The current state of hip-hop music is akin to one big incestuous orgy. Artists and producers, who are all musically related by at least one degree, repeatedly intermingle, copulate, and reproduce copious amounts of collaborations, mixes, remixes, feature appearances, guest appearances, and club destined records with such frequency that it’s difficult to keep track. (The roll calls at the beginning of many such collaborations are a helpful aid to discern who’s beefing and who’s banding together.) Challenging Punnett squares and probability, the chance of unwanted mutations increases exponentially for the musically involved parties and so what results is a high percentage of mutilated musical offspring. In other words, the more musical synergy the more banal the music. However, every so often a perfectly beautiful and symmetric pop track is conceived from this melee, but the infrequency of such gems helps keep us attuned.
When hip-hop breached mainstream pop in the late 1990’s artists like Beck ingeniously transcended genres, consequently fusing profound generational pop. But a more profound shift was in the works. Pop’s biggest stars, and record labels (not to be left out) eagerly harnessed the capabilities of hip-hop production, and its measurable success was manifested by stars like Christina Aguilera and Destiny’s Child. Gwen Stefani embraced the new direction, recording the Grammy winning “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” in 2002 with Eve and producers Dr. Dre and Scott Storch. Her hip-hop/pop hybrid solo debut Love.Angle.Music.Baby. soon followed. Artists like Britney Spears quickly emulated, singing over beats by hip-hop luminaries like The Neptunes and Timbaland while at the same time rap-metal was helping hip-hop permeate mainstream rock with a more aggressive sound.
The permutation of pop music production, its overlapping collaborations and rates of success are a result of this confluence of genres. That Madonna has chosen to follow suit is as platitudinous as it was inevitable. Her latest, Hard Candy, adheres to the pop formula du jour: hire from a pool of hip-hop producing lions, add your choice of an opposite sex hook-singing specialist, apply a licentious but street-buffed image, and then reapply twelve times.
Of the album’s 12 tracks, its assets are summarized in three songs—the apparent average rate for pop success among highly collaborative efforts. “4 Minutes”, employing Justin Timberlake’s insatiable hook and Timbaland’s burly synths, finds Madonna immersed in the homogeneity of contemporary hip-pop, overshadowed yet chaperoned by her two leading men. Both successfully guide her through the genre’s nuances delivering a hit.
On “Give It 2 Me”, Pharrell switches to an offbeat rhythm, airing out the lingering rich heavy beats and evoking the finesse and Euro club appeal of Madonna’s youth. Unfortunately, a West-African inspired percussion bridge–airdropped onto the album and randomly landing at this point—completely disrupts the song’s full potential. A similar bridge miscalculation occurs on “She’s Not Me”. Disjointed and unsettling, Pharrell drops out the bass and shimmering synths take over from the funk-guitar heavy, Donna Summer-infused track. Complete with alternating traffic whistles and double hand-claps its main riff is delightfully infectious. It coolly recedes, but into an unexpected and undesirable outro. So close to a complete track! The album, incomplete without the obligatory Kanye contribution, features “Beat Goes On” and continues the Donna Summer touch, this time opting for “beep beep” vocals on a surprisingly sweet track.
I do long for the hypnotic melodies and beats of “Like a Prayer” and “Holiday”, but I am equally eager for Madonna to display some much-anticipated lyrical maturity. But this is increasingly a pipe dream, an unattainable ideal to which we can no longer heed. Instead one must settle for the sing-song-y affable rhymes that easily linger in one’s head.
Of equal concern is the aggregate unoriginality that Hard Candy encompasses. It is overpopulated with recycled pop that is indistinguishable and artificial, something Madonna’s soothing arpeggiating vocals cannot alleviate. Its conception is juvenile and contrived, but in a desperate, not naive, way. She has run out of barriers against which to rebel. At one point the album’s tediousness (e.g. “Heartbeat”, “Miles Away”, “Incredible”) is such that one assumes Ashlee Simpson and Britney have already passed on the material because even they deemed it too redundant.
Unsurprisingly, Madonna is striving to reassert her once risqué preeminence. Her domain, however, is waning as she struggles to usurp the burgeoning uniformity that dominates the pop hemisphere. That this is a jubilee year for pop of sorts (Michael Jackson and Madonna, the King and Queen respectively, both are over the hill in August) calibrates the scope of Madonna’s past dominance, the ascent to her apex, and, perhaps, signifies the start of a long descent.