After the huge comeback with her retro-disco success Confessions on a Dance Floor, in true Madonna fashion, the Queen of Pop didn’t want to simply stay in her lane and reached out to another entirely new batch of co-writers, co-producers and high-profile collaborators for Hard Candy like Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and a pre-MAGA Kanye West with her most urban album since Bedtime Stories.
Hard Candy was her last contracted studio album with Warner Bros, which had been her home for 25 years. It became her 7th #1 album on the Billboard chart (2nd behind only Barbra Streisand for the most #1 albums by a female artist) although it signaled another downturn commercially, selling just 750K in the US, a pattern that she hasn’t been able to turn around with any of her famous comebacks since. It’s also the last studio album she’s generated any Grammy nominations from. But don’t cry for Madonna, it gave her the highest-grossing concert tour solo artist ever with the Sticky & Sweet tour. Madonna performed to over 3.5 million fans in 32 countries, grossing a total of US$408 million. The success of the single “4 Minutes” gave her her 37th Billboard Hot 100 top 10 single, breaking Elvis Presley’s record and giving her the crown alone (which she currently shares with Drake as of 2020).
The album dabbles in pop, dance, hip-hop and a handful of disco pieces that recall the Confessions era but the collaborations definitely signaled a willingness to work with other top artists in a way that she hadn’t for most of her career. Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams open or close many of the tracks on the record, giving it a very different feeling than any Madonna album that came before it. In a sense it diluted her work a bit but she still found great hits like “4 Minutes” as a result. It also highlighted her troubled marriage to Guy Ritchie, most especially in the song “Miles Away,” as she told The Daily Telegraph in 2009.
“Miles Away” is a song most people who work can relate to. If part of your work is travelling, and the person you are with also works and travels, you find yourself separated a lot and it can be very frustrating, […] I’m American and he [Guy Ritchie] is British, and I have to come to America all the time. […] Especially at the beginning of our relationship, that long-distance thing was very frustrating. I also think it’s easier for people to say things from a distance; it’s safer. In ‘Miles Away’ I’m tapping into the global consciousness of people who have intimacy problems.
In a conversation with Interview magazine she she revealed that most of the inspirations for the album were more personal, saying “…probably in many respects most of the songs [on Hard Candy] are [autobiographical]. But in more of an unconscious way. I don’t really think about telling personal stories when I’m writing music. It just comes. And then a lot of times, six months later, eight months later, I go, ‘Oh, that’s what I wrote that song about.’ But that’s when I play the song for lots of people and they all go, ‘Oh, I can totally relate to that.'”
EA: Hard Candy was such a strange flex after Confessions for me. I have a push/pull relationship with it as it feels like a lot of album and such a turn, employing a completely new lineup of co-writers and co-producers. I know that Madonna always says she doesn’t want to repeat herself and I respect that, but this album also marked a level of collaboration on songs that she really had largely kept at bay. Prince on “Love Song” and guesting on Britney’s “Me Against the Music” aside, she’s always just been herself and ahead of the curve. A lot of this album feels behind it and even a bit desperate. I hate to say that but even with a bunch of greats songs on this record it still kind of feels that way; like she gave in to something she had avoided for so long. Heading into the album with the first track, “Candy Shop” though…I will probably never like this song. I’ve tried. The beat is great and feels like a dance version of much of Bedtime Stories R&B (much of this album does) but the lyrics are just a flat metaphor for me.
AN: Hard Candy was jarring for fans, wasn’t it? After two very European albums that felt very queer in their world view, she came back with an album that felt both very American and the most hetero she’d ever been (all that Justin Timberlake). The thing is, I still like the album a lot, and it’s aged well for me. It was a hard one for me to come to terms with at the time, but as time passed, I’ve come to realize the songs are really very good, and she’s having fun on them. Candy Shop has become a little inside joke among Madonna fans because she performs it so often on tour, while beloved fan favorites remain off her setlists time and time again. But a true Madonna fan loves her for following her own path and doing whatever the she wants. And if she wants to perform “Candy Shop” on every tour, I’m personally all for it because I like it a lot. Double entendres, pop hooks, Madonna singing lyrics about Turkish delight. The end of the song, with Pharrell’s outro, speaks to what you talked about. I’m all for collaborations, and from “Love Song” to “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” to “Crave,” Madonna has released some gorgeous ones. But on this album, it feels like almost every track features a voice that isn’t hers, which makes the album feel less like a pure Madonna album than any other. But isn’t that what so many albums feel like these days? And this one’s influence can be felt all over the place (hi Sweetener!).
AN: The beat is fantastic, and while not a personal favorite, I get this song and its success. I’m a massive Timbaland fan, mostly from his work with Missy and Aaliyah (one of my favorites whose work isn’t available on streaming, which really saddens me because her imprint is all over modern music, and no one knows it). And I did like the album he did with Justin Timberlake. I’ve learned from working in Hollywood not to believe everything you read about celebrities, but some of the stuff out there about Justin regarding vaccinations is hard for me. My kids got whooping cough when they were too young to be vaccinated because of ignorant people who fight vaccines. Luckily, we were okay. Other children weren’t so lucky. If we all have 4 minutes to save the world, getting ourselves and our children vaccinated in those 4 minutes is not a bad idea. Anyway, it’s a good song, but not as good as a DTaP vaccine.
EA: Vaccinate your damn kids, people. It’s crazy we have to even say it. Regarding “4 Minutes,” I actually love the song and it’s a genuinely great collaboration. It’s especially funny though when you consider her collab with Britney and that MTV Video Music Awards kiss and Timberlake’s reaction shot. It’s great that it’s one of her thumpiest, bumpiest songs ever while keeping a lyrical focus on saving ourselves from environmental collapse. Madonna’s been mostly clever and shrewd about weaving her messages into her big, uptempo songs so they don’t feel too much like preachy lessons. That video too is aces. My only complaint is if you have a song called “4 Minutes” is should be four damn minutes. Not four minutes and four seconds!
EA: What a classic Madonna anthem. I hate that she’s constantly having to justify her career and longevity through her songs (“Don’t stop me now, no need to catch my breath, I can go on and on and on”) but at least it gives us some of her most firebrand work. I love this fucking song and it calls back songs like “Jump” and so many others that these self-manifests to keep pushing forward. The production on this record by The Neptunes is cool, spacy and trippy and I could dance to it all night.
AN: While I like the first two songs, I LOVE this one. I hear it as a new take on “Over & Over” and “Survival” and all those songs that explore themes of strength and resilience that nobody pulls off like Madonna. It’s both a statement of purpose for her, and a dance floor jam. It’s relentless and bold and the lyrics are classic Madonna. I listen to this song all the time. My kids love it too. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one I wish had connected with audiences and become the global smash it deserved to be. It fits perfectly on a playlist with her most beloved songs.
EA: Yes! I think, more than any song on this record, it can site alongside her biggest bops and feel right at home.
AN: Another favorite. The middle of this album is kind of flawless to me. Heartbeat sounds like Madonna revisiting her past, delivering an ode to the sound of the ‘80s. The theme of the dance floor as a place of liberation is one Madonna explores beautifully, and can speak to from a personal place. The idea of connecting the pulse of a dance floor to her heartbeat is very moving to me.
EA: You’re right, the middle of this album is pretty perfect. I love that with “Heartbeat” she maintains that she doesn’t want to go too deep, she just wants to dance. We know both are true but she’s letting us just let go and dance and not obsess over the overwhelmingness of everything. The only thing I pushback on this song is how much the ‘See my booty get down like’ section feels so much like Nelly Furtado or Fergie. It doesn’t sound like Madonna or feel much like her. But I do love that she’s again doing her own backing vocals on this. But it does also give us her moniker for this album, MDolla, which is…well, what it is.
EA: This is an all-timer for me. Musically it works in her love of Spanish music but in a way that isn’t bolded, underlined and italicized. It also allows her to play guitar again and she really always seems so happy when she does. But the song itself is incredibly prescient as she would end up divorcing Guy Ritchie just one month later. But you can read the tea leaves here in this song. I really felt this. Early in my relationship with my then boyfriend/now husband, he worked in New York City while I stayed out here in California. He was there for over a year and even though I would come out to visit him regularly it was very difficult. “You always have the biggest heart when we’re six thousand miles apart” was like a dagger in my heart because I always found it easier to be nicer and more romantic during this period than before and I couldn’t figure out why. Ultimately we’re still together 20 years later but it’s a song that’s stayed with me always.
AN: I agree with everything you just said. Absolutely stunning. Maybe the Timberlake collaborations were worth it if it gave us this song, which is a soaring Madonna ballad that feels at once classic and also shiny and new. The lyrics feel deeply personal for her, which is probably why so many of us can relate. When she writes from the heart, she allows us in to deal with our own issues through her music. So many of us can relate to the concept of long-distance relationships, or from the difficulties of being away from the person you love. But like you said, there’s a combination of sweetness and darkness here that really gets me, because it’s both very romantic and very sad. And the bridge – “too much of no sound, uncomfortable silence can be so loud” – is maybe the best moment on the record. It’s like time stops for a moment, and Madonna connects to something very deep inside herself to deliver that lyric. I really love this song.
EA: It makes so much sense as a collaboration with Timberlake who also would be sympathetic and empathetic to this scenario and having already having had a split from a very high profile relationship. I know I’m critical of the level of collaboration on this record but for this song it’s ideal.
AN: Another one I love. A disco homage with Donna Summer vibes. A Prince moment when they call out Wendy’s name. Lyrics that drip with both confidence and a hint of insecurity. It’s so much fun, and I loved it on the Sticky & Sweet tour, which hasn’t come up yet, but which was a blast.
EA: The “Wendy” moment, I live! I gotta say, I really love catty Madonna. “She’s Not Me” always gives me “Thief of Hearts” teas. She’s mad and she’s not making any secret about it. But yes, couched in deep disco and and that moment of spiraling down to silence only to build back up into the most vibrant part of the song is some real phoenix rising from the ashes, express yourself realness.
AN: Yeah, I really appreciate how long the song is. The second act of the song really brings me back to disco songs that revel in their mood. I love it.
EA: Speaking of long songs. The longest on the album at 6:20. It’s weird, I’m still unsure of how I feel about “Incredible.” I absolutely love her speak-singing with “It’s time to get your hands up, it’s time to get your body moving” but the rest is really jagged and jammed with too many ideas. It’s like five different songs and at this point I’m pretty much over Pharrell Williams on this record.
AN: This song has grown on me through the years. When I first heard it, I really didn’t get it. The stuttering beats and strange twists the song takes confused me. But it’s one of those songs that makes sense the more you hear it, and it feels like a really interesting exploration of her marriage. I may be wrong, but I think all the jagged and jammed ideas are meant to convey the roller coaster ride of a relationship shifting too quickly from loving to estranged. I also love experimental Madonna, and I like that she’s challenging her listeners to go to new places with this one.
EA: That rollercoaster takes makes a lot of sense and I can definitely see that. One thing our revisits have done is make me look at how I was feeling about her music at the time and how I reflect on it and sometimes it’s as jagged as this, pulling me in multiple directions.
AN: I really love this one too. One of my favorites on the record, and a song I turn to often. Kanye West is, like Madonna, a musical genius and a pop provocateur. I won’t speak to his personal life or hat choices, but his discography is stellar and he feels like a natural collaborator for Madonna, especially when this album was released. What they deliver together is rousing and fun, and I personally think it should’ve been a single. I think it could’ve been a major hit like “4 Minutes” if it had gotten a release.
EA: I’m definitely still on the other side as I was in 2008. I don’t like anything West does on this. He’s an unnatural fit here for me. His ‘voulez-vous’ breakdown is…not good. Anytime it’s just Madonna I love the song and how the title is so blatant. Sonny & Cher and The Whispers come to mind, obviously. It’s really interesting though, how many of the songs on this are deepish disco, but in a completely different style than the disco of Confessions. I definitely respect that level of not wanting to simply make Confessions Part 2.
EA: This song doesn’t have any right to be this good. It has four writers (a bunch of songs on this record do), which is a lot more than she’s used to. It’s got heteronormative lyrics, like you mention at the top of this conversation, but it’s so good. It’s only 2nd to “Give It 2 Me” in terms of pure dance vibes and funny that both feature a very Prince-style ‘2’ instead of ‘To.’ There’s even a diamonds and pearls reference! I remember listening to this for the first time and thinking “And we’ll hold hands tonight, hands tonight” was “And no more pants tonight, pants tonight” and I was ok, I can feel that.
AN: Ha, that’s a great read of the lyrics. I like this song a lot, but it’s not a standout for me like it is for you. I do love that chorus, and I love how weird it gets at the very end, and I love that both lyrically and musically, it feels like a Prince homage. It’s a very fun album track.
AN: Madonna says callate so I will callame.
EA: No quiero esta canción nunca. Próximo.
EA: Ok I’m into this, always have been. I love when she over-enunciates words sometimes (“waiting underneath the STARZ”). There are elements of this are weirdly prescient (sorry to use that word again) of “Dark Ballet” on Madame X. It’s fascinating that it’s the ‘oldest’ song on the record, having been workshopped for years. It’s so angry and so hurt but, as is with her best work about being burned, she presents it as a lesson to be learned and that she has. She never feels sorry for herself when she’s talking about failed relationships, only what she’s learned and possibly a warning for whomever may encounter her ex next.
AN: I love it too. I’m so glad you love this one. I’m always thrilled when Joe Henry is back on the songwriting credits. Maybe it’s ‘cause he’s her brother-in-law and I find that so moving. Or maybe it’s because the songs are just fucking good. There’s a poetry to the lyrics that exists in all her work with Henry, and it’s very evident here. It almost feels like the song they needed to write before “Falling Free. Here,” she’s burned, but she’s taking her lessons to the future with her.
EA: I wish her and Henry would write together more. I can’t wait to talk about “Falling Free,” lemme tell you.
AN: I mean, “Voices” is a very good song, but when compared to the closing tracks from her previous run of albums, it’s missing that element that ties up all of the themes she’s explored and gut punches you at the same time (hi “Take a Bow” and “Secret Garden” and “Easy Ride” and…) I like it, I just wish I loved it. I personally think “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” would’ve made a more powerful closer.
EA: Voices is…a song. How many on this record open with Timberlake speaking? Who’s album is this? We talk a lot about how great Madonna is at closing her albums but I’m with you, this feels like middle filler and isn’t the closer it should be. UNTIL the end. The ending has a finality to it that I actually love. It’s so operatic and BIG, and again, makes me think of “Dark Ballet.” I appreciate that, at least thematically, the last two songs divert from the disco and dance element significantly enough so that we know we’re entering a different realm of the record but I agree 100% that “Devil” would have been a stronger closer.
HARD CANDY by the numbers
- Released April 29, 2008
- Peaked at #1 on Billboard 200 album chart May 17, 2008
- Length: 56:13
- 751K US / 4M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “4 Minutes” (#3), “Give It 2 Me” (#57)
- Grammy nominations: Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (“4 Minutes”), Best Dance Recording (“Give It 2 Me”)