For her eleventh studio album, ever-shrewd Madonna has teamed up with some of pop’s biggest hit makers in her quest to keep on top of the game.
Usually a tastemaker herself, 'Hard Candy' sees the star tap into the already prevalent pop stylings of Timbaland and The Neptunes, who hog the production credits and place their trademark musical stamp all over the album. The brand of slick R 'n' B that makes them such in demand producers is the album's centre point, often outshining Madonna’s pop sensibilities, to the effect that Madonna seems like a guest on her own record at times.
Heaps of sweet shop-related innuendo kick off the album in the form of 'Candy Shop', which promises plenty of "heat" over the rest of the record. The chant "My sugar is raw, sticky and sweet" is strangely catchy, punctuated by smooth synths, computerised vocals and a funky guitar riff.
Next up is the lead single, and the first of a handful of Justin Timberlake collaborations, '4 Minutes'. It’s typical Timbaland fare, with a punchy beat and marching band instrumentation, but it sounds more like JT featuring Madonna than her own track.
She is less smothered in the company of The Neptunes' Pharrell Williams, and in 'Give It 2 Me' she revisits her disco roots. It has a club anthem feel, with an insistent beat and cow bells, building up to an exhilarating crescendo.
Similarly, on the pulsating 'Heartbeat', Madonna seems more at home. Pharrell pipes up here and there with his distinctive backing vocals, but she's the star on this track.
'Miles Away' takes the album down a more intimate path, discussing her relationship with husband Guy Ritchie, and some of the lyrics are touchingly honest - "I guess we’re at our best when we’re miles away".
Attitude-laden 'She’s Not Me' is a confident assertion of her dominance as the queen of pop, and the only woman for her husband. The jaunty, camp guitar and handclaps complement her statement "I know I can do it better".
On 'Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You', the main flaw of this album is most evident. The Timbaland production eerily echoes his much superior work with Justin Timberlake on 'Cry Me a River', down to the rain sound effects and vast beats. It doesn't even nearly match the genius of Timbaland's previous works. This blatant revisiting of old territory begs the question: is Timbaland spreading himself too thinly?
Effortlessly catchy, 'Hard Candy' easily sucks the listener in with an assortment of pop treats - but the overlying impression it gives off is that Madonna and her coterie of collaborators are just going through the motions. It might give you a quick sugar rush, but there isn’t enough substance here to put it down in the annals of pop.
Anyone else think Timbaland should take a well-deserved holiday?