this one on the radio. Perhaps she and Justin could actually kiss in its video this time. 9/10

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Rounding things out is “Voices,” a jazzy, spooky song with an opening by Justin (“Who is the master...and who is the slave?”) that would have been at home at the very beginning of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Master/slave ruminations might seem dated for Madonna, but this song looks into them in a non-cliché, non-Janet, non-sexual way. It’s hard to resist relating it to the working relationship between Madonna, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams, especially since it’s produced by odd man out Danja (he also co-produced “Devil”). Madonna’s voice, so prominent, so challenged, so triumphant on the whole record, is hauntingly pretty here, and the piano that ends the song ends the album with just a little touch of star quality. 8/10

Madonna seemed to be using Confessions On A Dance Floor to regroup from the (unfair) commercial and artistic failure that was American Life; she did a whole record that could be danced to. But if Confessions was really Concessions, Hard Candy seems to represent a genuine personal embrace of both melodic and beat-driven pop music, uncomplicated but deeply felt themes and the keynote I identified as Madonna’s fingerprint in the introduction to my 1995 book Encyclopedia Madonnica—fun.

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