Hard Candy

Dominance isn't just a fetish for Madonna, it's her religion. It's no accident that she opened each show on 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor tour by clenching a riding crop in her hand, jerking a gagged male dancer around by a leather leash. And she never puts down the whip: Since 1986's True Blue, Madonna has claimed writing or production credits on every one of her songs, even when she worked with dance-music artists such as William Orbit, Mirwais Ahmadzaï and Stuart Price. So it's surprising that her eleventh studio album — her final one for longtime label Warner Bros. — is an act of submission. For Hard Candy, Madonna's midlife meditation on her own relevance, she lets top-shelf producers make her their plaything.

A songwriting team of American chart royalty helps Madonna revisit her roots as an urban-disco queen. Madonna isn't even the star on the first single, "4 Minutes": Timbaland and Nate "Danja" Hills provide a clanging whopper of a beat,and her vocal bobs alongside Justin Timberlake's, fighting not to drown in the brassy funk of a marching band. Timberlake is the album's melody doctor, and he steals from his own broody "What Goes Around . . . Comes Around" on Madonna's "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You." Madonna co-wrote but didn't co-produce the Timberlake-Timbaland team's five songs, which smack more of their creators' stamps than her own. The songs are solid,but slightly anonymous, as though they could be stripped down and peddled to other singers.

The creative tension between Madonna and the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams crackles. Williams bangs on paint cans to generate the beat on the innuendo-laden opener, "Candy Shop", and pumps up the thumpy self-empowerment anthem "Give It 2 Me" with clubby synths that trumpet one of Madonna's favorite life-dance-sex metaphors:"Don't stop me now, don't need to catch my breath/I can go on and on.""Heartbeat" pulses like "Lucky Star," and the soulful "Beat Goes On"(which features an uninspired Kanye West cameo) is one of a handful of tracks with bells and whistles — the classic disco "toot-toot,beep-beep" — traceable to two of Madonna's touchstones: Chic,whose Nile Rodgers helped steer her early career, and Donna Summer.

Like Confessions, Hard Candy celebrates dance as salvation, but even the euphorically groovy "Heartbeat" and "Dance2night" strike wistful notes. Although the uptempo set features no ballads, the dominant lyrical themes — regret, yearning, distrust — are far from upbeat. Morphing from a syncopated shuffle into a lathery, orgasmic hysteria, Pharrell's "Incredible" is a challenging song about longing for a relationship's idyllic beginning. There's a melancholy pining in Timbaland-Timberlake's lush "Miles Away," which implies that all is not peachy in the house of Richie. "You always have the biggest heart when we're 6,000 miles apart," Madonna sings.International pop megastars — they're just like us!

The album's weakest moment is its most emotionally vapid. Madonna dips into Español for the painfully literal "Spanish Lesson." She has said the music was inspired by a Baltimore dance called the Percolator but seems more indebted to Timberlake'­s fast-strummed "Like I Love You." Fortunately, there's also the bass-popping retro-boogie "She's Not Me,"where Madonna imagines her lovers feeling buyers' remorse for being seduced by a copycat who "doesn't have my name." The offender who's"reading my books and stealing my looks and lingerie" could be any young pop starlet. But it also seems like an oddly timed barb at Madonna's now-fallen successor, Britney Spears, who has teamed up with many of the guys on Hard Candy — Pharrell, Danja and (ahem) Timberlake — and Madonna herself.

Madonna can still scoff at wanna-be's half her age because she's stayed so flexible with her sound. (She's performed a similar feat with her body, devoting herself to a yoga regimen that's made her impossibly elastic — name another near-fifty-year-old who can still rock a hot crotch shot on her album cover.) Even when she wrestles with Pharrell's abrupt stylistic changes or lets herself get absorbed in a Timberlake melody, Madonna still finds her way back on top. The atmospheric closing track, "Voices," poses the question "Who is the master, who is the slave?" before its operatic wind-down ends in a dramatic bell toll. The answer to both questions is still Madonna.