(Warner Bros. Records)
Before "Hard Candy," her 11th studio album, due out Tuesday, Madonna had never before opened her legs for an album cover. Two decades ago, her patchouli-scented belly adorned the sleeve of the intimate "Like a Prayer," and in 2005 she showed a bit of derriere for the disco-nostalgic "Confessions on a Dance Floor." She's played with self-exposure in her scandalous 1992 book, "Sex," and in plenty of videos. But now the mistress of organized fantasy has put out, front and center.
Taken by her frequent collaborator Steven Klein (whose spread-eagle shots of Madge have appeared in magazines, including this month's "Interview," and art galleries), the photograph shows its subject sitting back like a fighter in a corner. She's corset-clad, wrestling belt around her waist, binding her hands with black tape. Her tongue registers more strongly than her half-closed eyes; her hair is styled in an androgynous pompadour. The background looks like cracked peppermint. She is Venus and Mars, the embodiment of sex as war.
"Hard Candy" is a coldly effective show of prowess that should yield several hit singles beyond the irresistible, nonsensical "4 Minutes," which has already topped charts internationally and inspired a viral video from upstart Miley Cyrus.
Madonna's pugilistic mood extended to her choice of collaborators -- the album's 12 cuts unfold as a battle between rival production teams the Neptunes and Timbaland-Timberlake, who established their reps (in part) by updating Madonna's style to suit Britney Spears and Nelly Furtado, and now have a field day trying similar tricks at the source.
As a lesson in the contemporary deployment of female allure -- and a survey of Madonna's career as an exhibitionist -- "Hard Candy" is powerful, precise and coldly revelatory. As an exploration of female sexuality at midlife, it's depressing.
Throughout her career, Madonna has explored the two poles of sex -- its transformation into a product and its potential to become the opposite, a liberating force beyond laws. "Hard Candy" comes down firmly on the side of the marketplace.
It opens with "Candy Shop," a Neptunes track that pops along on a conga beat and some double-time heavy breathing -- and where better to situate our predatory guide (go ahead, call her a "cougar," everyone else does) than in a store full of tempting treats? It's never a great idea to overanalyze Madonna lyrics, but any grade-schooler's mom might wonder at the song's reference to Turkish Delight, the stuff the White Witch uses to entrance the young Edmund in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
Right away, Madonna tinges her sweetness with menace and the will to win.
This ambivalence about desire extends throughout the disc, along with the distinct message that, when it comes to hotness, there's no extra room at the top. There are a few contemplative moments, notably the Tim-team produced ballads "Miles Away" and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," which set their meditations about troubled long-term relationships against thick layers of instrumentation and effects.
Yet for all their gossip-causing intimations about a marriage possibly gone a bit dry, Madonna seems oddly less involved on these tracks than she does on the album's more memorable, up-tempo muscle-flexors.
Among her co-writers, Neptunes member Pharrell Williams is best at helping her express her views of scarce happiness in a highly competitive world. His nervous energy and flair for the perverse add heat to songs that, on other Madonna outings, might have been dreamier -- even utopian. The pretty, freestyle swirl of "Heartbeat" ultimately turns on a narcissistic image: Madge the dancer as "the only one the light shines on."
"Incredible," one of several songs in which she mourns for tenderness lost, starts out wistful but then turns frantic, as her longing turns into a craving for a hookup.
"She's Not Me," the album's midpoint centerpiece, mixes a Rick James bass line and melody with the hand-clap beats of Prince's "Kiss," but it turns those excited expressions of male desire into a tale of women battling over a man.
"She doesn't have my name," says Madonna of her replacement -- an interesting choice, given the sacred connotations of her famous moniker. Yet Madonna doesn't take this comparison further; she misses the chance to suggest that sexual connection might be a matter of soulfulness as well as long legs and perfect hair. Instead, she offers a warning: Watch out for admirers who try to pimp your style.
These assertions of ownership counter the problem Madonna caused herself by choosing her producers this time out: They can't help but reference their work with younger female artists, since it followed Madonna's lead in the first place. It's incontestable, however, that artists like Furtado, Spears and Gwen Stefani wouldn't even own a map if not for their spiritual mother's years of intrepid journeying.
Perhaps "Hard Candy" is simply one last roar before Madonna mellows into the autumn of her years, reflecting upon all she's accomplished and throwing down wisdom instead of a gauntlet.
But even if she gets this latest fight out of her system, Madonna already might be done with nostalgia. Her last album, the house music-warmed "Confessions," was as sweet as "Hard Candy" is lip-puckering. Madonna knows better than anyone that looking backward is dangerous for pop stars, especially women. It can lead them into the most vicious competition of all -- with their younger selves.
Given this compulsion to keep moving, "Voices," the ballad that closes "Hard Candy," feels genuinely heartfelt. Intoning lyrics about dominance and submission over a Timbaland slinky movie-soundtrack groove, Madonna revisits the sexual underworld where she first daringly ventured more than a decade ago. She drags Timberlake along, which had to be fun for her -- imagine that alpha male under a whip! But the song's hard questions about commerce and control seem meant for the diva herself.
And who can blame her for getting a bit wistful, invoking the now somewhat dated language of master and servant? At least in that black leather underworld, it's always clear who's on top.