Madonna’s ‘Hard Candy’ Turns 5: Stan & Deliver

By: Bradley Stern / April 24, 2013

Stan & Deliver gives fans an opportunity to shake, cry and sing the praises of the albums they love from their faves.

Four years before she was waving her pom-poms onstage next to Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. at the Super Bowl (the most-watched halftime show in history, for the record), Madonna was already working up a sweat (and flaunting her vascularity) in the middle of a boxing ring to the tune of her crunchy, workout-ready collection of electro-pop treats: Hard Candy, originally released in April 2008.

Unlike 2005’s immaculate return-to-roots record, Confessions On A Dance Floor (produced by Stuart Price), Hard Candy saw the Queen of Pop turn away from thundering club anthems and opt for a trendier Top 40 radio troupe to achieve a more modern sound (or as Britney Spears might say, “something more urban”), taking on the cheeky-yet-cringe-inducing moniker “M-Dolla” and enlisting Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and Timbaland.

True to its name, Hard Candy is a mixed bag of sugary-sweet pop offerings (Turkish delights, and so much more!), somber electro-ballads, mid-tempos saturated in Timbaland’s (oft-grating) beatboxin, and playful dips into funky, old school disco territory. When she’s not defending her position on the throne (“Give It 2 Me”) or encouraging a certain heightened awareness (“4 Minutes”), Madonna mostly seems to be having a blast: “See my booty get down like!” she taunts on “Heartbeat” — easy material for the detractors who would angrily accuse her of attempting to stay “hip,” sure, but still more than enough fun for the fans who’d rather just dance.

Yet the album’s more sobering moments — including “Miles Away,” “Voices” and “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” — would later reveal themselves to be very real frustrations set to song, building up to what would become her divorce record: 2012’s chilly, synth-heavy and oft-menacing MDNA.

Five years later, the record still holds as a mixed candy jar. Some confections have become a bit less tasty, while others prove to be far stickier, sweeter and far more fresh than their expected shelf life.

We asked some of Madonna’s biggest fans to go track-by-track through Hard Candy. Join us now in rediscovering the rawness of Madonna’s sugar. Hurry, you only got 4 minutes! Just kidding. Take your time, and leave a comment below with your thoughts on Hard Candy.

Name: Jared Braden | Location: Dallas, Texas | Twitter: @jaredbraden

1. Candy Shop: Anyone looking for lyrics so profound and deep that you quit your job to rethink your entire existence should go ahead and move on, because you’re not going to find that here. “Candy Shop” is all letting loose and having a good time. Set to a nice, punchy beat, Madonna weaves her voice around a hypnotic groove that practically dares you not to sing along.

Backed by the aforementioned beat, Madonna sings: “Don’t pretend you’re not hungry, there’s plenty to eat. Come on in to my store ’cause my sugar is sweet.” Madonna knows you’re already craving her sugar. She just needs to convince you that she has the good stuff you can’t find anywhere else — which is just what she does. By the time “Candy Shop” is over, Madonna has you just where she wants: On your knees, begging for another taste. It’s the kind of song that makes you turn up the volume, sing along…maybe even do a little dance if no one else is around, and then hit repeat.

Don’t get me wrong – “Candy Shop” isn’t strong enough to stand alone as a single, but, if nothing else, it more than serves its purpose as an introduction to Hard Candy. There is no question about it: “Candy Shop” is sticky, sweet and addictive.

Name: Alex Nagorski | Location: New York, NY | Twitter: @alexnagorski

3. 4 Minutes (feat. Justin Timberlake): There was a time when superheroes were just the stuff of literature and fantasy. That is until there was Madonna. With her bulging steel biceps, constantly evolving wardrobe of spandex and Boy Scout uniforms, British aliases and a gallery of rogues ranging from Elton John to Mother Monster herself, the Queen of Pop has defeated such contemporary evils as hydrangeas and box office success.

With nearly every Madonna album, the legendary performer has reinvented and expanded upon her signature sound. And following the release of her 2005 electro-pop masterpiece, Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madge decided that in order to keep things fresh, it was time to inject her music with a little hip-hop flavor.

The pressure, then, for Hard Candy’s lead single was on. A collaboration with hit-making duo Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, “4 Minutes” introduced listeners to the new urban-influenced Madonna. The song’s marching-band-meets-Michael-Jackson vibe immediately attracted mainstream radio, and “4 Minutes” went on to peak at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and earn Madonna her 37th top ten hit, breaking Elvis’ record as the artist with the largest amount of top ten singles).

Inspired by Madonna’s activism for social change and equality, “4 Minutes” served as a rallying cry for people to give back to the world we live in — and to remind them that they can have fun while doing so.

As for that four-minute time-constraint to save the world? “I don’t think it’s important to take it too literally,” Madonna explained to MTV in a 2009 interview. “I think the song more than anything is about having a sense of urgency; about how we are, you know, living on borrowed time essentially, and people are becoming much more aware of the environment and how we’re destroying the planet. We can’t just keep distracting ourselves. We have to educate ourselves and wake up and do something about it, you know?”

The blend of hip-hop, bhangra beats, uptempo dance music, and playful lyrics in “4 Minutes” perfectly represents the overall structure and aesthetic of Hard Candy, making it a smart and obvious choice for the album’s kick-off single. And while the Grammy-nominated song may not be one of Madonna’s strongest, it’s certainly a necessary one in her diverse and expansive repertoire.

Name: Conor Behan | Location: Ireland | Twitter: @platinumjones

3. Give It 2 Me: Despite what critics said at the time, Hard Candy features plenty of moments where Madonna gets to be as cheeky and empowering as ever. Not least on this track, the album’s second single, the lyrics to which read both as Madonna urging to keep pushing on as usual and as a tribute to her own time in the pop universe.

A clattering, loping beat underpins Madonna singing in a husky register before brashly instructing the listener to grab life by proverbial hard candies as a truckload of synths skitter across the chorus. Of all the production Pharrell supplied for this album, this is his crowning glory, the jerky “Get Stupid” segment a welcome bit of experimentation on a track that is catchy, quirky and quintessentially Madonna (and if you’ve heard his current single with Robin Thicke, you might think P is paying tribute to with the funk stomp of “Blurred Lines”).

Name: Sergio Kletnoy | Location: New York, NY | Twitter: @sergiokletnoy

4. Heartbeat: For as long as I can remember, Madonna made me feel what no other pop star was able to before, during and most likely ever after. From the moment I first saw M flash across my TV screen, her music made me escape to another galaxy. It took control over my mind, body and soul, and hasn’t let go since. From the good times and bad, sad and ecstatic, she’s always been my ray of light. I remember buying Hard Candy the day it was released, on April 19, 2008, exactly two days before my birthday and smiling ear to ear. Instantly, “Heartbeat” — written by M and Pharrell Williams — became one of my faves.

It’s one of those no-brainers that completely takes over, demands you drop everything you’re doing and start dancing. From the pulsating Neptunes-produced beat, to Madonna’s sexiness oozing out of every second of the song, to the breakdown at 2:19, when The Queen asks that you “See my booty get down like…” over and over again, it’s like butter. This is what pop music is all about: It grabs you, shakes you, touches you in the most inappropriate way and makes you come back for more. I’ve never been the one to over-analyze her message — I just know that i feel it in my heartbeat…and that’s all that matters.

Name: Bradley Stern | Location: New York, NY | Twitter: @muumuse

5. Miles Away: When Madonna took to the stage, guitar in hand, at the TD Bank North Garden in Boston on her Sticky & Sweet Tour, she began with a dedication: “This song is dedicated to the emotionally retarded. You may know a few people who fall into that category — God knows I do.” As it turned out, she’d just signed papers to divorce her then-husband, Guy Ritchie earlier that day, resulting in a particularly acidic performance of the song that evening.

“Miles Away” is one of Hard Candy‘s greatest offerings; a heartfelt reflection on the strain of long distance love set on top of a gorgeous, acoustic guitar strum, dreamy melodies (“so far away…”) and, for some added mmph, Timbaland’s beatboxing. According to the producer, the song was stitched together using a variety of phrases, poetry and random scribblings that Madonna kept to herself in giant notebooks. (Later on, the “Miles Away” lyric “I just woke up from a fuzzy dream / You never would believe the things that I have seen” would also appear on the Paul Oakenfold-produced Celebration-era track, “Broken (I’m Sorry).”)

It’s funny, considering the seemingly haphazard “word jumble” approach at songwriting, that “Miles Away” is actually one of Madonna’s better ballads, and a rare moment of vulnerability tucked into the otherwise cocky confines of Hard Candy. Well — not entirely vulnerable: “I’m alright, don’t be sorry, but it’s true / When I’m gone, you’ll realize that I’m the best thing that happened to you,” she snarls in the song’s all-too-prophetic bridge, exchanging the sorrow for a dose of venom. Of course, she’s right.

Name: Camille Backer & Matt Belanger | Location: New York, NY | Twitter: @hardcandymusic

6. She’s Not Me: On “She’s Not Me,” Madonna enlisted the help of Pharrell and The Neptunes for a Chic-esque return to disco, with a thick bass line and darting string jabs galore.

A wannabe goes after her lover, and M lets her man know that no girl will ever compare to her, no matter how much they try to bite her style — isn’t that the truth?! After Pharrell’s verse — complete with a “Wendy” shoutout — comes the sexy, Prince-esque guitar section provided by Wendy Melvoin of Wendy and Lisa, who backed up Prince in the ’80s. The track then explodes into a throw down on the floor affair of the finest order.

Madonna sings “she’s not me and she never will be” over and over again, delighting us with the frenzied repetition. Even more excitement comes with the fabulous wig snatching, mannequin-kissing realness on the Sticky & Sweet Tour.

In addition to “Miles Away,” this is easily a top track on Hard Candy.

Name: Bradley Stern | Location: New York, NY | Twitter: @muumuse

7. Incredible: Okay, let’s be real: “Incredible” is a misnomer — but it does have a moment.

The Neptunes-produced midtempo is a disjointed combination of staggering drums, skittering sounds, lovely piano playing and some, uh, dodgy lyricism that plays like a sexually frustrated, half-baked demo: “I felt it / It thrilled me / I want it to fill me.” Gee, I wonder what’s she talking about? Can’t get my head around it! Suddenly, the track dives into a rocky, guitar-led bridge: “I started to breathe! I wanted to cry!” she yelps.

Before it’s too late, the brilliance finally arrives: “It’s time to put your hands up! It’s time to get your body moving!” Madonna monotones above a blast of shimmering synthesizers and stomping beats — a proper call to the dance floor. It’s just not her strongest offering on the album, is it? If only the entire song was like that brief, glittering explosion of joy! Now that would truly be incredible.

Name: Alex Hawgood | Location: New York, NY

8. Beat Goes On (feat. Kanye West):  It’s fitting that Pharrell Williams told Rolling Stone that the first discussion he had with Daft Punk about collaborating on Random Access Memories happened at a listening party for Madonna’s “last album” (presumably he is referring to Hard Candy and not MDNA).

Because while the late ’70s/early-’80s disco bounce of “Get Lucky” feels fresh on today’s iTunes chart, it’s practically the same vintage sonic terrain Pharrell covered with Madonna on the tracks he produced for Hard Candy five years earlier, including “She’s Not Me” (complete with Wendy Melvoin from Prince’s legendary band The Revolution on guitar) and “The Beat Goes On” (the title being a reference to The Whispers‘ disco anthem “And The Beat Goes On” from 1980).

While critics rolled their eyes at M-Dolla for jumping on the Timbaland-inspired “urban” bandwagon of the mid-2000s at the eleventh hour (tick tock, tick tock), Pharrell bucked convention for “The Beat Goes On” and rewound the clock to back in the day when disco and funk were giving birth to both hip hop and the type of carefree electro-pop that filled her eponymous debut, Madonna, in 1983. (See also: her use of Keith Haring’s graffiti characters in a backdrop from her Sticky & Sweet Tour.) Pharrell’s shimmering, thumping production — is that a triangle I hear? — offers Madonna the perfect groove to wax bombastic about the cathartic pleasures of dancing (for inspiration, one assumes). By the time Kanye West shows up unexpectedly for his rap at the end, you have no choice but to heed his call to get down, beep beep, and get up outta your seat.

Name: Robbie Daw | Location: New York, NY | Twitter: @chartrigger

9. Dance 2Night: More than any other song on Hard Candy, the retro, funky “Dance 2night” represents somewhat of a wink and a nod to Madonna’s early ’80s roots. (And, rightly so — Hard Candy had Madge hitting the 25-year mark, as far as putting out albums was concerned.) Symbolic milestones aside, the track is all slinky bass, dreamy synths, disco guitar licks and smashing beats. Oh, and and there are some pretty sweet handclaps drizzled across the entire number for good measure. In other words, “Dance 2night” is Madonna letting her hair down and simply having a good time, which is usually when some of her best tracks come about.

That said, it’s mind boggling that the label opted to pass this shining gem over for a single release. Perhaps it was deemed that two Justin Timberlake duets would come across as overkill? (Though, curiously, JT isn’t given a feature bill here as he is on “4 Minutes,” despite his vocal back and forth with Madonna.) Whatever the reasoning, it was radio’s loss. Surely “Dance 2night” would have made for sweeter ear candy during drive time than “Miles Away.”

Name: Adem Ali | Location: Melbourne, Australia | Twitter: @ademwithane

10. Spanish Lesson: The often ignored “Spanish Lesson” remains a somewhat acquired taste in the Madonna history books, an opinion which always left me somewhat surprised because the whole thing was so OTT and borderline-crazy that I found it hard to find any fault. Don’t get me wrong, I love Madonna when she’s at her absolute best, but sometimes she can be at her best because she has that tongue firmly placed in cheek.

With (really very good) production from The Neptunes, “Spanish Lesson” is an overlooked, legacy-building piece of work. It’s a track that comes into play on Hard Candy just in the nick of time; the critical moment where you’re left wondering how exactly it was humanly possible for Madonna to have faxed her entire vocal for “Dance 2night” on the disc only minutes earlier. It’s some seriously well-earned comic relief that has Madonna camping it up and having a bit of fun. God love her, but we’re all aware that’s something of a rarity these days, particularly on record.

So what we have here is Madonna, who isn’t exactly bad at singing in Spanish, singing into a microphone and translating all of these Spanish words and phrases into English… but not really “English,” because maybe about 50, 60% of it, tops, actually translates? Sign. Me. Up.

This isn’t the first time Madonna’s unleashed her legendary comic-timing through her music. In 1990, hot on the trail of a much hyped up role as Breathless Mahoney in the Dick Tracy remake, Madonna released I’m Breathless, a record that did exactly what Xtina tried to do on Back To Basics — only with an actual sense of humor and 16 years earlier. Recording I’m Breathless gave M a chance to ham up the somewhat serious character of Mahoney and, in turn, produced some actual comedic gold: the show-stopping riot “I’m Going Bananas” —which, if you’ve seen The Girlie Show DVD, you’ll be very familiar with — and the equally as bonkers “Cry Baby,” a song in which Madonna moans in dismay at her lover who seems to have some serious sensitivity issues. Vaudevillian perfection.

“Spanish Lesson” may not be as exciting as “I’m Going Bananas” (not a lot i,s though), but it joins it as one of a small handful of songs in The Queen of Pop’s repertoire that really puts her campy humor on full display.

Name: Steve Sears | Location: Washington, DC | Twitter: @xolondon

11. Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You: If you’re a traitorous stan like me, then you’ve dismissed Hard Candy as Timbaland piffle. But this charge cannot be leveled at the gorgeous “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You.” The track slinks onto the end of the album with insta-cred: it’s part of Madonna’s ongoing “brother-in-law series” of songs co-written with indie folkster Joe Henry (these include “Don’t Tell Me,” “Jump” and “Falling Free”).

Legend has it, they cooked up the “Devil” demo for M’s aborted Hello Suckers musical. Whatever it’s provenance, it’s an edgy down-tempo built on more than one classic Madonna melody. Even the overbearing Timbaland rises to the production challenge, packing this devil with details, like that gorge Justin-Timberlake-chanting-in-a-monastery bridge or the choppy I-do-I-I-I-do bits. Hard Candy haters can’t resist singing along to those parts. And it gets a special lucky star for the way M sings the word heart as “haharrt.” Such a pretty demon.

Name: Madonnarama.com (Zack & Ben) | Location: Paris, France & New York, NY | Twitter: @_madonnarama

12. Voices: Madonna’s most successful setting in pop has been somewhere between mystery and machine, slowly revealing the multiple facets of her personality yet simultaneously commanding our interest in her, by delivering huge hits.

With a heavy, moody mid-tempo beat, Madonna gives her ultimate candy confession on the urban dance floor with “Voices.” The song is a continuation of many of her favorite themes — sexuality, psychological tumult, lust, the sense of having lost control. She sings about sexual temptation, its impact on the relationship and the betrayed lover. A man pretends to be haunted by his demons, while he keeps hurting the woman he loves, using the excuse of having poor impulse control and giving into his weaknesses instead of identifying them and trying to improve on them.

Madonna describes the whole thing turning into a sick game, asking herself “Who is the master? Who is the slave?” She uses the metaphor of walking the dog when referring to the question of using your brain — or allowing your penis to control your actions.

“Voices” is a work of gorgeous melancholy, a hauntingly beautiful pop ballad with dark lyrics and heavy strings.

Interesting fact: Back in 2003/2004, Madonna wrote an entire soundtrack to a musical called Hello Suckers, but eventually decided she didn’t want to do it. Some lyrics from one of those tracks, “Is This Love (Bon D’Accord),” were later re-used for “Voices.”

What’s your favorite song on Madonna’s Hard Candy? Tell us in the comments, then sound off on Facebook and Twitter!