on 26 August 2014
My relationship with this album was a long, rocky but ultimately fruitful one. For me, Hard Candy is nothing less than Madonna's most underrated album; yet I'm confident that time will only help its cause and that sooner or later, it will be rediscovered and gloriously reassessed.
When Hard Candy came out in 2008, I purchased it without thinking twice. I had absolutely adored Confessions on a Dancefloor and fervently hoped to find the same kind of glittery chutzpah on Hard Candy; however, I was in for a sore disappointment. I intensely disliked the album, not so much because of the music itself but because of its general direction. Back in the late noughties, including hip-hop and R'n'B-flavoured featurings on female singers' hit songs was all the rage, more often than not to cringing results. Great potential hits were maimed and tainted by uninspired, generic drabbles from the hottest names in hip-hop and R'n'B-dom, and the whole trend reeked of cheap commercialism and quick cash-ins. When I saw that the Queen of Pop herself was caving in and following that trend, I was absolutely dismayed.
After the brazen approach of Confessions on a Dancefloor, which had wielded such brilliant results and ultimately led to the creation of a vibrant masterpiece of disco-pop wizardry, this docile change of direction and apparent yielding to the hot trend of the moment felt not only like a disappointment, but also like a complete and absolute betrayal. It also showed alarming signs of an unpleasant capitulation to some underlying anxiety about ageing: the artwork was airbrushed to an absurd point, the art direction as a whole was ridiculously tacky, and Madonna's dalliance with Justin Timberlake, then at the top of his game, seemed like a cheap and rather transparent trick to prove everyone -- including herself -- that she was still relevant and perfectly able to keep up with younger contenders to the Pop Throne. The whole idea of making an R'n'B-flavoured album in 2008 was as boringly safe and unimaginative as it could be, and to team up with then-ubiquitous Timbaland to do so was just SO utterly vanilla -- even Bjork had collaborated with the guy at that point, for crying it out loud! Sadly, it seemed that Madonna was indeed cheapening herself by pledging allegiancy to the latest musical trend instead of boldly anticipating it as usual -- or even kickstarting it, for that matter.
The result failed to impress me, all the more so as I don't especially fancy hip-hop and R'n'B. Sure, I liked a couple of tracks, and even had an instant crush on "Miles Away"; but I couldn't get over Madonna's musical and aesthetics choices regarding that album, and after listening to it for a couple of weeks, I shelved it for good and didn't touch it until very recently.
Since 2008, many things happened in the Pop Realm: Timberlake was kicked out of orbit by a younger Justin and virtually sank into oblivion, and Timbaland slowly but surely moved out of everyone's radar. Cringing hip-hop featurings stopped appearing for no good reasons in songs, and music just moved onwards to new trends without as much as a glance backwards. And now, in 2014, I finally listened to Hard Candy again, and I had an epiphany.
Taken out of its original context, this album is an absolute gem. It IS a Pop masterpiece after all, this time with a sticky hip-hop and R'n'B sugarcoating instead of the disco one of Confessions. The hooks are massive, irresistible and gloriously poppy and the whole album sparkles with unique details: Timberlake's imperious and playful "Ma-DON-nuh!" interjections on "4 minutes", the Bananarama inflexions of "Give it 2 me", the subtle string outro of "She's not me" and many more. Even "Spanish Lesson", which I absolutely hated back then, now sounds to me like a joyful and tongue-in-cheek pastiche of "La Isla Bonita". This is an album that begs to be rediscovered and enjoyed to the fullest, and it so fully deserves it. As for the tacky artwork, let's just remember that Madonna does not have the visual flair of Bjork and that her albums' artworks have always been quite simplistic, if not a tad crappy. It really doesn't matter, because we're here for the Pop Magic, and Hard Candy definitely has the Pop Magic in spades--and so does Madonna!