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HARD CANDY

Madonna

Warner Bros.

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***½

Of all the adjectives that have been applied to Madonna (and you could probably fill a book with them), "sweet" would not be high on the list, if it appeared at all. Smart, strong, sexy, scary - sure. But it's easier to imagine her being considered cute and cuddly than to imagine Madonna being called sweet. It just doesn't compute.

You can bet, however, that she dubbed her new disc Hard Candy precisely because of the heavy cognitive dissonance the association with sweetness would produce. Madonna is nothing if not a master of image manipulation, and the album cover alone is enough to keep a team of semioticians busy for weeks.

There she is, superimposed over an image of a pink-and-white all-day sucker, with bobbed blond hair and eye-widening mascara, dressed in thigh-high, lace-up black books and a black teddy, with a championship wrestling belt reading "Give It To Me" and a knuckle-spanning pimp ring. Stamped across the picture, in cheap blue-and-white lettering worthy of a seventies porn flick, are the words Hard Candy.

It's naughty, provocative and funny, yet presented with a fierceness that seems to undercut any promise of pleasure. And that seems strange, because the music itself is all about pleasure.

Working with Timbaland and the Neptunes, two of the hottest dance-pop brands in the business, she's assembled an album chock full of infectious beats and luscious ear candy, from the sinuous percussion and snaky Orientalia of Candy Shop to the synthetic brass and soundtrack pomp of 4 Minutes. It's hard to imagine the pop fan who wouldn't be snared by its aural allure.

To some extent, the album's musical smarts seem a bit like muscle-flexing, as if Madonna wanted to remind us just how potent a pop star she is. What has kept her in the headlines recently hasn't been her music so much as her home life (particularly her adoption of a Malawian boy) and spiritual interests (especially her devotion to Kabbalah). Not only was it beginning to seem as if Madonna was turning into just another celebrity, but she seemed to be losing her status as music's No. 1 pop tart to a host of younger vixens, from Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears to Nelly Furtado and Rihanna.

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But Madonna is hardly ready to retire her bustier, and she takes a few well-placed swipes at the competition with the slyly titled She's Not Me. Although the lyric is couched in terms of a woman trying to keep her man from being stolen away, it's easy enough to read the song as an accept-no-substitutes warning from Madonna to her audience. After all, there are more than a few pop starlets who could plead guilty to this couplet: "She started dying her hair and wearing the same perfume as me/ She started reading my books and stealing my looks and lingerie."

That she delivers such lines in a perfect deadpan only adds to the effect. There's a dizzying post-ironic sensibility at work here, with Madonna taking pop's most obvious conventions - music can save the world ( 4 Minutes), dancing is like sex ( Dance 2Night), sex is like candy ( Candy Shop) - and turning them inside out, so we can see the clockwork ticking away. The album wants us to embrace those conventions even as it demystifies them, to simultaneously enjoy and see through them.

With Hard Candy Madonna wants to have her pop and eat it too. She has given us an album that is both deeply intellectual and mindlessly enjoyable, and slyly insinuating on both counts. Frankly, all I can say is . . . sweet!

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