Hard Candy is a serviceable and sometimes very good pop album that also happens to be a confusing and even dismal Madonna album. Some of that answers to simple math: Amid forceful guest spots by Justin Timberlake and Kanye West and self-identifying moves by producers Pharrell Williams and Timbaland, Madonna spends a lot of time in hiding. She's the third-most prominent entity in the single "4 Minutes," behind an eager-to-please Timberlake and a warped marching-band beat by Timbaland, and long spells of simply forgetting about Madonna as a factor on her own album are the norm more than an exception.
That wouldn't have to be a problem if so many of Madonna's own moments didn't cast her absence as a better alternative. In a rash of club songs angled toward recapturing the sleekness of her early years, Madonna sounds strangely out of place—like a hostage reading into a camera more than a creature of the dancefloor. When she sings "I've never felt so free" in the otherwise stirring "Heartbeat," it's so flat and forced that you can't help but think Madonna might be trying to communicate something below the surface. But she doesn't earn the same benefit of the doubt in other vocal voids ("Candy Shop," "Spanish Lesson"), and the truth is that Hard Candy is a much better album on the surface than beneath it. Songs like the cyclonic carnival ride "Give It 2 Me" and the sun-dappled twilight disco ode "Dance 2night" rate as hits-in-waiting. It's just a mystery how Madonna was meant to fit into them.