Read on for my incredibly long, incredibly serious review of Madonna‘s 11th studio album, Hard Candy!

Madonna truly does want to devour the world. In 2005, Confessions On A Dance Floor further cemented her status as an icon within discotheques around the world, as well as a seat upon the throne as the reigning Queen of Pop. The album served as an unapologetic gift to her long-term fan base, making no pretense in its pandering toward her faithful gay following. Now, after coming back from the hugely successful Confessions Tour, Madonna has returned to reinvent herself with a few new friends in tow and a new mission in mind: universal appeal.

Most fans, including myself, were incredibly dismayed to hear of Madonna’s decision to turn to today’s most prominent producers for the crafting of her upcoming album. Securing Timbaland was probably the greatest let down, especially considering his reputation as a career reviver for musicians looking to secure a major radio hit or two. As a true pioneer of pop, Madonna has always had a wealth of undiscovered talent at her disposal. But as evidenced through various interviews in the past few, Madonna wants more fans. So this time around, she’s fancied herself a very modern, very urban flavor catering to today’s Top 40 friendly sounds.

The album begins with “Candy Shop,” which sounds no different than it did when it leaked months ago. While its simplistic production and uninspired lyrics were none too thrilling at the time, none could foretell that the track would eventually become a refreshingly breezy opener to this heavily overproduced album. “4 Minutes” comes in quickly thereafter, horns blaring, as the Timbaland circus begins. The over-excited lead single is currently burning up the charts around the world, and for good reason. Truthfully, this is an addictive track, though it’s impossible to fully enjoy without realizing that the song’s been done many times before with many other artists over the past two years.

Next up is “Give It 2 Me,” the Pharrell produced second single. Implementing some rave-happy synthesizers and a bit of the old cowbell, the track is a stand-out from the pack. The man’s brought in a dozen production tricks of the trade, including a massive breakdown comparable to a dizzying round of Dance Dance Revolution. “Left, left, right, right,” Pharrell chants as Madonna continues to taunt, “Get stupid/Get Stupid.” It’s enough to briefly disorient, though it’s a fun sort of confusion here. A small issue is the breakdown’s curious similarity to the Pharell produced “Yummy” by Gwen Stefani. As I later found out, this would not be the last of the Stefani comparisons. “Heartbeat” offers another journey into a kind of synthesized heaven, this time with a surprisingly fuller vocal performance. There’s not much here beside some warm dance energy and a bit of throwaway fun.

“Miles Away,” the fifth track of the album, leaked in lower quality weeks ago on Japanese television. The chorus was undoubtedly a moment of absolute otherworldly bliss, with the potential to lift the album to a higher level. Needless to say, this was my most anticipated track to hear. Sadly, it soon became a deep disappointment. Ten seconds into the song, a Timbaland-voiced beat-box bursts in unannounced above the unassuming acoustic guitar, undercutting the sincerity that the track would have potentially provided. It was deeply frustrating to hear, not only because it destroys the mood of the track, but because the song carries the potential to be better. Despite the obnoxious nature of the human beat-box undertone, the song still performs quite well, though it could truly benefit from an acoustic reinterpretation.

After “Miles Away” comes “She’s Not Me,” kicking into the speakers with a funky guitar riff and a handful of bitter lyrics: “She started talking like me and dressing like me/It freaked me out/She started calling you up in the middle of the night/What’s that about?” The song’s finale also features a surprisingly addictive techno-like breakdown of the chorus to make the song even more addictive. Granted, this is no “Thief of Hearts,” but the song does supply the album’s greatest amount of unadulterated sass.

“Incredible” is absolutely out of control. Some reviewers seem to consider the song to be an album highlight, but I think this chugging, disjointed mess of a song is the album’s small disaster. It’s once again Gwen-reminiscent, though a bit more clunky and strange than the No Doubt singer’s works. There’s simply nothing redeemable about this track. The song simply sputters on until the unpredictably fantastic “hands up” moment halfway through, though once the trance-happy break dies down, the return to the next verse is entirely unsatisfying. As Madonna laments throughout the chorus: “Can’t get my head around it / I need to think about it,” I can’t help but agree.

Next on the lineup is “Beat Goes On,” another romp through the sounds of dizzying disco which happens to echo some of Donna Summer’s greatest releases. As the twinkling beats die down three minutes in, the stage is set for a brief intermission by the one and only Kanye West. He goes into a rather run-of-the-mill breakdown rap that feels appropriate; though the act grows a bit stale once he decides to name drop his latest single. Luckily, the beat picks back up from where it started, bowing out neatly.

“Dance 2Night” is the moment of pure, unadulterated Madonna. Conjuring memories of earlier works such as “Holiday” and “Lucky Star,” the sparkling up-tempo track features a pleasant Justin Timberlake duet and carries a funky string rhythm. “You don’t have to be beautiful to be understood,” she sings “You just gotta give more, more, more / Than you ever have before.” The track has all the makings of a wonderfully constructed disco gem, with a few neat tricks thrown in from time to time.

Then comes “Spanish Lesson.” Now, as much as we all may benefit from the Material Girl’s Latin-tinged vocabulary quiz, the track fails to evoke any actual knowledge. Or pleasure, for that matter. To be fair, Spanish was never really her forte—After all, “La Isla Bonita” isn’t exactly the first track you that comes to mind when you think Madonna, is it? Within the song, we once again run into the Gwen Stefani comparison, this time during the voiced breakdown. If it didn’t sound so eerily similar to the chorus of “Yummy” by Stefani (which was also produced by Pharell), the track probably would have felt more genuine.

After my disappointment with “Miles Away,” I was almost resistant to listening to the tenth track, “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You,” another track that held my curiosity after hearing the preview. Luckily, my expectations were exceeded in this case. Drifting upon a drippy, electro beat, Madonna tells the tale of a damaging lover in this smartly crafted, mature mid-tempo track. “Now I’m sober, no more intoxicating my mind / Even the devil wouldn’t recognize you / But I do,” she taunts aggressively, proving that Madonna will never truly allow herself to play the fool.
“Voices” ushers in the album’s closing with a somewhat S&M themed stringed seduction. Echoing the slinky beats from the Erotica era, the track is a romantic comedown from the album’s bouncy material. With a triumphant piano flourish melting slowly into the cascading beats, the song dies down as she purrs, “Who is the master, and who is the slave?” Madonna may have just turned 50, but this song serves as a lasting reminder that she will never be too old to break out a whip or two.

Madonna’s mission here is to captivate the general audience with the bells and whistles of today’s latest and greatest move makers. Does she deliver? Certainly, though she clearly let the professionals have their share of fun in constructing the album. Unfortunately there are some irritating characteristics—especially the infuriating signature Timbaland beat which winds itself through almost the entire album. However, along with these annoyances are dozens of brilliant moments made to motivate the body into the groove. This is a Madonna album, after all. No matter how hard she may try to incorporate the latest trends, she will always, at heart, appeal to the dance floor.

Hard Candy, then, is a rather appropriate title for the album’s listening experience: The album is packed full with delicious treats, often filled with unexpected sweet surprises inside. But wrapped around these tasty, trancey flourishes of fun are rough, crunchy urban beats that often overshadow the greatness that each track could provide. And thanks to its of-the-moment production, this Candy’s been dealt a short shelf life of relevance, which will inevitably grow stale after only a few years.