From the looks of it, "Hard Candy," Madonna's new album, is an unambiguous riff on the superstar's favorite theme. She appears on the cover in thigh-high boots, blinged-out wrestling belt, and a long black strap stretched from her wrist to her mouth. Her legs are spread. Her eyes are slits. Her lips are parted.
But looks are deceiving. This pose isn't about sex, and it never was. Madonna is about control. Her titillating accessories - the bustiers and riding crops and soft-core coffee-table porn - aren't instruments of pleasure. They're power tools.
Even when she's working closely with established writers and producers (an artist of great vision but limited technique, Madonna is a serial collaborator) she manages to stamp the work with her own indelible mark. That's no small feat for someone whose real strengths lie beyond the realm of songcraft and singing. Madonna has remained an original in recent years, long after her glory days as a trend-setting provocateur have waned, by making smart, unobvious choices in musical partners: techno guru William Orbit, for instance, or French electronica mastermind Mirwais Ahmadzai.
How interesting, then, that on her 11th album she has handed the reins over to today's most fashionable and familiar sonic architects, Timbaland and the Neptunes, and the young star who's shaping up to be heir to her dance-pop throne: Justin Timberlake. Nowhere is the shift in the power structure more blatant than on the album's irresistible first single, "4 Minutes," where Madonna sounds like a featured guest trying to keep pace with Timbaland's colossal beats and Timberlake's nimble melody.
The song is a sure thing, a chart-topper for its sheer star power as well as instant musical allure, and on the eve of Madonna's 50th birthday - adventures and missteps and house-music meditations under her belt - "4 Minutes" feels a lot like an icon's can't-miss gift to herself. Indeed, "Hard Candy," out Tuesday, is loaded with future-forward variations of fizzy synths and ebullient grooves that scream nothing so much as early Madonna. "Give It 2 Me" thumps relentlessly, euphorically, to the rhythm of a clanking virtual cowbell and freaky bass. "Beat Goes On" features a narcotic Kanye West cameo but a richly reconstituted disco queen, while "Heartbeat" - a sweet electro valentine to dancing - pulses with a young girl's mindless bliss.
And why not? All the other kids get to reference her. So Madonna is using the milestone of her own mid-century mark to reclaim her spot smack in the center of that ever-redemptive dance floor. But it's not the shiny heartless one of 2005's "Confessions on a Dance Floor."
"Hard Candy" takes place in a grimier club, where the disco queen has more to lose than herself in the music - everything from peace of mind ("Miles Away") to star power ("She's Not Me"). Can she have both?
That question frames the tension between dominance and submission that has been a pillar of Madonna's work since 1986's "Like a Prayer." And it plays out explicitly here - not via the familiar sin/salvation imagery but by the simple choice to hitch her wagon, for the first time in her career, to a team of hit-makers. She's giving herself away, and in so doing keeping herself on top. Thanks to the blunt force of her personality, "Hard Candy" feels perfectly concerted, without a whiff of desperation.
The album unfurls artfully - bookended by the sinuous minimalism of "Candy Shop," where Madonna hawks her still-delicious treats, and "Voices," a booming, magisterial closer that ponders the very nature of power. The artist's journey from shameless seductress to thoughtful student produces nary a ballad, but some seriously bittersweet tones linger under the surface of these effusive tunes.
"You always have the biggest heart when we're 6,000 miles apart," sings Madonna, a frequent flier by trade, on "Miles Away." On "Incredible," a chipper paean to the electrifying early days of a relationship that grows frantic by the verse, she confesses "I need to go back there/ before it's too late." The stylistic touchstones may be vintage, but the emotional landscape on "Hard Candy" - nostalgia, regret, and marital angst take their place alongside heady doses of desire - couldn't be more current.
Decoding "She's Not Me" will provide the celeb-obsessed with hours of fun figuring out which wannabe is "reading my books and stealing my looks and lingerie." Music lovers will marvel at the song's suite-like arc, crafted by the Neptunes, which morphs from old-school disco to anthemic power-pop to string-saturated space odyssey.
Singer-songwriter Joe Henry, Madonna's brother-in-law, gets a songwriting credit on "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," a dusky shuffle that evokes Madonna's career-best slow burner, "Live to Tell." It arrives like a mood swing, dark and mysterious, laying the foundation for the roiling "Voices," where Madonna asks over and over, church bells tolling, "Who is the master and who is the slave?"
Twenty-five years ago the question wouldn't have occurred to her. Today it's the epic coda to Madonna's last album for longtime label Warner Bros. before launching a 10-year, $120 million partnership with Live Nation. In that light, "Voices" is a commanding parting shot.