It's hard to fathom, but a day will come when Madonna doesn't periodically reappear with a freshened up image and a new batch of pop trifles. Until that day, though, The Material Mommy (just months shy of a jaw-slacking 50 years old) is going to be there for us—popping, locking, shaking her bonbon, as though endorsement deals for osteoporosis treatments aren't circling overhead.
Madonna's resilience has always been credited to her penchant for reinventing her image. But while she does trot out a new look for each album, she also introduces a new sound, and her sonic experimentation is what has truly maintained her appeal. Since the mid-'90s, Madonna has handpicked producers who are huge among the dance music underground but unknown to the general public. Sometimes it sticks, as on 1998's "Ray of Light," the William Orbit-produced album that stands among her most critically and commercial successful projects. But 2003's "American Life," produced by Mirwais Ahmadzai, was her nadir. Still, this is what we appreciate about artists, their willingness to dive headlong into the next big thing, and occasionally be totally wrong.
But on her 11th studio album, "Hard Candy," Madonna makes it clear that she's had enough of being the trailblazer. Instead of working with obscure producers, she's drafted hip-pop's most ubiquitous names: Timbaland and Pharrell Williams. It's almost as though, as middle age creeps up, Madonna is out to prove to the kiddies that she's not some old lady holding onto the house-music '90s. But she's out of her comfort zone, while her producers are too much in theirs, making "Hard Candy" an uncharacteristically desperate bore.
The production is a problem. Madonna has always been willing to admit that her voice is slight and she's a vessel for the beats. So when the beats are as limp and obvious as they are here, there's not much she can do to save them. Timbaland has proven that when he feels like it, he can deliver a mind-blowing track. He's done it numerous times for Justin Timberlake, who also collaborated on "Candy." But Tim is clearly resting on his laurels here. Lead single "4 Minutes" is a sloppy mess of Sousa-style horns, an approach used to greater effect on Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" (produced by Pharrell) back in 2005. Most of the Timbaland tracks play like discards from Nelly Furtado's polarizing album "Loose," which he produced in its entirety.
Pharrell handled most of "Hard Candy," an especially curious decision considering that between Timbaland and Pharrell, the former has the more innovative, exciting resume. Perhaps that's why Pharrell tried to step up a little more than Tim. His tracks aren't blockbusters, and he's still in the bad habit of recreating songs he's done in the past, but they have a liveliness that's missing from the Timbaland tracks.
When Maddy gets the right beat, as on the album's opener, the kinetic "Candy Shop," then she has to light it up. She doesn't do that on "Candy Shop," piling on uncomfortable sexual metaphors like she's singing the script of a 1970s sex-ed filmstrip. But she does deliver on "Spanish Lesson," a Pharrell track built on the same chassis as Timberlake's "Like I Love You," all flamenco guitar and cackling synthesizer. The bilingual lyrics are inane but all the more lovable for it: "Digame means tell me baby/Yo soy loco means you drive me crazy … Entiendo means I get it/Siempre means I won't forget it." Ridiculous, but prepare to watch helplessly as it burrows into your brain.
"Spanish Lesson" and the tuneful "Miles Away" show that the concept behind "Hard Candy" was a good one even though the execution falls short. It's baffling that Madonna, of all people, couldn't bring the best out of Timbaland and Pharrell, and the fact that she couldn't highlights the degree to which she was in over her head. It's sadder than the balding guy who buys a sports car; it's like a balding guy who goes to buy a sports car and drives off with a lemon because he doesn't know anything about cars. Unless Madonna can figure out how to recalibrate her identity in a way that compliments her, she could be facing an early retirement.