Friday, April 25, 2008

Madonna vs. Mariah: A Diva Smackdown!

So by now many of you have heard that two of pop's biggest musical powerhouses, Madonna and Mariah Carey, are releasing albums a week apart from each other. Mariah's E=MC2 dropped last Tuesday, and this coming Tuesday, Madonna's long-awaited Hard Candy finally makes its debut. According to the media, these two women have been engaged in a feud for years, though both deny such rumors. Still, there is something a little aggressive about putting records out at the same time. Healthy competition? Perhaps. But no matter what their intentions, this is one war of the divas that will signify just how the times are shaping up for both of these talented ladies.

Being the connected media whore that I am, I managed to wrangle an advance copy of Madonna's CD, and so I'm going to give you my input on this exciting musical smackdown.


Without a doubt, expectations for Mariah's follow-up to The
were high. That record, a huge seller for her in 2005, put her back on the map after an extended period in which we saw her have a breakdown, bomb with both the film and soundtrack for Glitter, and get dropped from her contact with Virgin Records. But rather than take it all lying down, Mimi hooked up with some powerhouse producers and released her most successful album ever. With hit singles like "We Belong Together," "Shake It Off" and "Say Somethin'," Mariah managed to get herself in the good graces of her fans again, and she's been riding high ever since. So it's no surprise that E=MC2 is a bit more of the same. Recruiting a virtual Who's Who of today's most sought-after producers (including Tricky, Jermaine Dupri, DJ Toomp, Stargate, Will I Am, Bryan Michael Cox, Nate "Danjahandz" Hills and James Poyser), Mimi again lets loose with another street-fused collection of winning R&B pop songs. The first single, the addictive "Touch My Body," has already shot to No. 1, and follow-ups, like the club thumper "Migrate" (featuring T. Pain) and the reggae-tinged "Cruise Control" (with guest star Damian Marley), will undoubtedly follow in that single's footsteps. There's a huge No. 1 ballad in the gorgeous "I Stay in Love," not to mention the equally smooth "Love Story." These aren't the melodramatic, over-the-top chart-toppers of Mimi's past; here, it's almost as if she's truly investing herself in the new songs, singing as if she's really been there. Nowhere is that more true than on the brilliant "Side Effects," featuring Young Jeezy on guest rap. This song finds Mimi singing of an abusive relationship, and the driving pulse of the song only drives its tale of domestic woe home all the harder. Lighthearted gems like "I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time" and "I'm That Chick" show that Mariah hasn't given up her silly side, while "Last Kiss" and "Bye Bye" are another couple ballads that round the disc out. The only weak link, to this reviewer, is the album's closer, "I Wish You Well," an overly schmaltzy track that should have been left off. Other than that, Mimi truly delivers with E=MC2. In many ways, this is an even stronger disc than Emancipation. This time out, Mariah doesn't sound like she has anything to prove. She's just getting down to basics and belting out some authentic jams that will make any self-respecting fan of smooth grooves want to boogie down. In fact, I'm dancing as I write this. Grade: A-


For those who don't already know this, I am what you call a Madonna fanatic. I've loved the woman since I was 14 years old. I've basked in her glory for over half my life, always inspired by her openness about her sexuality, her forthrightness when discussing pressing social issues (like gay rights-- thank you, girl!) and her sheer drive and determination. She's got in goin' ON--even at 49. (And for those who can't seem to stop pointing out her age, SHAME ON YOU! Thank God for someone like Madonna who tells you where you can stick your stupid ageist beliefs and who plays by her own rules.) Her vastly underrated 2003 record American Life was a commercial "flop" (fans weren't ready for a folksinging Madonna), while 2005's follow-up, the critically lauded Confessions On a Dance Floor, didn't fare much better in terms of sales (though the accompanying tour was, of course, the most successful tour of the year, thank you very much). It seems Madonna has been struggling to find the balance between artistic freedom and relevance for the past few years, and--like Mariah before her--was "in need" of a big hit to put her back on top. That hit could very well come from Hard Candy, her 10th studio recording. But this time out, Madonna ditched the innovative underground spinmeisters (like William Orbit and Mirwais) who helped define her sound on the last several records and sought out the hitmakers of today: Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Nate "Danja" Hills, the Neptunes, and Pharrell Williams. For some, this will come off as an act of desperation. But is it? Madonna has always been one to latch onto trends. The only difference is that in the past, she set her sights on stuff that was taking place in the fringes of society, whether it was in the thrift shops she frequented while making her way up the ladder in New York, bringing "voguing" to the masses, or popularizing "crumping" on the Confessions Tour. Here she embraces a fully formed trend, jumping merrily on the bandwagon. In some ways, this is shocking: Madonna has, in fact, been widely known for having full control over her image, from her look to her sound. And here she is, gleefully surrendering to the talents of a bunch of guys who have the power to make anyone over (see: Nelly Furtado, Duran Duran, et al ad nauseam). The results are a mixed lot, though not so much in terms of the music itself. As far as that goes, this is a stellar record, chock-full of potential No. 1 singles that Madonna hasn't churned out in years. From the driving marching-band pulse of first single "4 Minutes" (already shooting up to No. 3 with a bullet) to the peppy "Give It to Me" right down to Timberlake's "What Goes Around" knock-off, "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," Hard Candy is one of Madonna's most pleasurable albums ever. The problem is that it's not really a Madonna record, per se. On one hand, one can only imagine that Her Highness experienced a bit of a personal breakthrough by letting someone else sit in her driver's seat. Kudos to her. But on the other hand, Hard Candy is a better showcase for the talents of her various producers than it is for Madonna's creative vision. Where is the woman who spearheaded transformative singles like "Like a Prayer" and "Papa Don't Preach"? Here she happily gives it up to a bunch of merry pranksters who reinvent her as a hip-hop queen. Much of it works, of course. Madonna is certainly versatile enough that she can tackle any endeavor and usually come out on top (we'll forget about some of her movies and that embarrassing Erotica album). Her she gamely makes her way through a series of tracks that would sound right at home on Furtado's next record. Other highlights include the lovely "Miles Away" (which finds her lamenting "You always have the biggest heart/When we're 6,000 miles apart"), the effervescent "She's Not Me" (on which she defends herself against another vamp who's encroaching on her territory) and "Dance 2Night" (a jubilant number recalling Timberlake's Duran Duran collaboration "Nite Runner" that has Madge once again espousing the pleasures of getting down on the dance floor. Go figure.) "Heartbeat" is a club thumper of the highest order (and one of, um, three tracks on the record that shares the same message as "Dance 2Night"), and "Beat Goes On" (which features a rap cameo by Kanye West) is pure musical sugar, going down as smoothly as anything she's recorded in this vein ("Lucky Star," "Material Girl") before. (It's certainly a step up from the near-awful leaked version of the song that turned up on the 'Net last year. Thank God.) The title track is willfully vapid, but it's not terrible. I wish I could say the same about "Spanish Lesson," one of Madge's most self-conscious album tracks ever. Here, she gives her listeners exactly what the title suggests, filling us in on how to say any number of sayings in her second favorite language. Apart from the occasional misstep, Hard Candy is a pure delight from start to finish, but one can't help but wish that there was more of Madonna's influence present. There's very little--apart from "Give It to Me"--that signifies that this is a Madonna record. Honestly, these songs could have been recorded by any number of today's hottest talents. It's great that Madonna can let go every now and surrender some of that control, but when her personality is subjugated to the talents of others, something is amiss. My grade? As a showcase for her producers: A. As a Madonna record: B.

So who's the winner of this showdown? Well, anyone who knows me knows where my loyalties lie, but from an objective opinion, I'd say these ladies are evenly matched this time out. Mimi has the edge with her effortless mix of old-skool R&B and new-skool street music, but Madonna's got Timbaland and Timberlake in her corner. Mimi's record will probably sell more copies, but Madonna's tour will no doubt be another monster this summer. So I'm calling this one a draw. I can do that; it's my blog. :)


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