Madonna, "Hard Candy" (Warner Bros.)
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," her 11th studio album, comes down firmly on the side of the marketplace.
It opens with "Candy Shop," a Neptunes-produced track with some double-time heavy breathing. 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 Timbaland/Timberlake-produced ballads "Miles Away" and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," meditations about troubled long-term relationships. "She's Not Me," the CD's 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.
Perhaps "Hard Candy" is simply one last roar before Madonna, 49, mellows into the autumn of her years. But she already might be done with nostalgia. Her last album, the house music-warmed "Confessions," was as sweet as "Hard Candy" is lip-puckering.
ANN POWERS, LOS ANGELES TIMES
Raven-Symone, "Raven-Symone" (Hollywood)
Although she's a Disney Channel star, Raven-Symone will probably never release a sexy record to prove she's not a Mouseketeer -- the way Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears did to prove they were all grown up. Instead this 22-year-old seems to age in reverse. On her latest upbeat pop album, the former "Cosby" kid's voice is higher and more childlike than ever.
Having built her empire on the tween sitcom "That's So Raven," Raven-Symone is wise to work the angle that she's no different from any of her middle-school fans. But when the Clutch, Sean Garrett and other urban hit makers try to bring the Dirty South out of her, building beats around distorted synths and repetitive club hooks, Raven-Symone comes across as stiffly G-rated.
However, she sounds confident on the R&B tracks. "In My Skin" recalls early Janet Jackson. And mid-tempo ballads like "Hollywood Life" and "In the Pictures," about the loneliness of being a child star, seem heartfelt. They underscore that she still has a real-girl appeal -- and the right producers to bring it out of her.
MELISSA MAERZ, NEW YORK TIMES