Pushing 50, Madonna is still in vogue

Michael Hamersly
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MADONNA "Hard Candy" (Warner Bros.)

3 stars

Once again, Madonna has reinvented herself. On "Hard Candy," her 11th studio album and swan song on longtime label Warner Bros., the Queen of Pop veers toward hip-hop by recruiting ubiquitous producers Timbaland and Pharrell Williams. But fans who might wince at the thought of Madonna relinquishing control can relax - the results sound surprisingly natural, not forced attempts to cash in on the latest trend.

Though "Hard Candy" - in stores Tuesday - is a radical departure from Madonna's last CD, 2005's Grammy-winning "Confessions on a Dance Floor," which was a continuous mix of disco-and house-tinged dance songs, its goal is mostly the same - to get your feet moving. She just goes about it in a different way.

"Candy Shop's" cool, slick percussion (which turns out to be Williams banging bongo-style on paint cans) helps continue "Confessions'" theme ("Get up outta your seat/Come on up to the dance floor") but with a more hip-hop feel and Prince-style backup harmonies. The first single, "4 Minutes," a duet with Justin Timberlake that features Timbaland on backing vocals, offers a different take on "Dancing in the Streets:" "We only got four minutes to save the world/Grab a boy and grab a girl."

On the smooth "Give It 2 Me," Madonna comes closest to matching her notorious lewdness (as evidenced by the album cover) by boasting, "Don't stop me now, don't need to catch my breath/I can go on and on and on." She also might be the only 49-year-old white woman who can get away with hip-hop vernacular such as "Get stupid" and, on the Janet Jackson-like "Heartbeat," "See my booty get down."

"Hard Candy" isn't all sweaty dance and sex anthems. With its Spanish strumming guitars, the wistful "Miles Away" dramatically changes the pace by tapping the tropical spirit of "La Isla Bonita" and modernizing it with pulsing synth riffs. But its mood is far from upbeat, as it feels like a painfully honest glimpse of her relationship with husband Guy Ritchie: "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."

Madonna's strength has never been her lyrics (example from "Confessions'" I Love New York:" "I don't like cities but I like New York/Other places make me feel like a dork"). "She's Not Me," however, offers clever observations such as "She might make you breakfast and love you in the shower/The thrill is momentary, `cause she don't have what's ours." Its bouncy bass line and choppy guitars recall the `70s disco of Chic, but Madonna makes it fresh by warning an ex-lover his new girl is "pimping her style."

More `70s disco is less enthralling: "Beat Goes On" cops Donna Summer's "toot-toot, beep-beep," but lacks the Queen of Disco's melodic brilliance - and a listless cameo rap by Kanye West doesn't help much. Another slight stumble is "Spanish Lesson," driven by strummed, layered guitars straight from Timberlake's "Like I Love You." It's sonically pleasant, but the literal lesson approaches absurdity: "'Quiete' means close your mouth/'Besame' means give me love." Of course, Madonna turns it into a seductive "Private Lessons" moment, cooing "If you do your homework, baby, I will give you more."

Two down-tempo tracks close out the album, but they're anything but downers. The somber "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" has Timberlake's pop touch all over it, especially on the mesmerizing chorus "Even the devil wouldn't recognize you, but I do" (a dig at Britney?).

And the sleek "Voices," which borrows Moby's minor keyboard chord progression from his `90s dance anthem "Porcelain," asks an appropriate question for Madonna: "Who is the master/Who is the slave?" Even pushing 50, she keeps us guessing.

Pod Picks: "Miles Away," "She's Not Me," "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You."

Madonna talks about Hard Candy

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