Queen of Pop's new avatar is a sugar-coated pill



Does she or doesn't she have a date with Dubai is the big question? The UK press have had their say about Madonna's two-concert gig scheduled for our shores later this year.

Facebook.com has gone a step further and pencilled it in for November 1 at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium (which is not even in Dubai). The local arm of Live Nation has yet to release a date.

So where does that leave us, her most ardent fans? Probably holding the latest copy of her 11th studio CD, Hard Candy, with hopes to learn the lyrics fast enough lest Madonna's concert miraculously materialises.

For her latest album, this one-time Queen of Pop has adopted a new avatar, one that makes her the latest Queen of Sleaze in the music business. If you were in any doubt, take a look-see at her pout on Hard Candy's cover.

The 49-year-old is back in black Lycra, boxing belt firmly buckled. She reckons the world's sweet tooth for catchy disco tunes will add to her 200 million-plus sales.

In a way, we do believe her confidence. Madonna's chosen to groove through the question of whether she's past her sell-by date on this midlife album. She doesn't need a forget-your-age cover to scream disco-diva dominance. The most important thing is still the music. This is a 2008 take on an old-fashioned dance album.

With opening track Candy Shop, she pushes the candy metaphor to its very limit, and it's somewhat of a relief when it finally ends.

Madonna has often employed little-known producers such as John "Jellybean" Benitez, Mirwais (Ahmadzai), Shep Pettibone and Stuart Price. This time she brings in the big guns: the Neptunes, Timbaland, and Justin Timberlake, who ask in Voices: "Who is the master? Who is the slave?" If only 4 minutes could've been just as good. Sigh.

The singer has clearly maintained artistic control, with all these studio masters. Just occasionally their beats overwhelm her pop tunes and the music sounds uncomfortably like their work with Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears or Nelly Furtado. That's not good when some of the ideas were first cloned from Madonna herself, who sees herself as superior to all younger pretenders.

The album is still unmistakably Madonna's. It has echoes of Confessions on a Dancefloor, again with functional titles such as Dance 2night. It's more consistent than that last unpretentious disco party and she's got more than one sort of candy in store. There are some great moments, such as when Kanye West pops up to fire off a rap in the middle of The Beat Goes On. This track leaked onto the internet last year with only Pharrell Williams and Madonna.

This polished-up production will definitely be all the rage soon. The most insidious beats come on Give It 2 Me. The track revs up with spurts of synthesiser as Madonna intones: "When the lights go down and there's no one left, I can go on and on and on." It's a signal that her musical candy store will be open for business for a long time yet. Rejoice – or be afraid, be very afraid, as the case may be.

HARD CANDY, by Madonna. Available at all leading stores. Dh60.