Madonna, Hard Candy (Warner Bros.) [3.5 STARS]

SHARE Madonna, Hard Candy (Warner Bros.) [3.5 STARS]

Although shell turn 50 in August, the mouthful of sweets that is Madonna Louise Ciccone Ritchie proves with her new album Hard Candy that shes nowhere close to relinquishing her crown as the queen of dance-pop — or abandoning her favorite role as pop musics most hot-to-trot coquette.

Surveying the unnamed pack of (much) younger challengers to the throne — among them Nelly Furtado, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera — Maddy turns to us midway through the new disc and declares over a Chic-worthy riff that, Shes not me/She doesnt have my name/Shell never have what I have/It wont be the same!

Sugary dance-pop is sugary dance-pop, you might argue, and its a young girls game. Is there really that much value in a name? Well, Live Nation certainly thinks so.

Last October, the concert giant announced a 360-degree mega-deal with the diva, prompting her to leave her longtime label — Hard Candy is her last new effort for Warner Bros. — and grant Live Nation oversight of, to quote the press release, the Madonna brand, albums, touring, merchandising, fan club and Web site, DVDs, music-related television and film projects and associated sponsorship agreements.

The Madonna brand — that certainly says it all, doesnt it? Over the last quarter-century, it has sold 250 million albums worldwide, doing for the pop charts what McDonalds did for hamburgers. But Maddys corporate enterprise has taken some hard knocks of late. Her last effort, the Brit-affected Confessions on a Dance Floor, sold 12 million copies in 2005, but less than 2 million of those were in her native U.S. Before that came American Life, the 2003 stinker even the faithful were hard pressed to defend.

In order to justify Live Nations love, meriting a deal worth an estimated $120 million over the next decade, Madonna needed to deliver the goods as well as she ever has with her 11th studio album, which arrives in stores on April 28, but is already leaking all over the Net. And deliver she does: Hard Candy is her strongest and most enjoyable album since the heavy-breathing Erotica, the 1992 disc that remains her high point, mainly because all that heavy breathing was a little less creepy back when she was 33.

Setting out to craft a good-time return to the dance floor, Madonna broke with her well-established formula. Instead of reaching into the underground to plunder the newest dance sounds with the help of a hip and as-yet largely unknown producer such as Jellybean Benitez, William Orbit, Mirwais Ahmadzai or Stuart Price, she turned to two of the biggest names on the U.S. pop charts, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams.

Augmented by Justin Timberlake and Nate Danja Hills, Timbaland crafted five of these tracks, while Williams and his Neptunes team handled seven. In various combinations, these fellows also helmed hits by Stefani, Furtado and Spears, though for the last few years, theyve produced more generic garbage than sheer genius. Thankfully, Hard Candy is a return to form for both of them, as well.

This is important because actual singing ability has always been the least of Madonnas talents — with poetic or merely passable lyrics ranking a close second — and the Material Girl is only ever as good as her producers. Here, they try to be as melodic and groovy as possible in a sort of generic, could-be-70s disco, could-be-90s techno party-hearty way. Both bring along their sonic trademarks — Timbaland his booming shout-outs, Williams his vocodered vocals — and noted pals, including Timberlake, who duets with or backs the star on four tracks, and Chicagoan Kanye West, who pops up for a rap cameo on Beat Goes On.

Each producer only ventures out on new turf once. Timbaland succeeds with Devil Wouldnt Recognize You, which sounds like a futuristic take on the AM-radio pop of Maureen McGovern, with an absurd chorale breakdown evoking the Beach Boys thrown in for good measure. But Williams fails with the flamenco-inflected Spanish Lessons, accomplishing the amazing feat of creating something even more embarrassing than the dreaded La Isla Bonita.

Yo te quiero means I love you/Mucho gusto means Im welcome to you/Senorita, I just wanna fall in love, Madonna sings. Um, Mrs. Ritchie, mucho gusto actually means much pleasure. But those lines arent even the silliest — that distinction goes to Madonna and Timberlake cooing Bono-like, Time is waiting/We only got four minutes to save the world/No hesitating/Grab a boy, grab a girl (4 Minutes) — or the sorriest. My choice for the latter is a tie between two of the many examples of desperate sexual pandering: My sugar is raw/Sticky and sweet (Candy Shop) and Got no boundaries and no limits/If theres excitement, put me in it/If its against the law, arrest me/If you can handle it, undress me (Give it to Me).

In any event, as the hate mail always reminds me, nobody listens to Madonna for the lyrics or the singing. Its all about the giddy grooves, and here theyre once again inspiring enough to make us all believe, as our heroine croons in Heartbeat, Dont you know, cant you see, when I dance, I feel free.

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