In 1983, at age 11, I saved up the appropriate funds, earned from doing chores around the house, to buy Madonna’s self-titled debut record. When I had first heard “Holiday” on the radio that previous summer, I was entranced. It sounded a little like the disco my aunts and uncles used to listen to and a little like the R&B songs that were popular at the time but overall it was dripping with a confidence and personality I had never heard before.
25 years later, I’m still a fan and throughout her career Madonna has continued to produce pop songs that entered uncharted territory. Snobbishly, Madonna has produced hit singles that go against the grain, popular opinion be damned. That’s exactly why her latest release, Hard Candy, is a puzzling collection of songs that shockingly plays it safe. Producers and collaborators like Pharrell, Timbaland, and Justin Timberlake are pros at churning out ditties that are annoyingly catchy and light on lyrical content, so it’s no surprise the results for Madonna are the same as they have been for Missy Elliot, Gwen Stefani, and Ashlee Simpson. And that’s not always a good thing.
First the bad news. The opening track “Candy Shop” is a springy, albeit trite, track tricked out with vocal layering, dated sexual innuendo (“My sugar is sweet”), and the requisite thumping drum machine beats. It’s sugary for sure but like a cheap butterscotch, it’s sucked on and then quickly forgotten. “Spanish Lesson,” “Incredible,” and “The Beat Goes On” will serve their purpose on tredclimbers around the globe but a closer listen is not recommended as the weak lyrics and cliche production value might very well drive you insane. Album closer “Voices” seems to be directly lifted from the Erotica recycling bin right down to the S&M references and tired 90’s house-beat. Even a hardcore fan like myself can acknowledge the fact nearly every Madonna record has a few songs that might have been better left on the cutting room floor but never have the missteps been so glaring obvious as they are on Hard Candy.