Madonna’s last great album was “Ray of Light,” a decade ago. Her last near-great album was “Music” in 2000. Ever since then, she’s been sort of fumbling around. 2003′s “American Life” found her awkwardly musing about everything from society to religious practices. In the title track, she attempted to rap. It served as perhaps the most embarrassing moment of her career. ”Confessions on a Dance Floor” in 2005, probably pleased the segment of her fan-base that enjoys club music, but that album’s seamless progression and “pre-remixed” effect, drowned most of the disc’s’ lasting effect out, thus for the most part, making it almost a misfire. So Madonna needs a really good album right now to put her back on top. She has an undeniable and undisputed, well-earned and deserved pop legacy, and she is now a new member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but she could always use another all-out classic. It is perhaps for this reason that her new album “Hard Candy” screams, “this is a sell-out record,” throughout its 12 tracks. It is after all her last album for Warner Brothers before her new Live Nation deal takes effect and removes her from the major-label system. She obviously wanted to go out with a bang. Here she is working with two of the biggest hit names in pop production today. Roughly half the album is produced by the Neptunes, while the other half is produced by Timbaland with assistance from Justin Timberlake. Madonna working with Timberlake is a sad sign to me. She’s better than that. I have actually never understood his appeal to be honest. (I was also disappointed when Duran Duran chose to work with him on their last album, “Red Carpet Massacre.”) All I see is a scrawny kid doing a so-so, somewhat sleazy Michael Jackson impression. Madonna, on the other hand is an original. It’s hard to really compare her to anyone else in the pop world before her, so it’s bothersome to hear Madonna and Timberlake trading verses on the single “4 Minutes.” Thanks also to Timberlake’s jarring speech at Madonna’s Rock Hall Induction ceremony, it’s also hard to listen the track without thinking of B-12 shots in questionable places! So, as omni-present as that single certainly is right now, and as much hit potential as it may have, it is overshadowed by Timberlake’s presence. Not only that, but you could argue that Timberlake has also sucked all the edginess out of Timbaland. About a decade ago, Timbaland was one of the most forward-thinking and progressive producers in hip-hop and pop. His work with Missy Elliott and the late singer Aaliyah was at times downright astounding, simply because he was incorporating all kinds of near trip-hop elements into songs which were actually getting pop-radio play. I miss that side of Timbaland. Now all I see is a sidekick to Timberlake, (and the guy who ruined…er, “reinvented” Nelly Furtado.) I listen to Timbaland’s current work and it makes me long for something more exciting. Sure, every now and again, he gets a rare opportunity to show his old self, as he did with recent quality collaborations with Bjork and M.I.A., but that side of him is not on display enough. He should have given Madonna the edgier Bjork/M.I.A. treatment. Her legacy deserves that, but instead he treats her like a random “pop-star,” giving her the Furtado/Timberlake treatment. Madonna can handle edge. He should’ve given her more to play with. Consider the fact that she recorded “Ray of Light” with ambient-wizard, William Orbit, who wasn’t exactly known for pop albums. Consider “Miles Away” on which Timbaland gives Madonna a rather standard flamenco-esque acoustic guitar part to sing over. She does decently with it, but that’s because, she is Madonna after all, but as modern pop-songs go, this is rather standard, boilerplate material. He tries on “Dance 2Night” but again Timberlake is there to spoil the party. If Madonna was singing alone, the track’s sunny, semi-low-key pseudo-disco groove would be reminiscent of “Holiday,” but there’s a small damper bringing it down from the moment Timberlake subtly says at the start in a somewhat surly whisper “Hey Madonna, I’m takin’ you to the club.” (Oh, are you now? Thanks man, you just ruined a perfectly promising bass-line. This is a Madonna album, not a Timberlake album, and it’s likely that many of her longtime fans would be just as troubled by his seemingly never-ending presence as I am.) As usual, Madonna pulls the track off, despite Timberlake. The team has somewhat more success on the softer “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You.” It’s the perfect mid-tempo piece for Madonna, and the best Timbaland/Timberlake track. Similarly, the record’s closer, “Voices” works, powered by a propelling, though somewhat standard beat. Again, it would be better without Timberlake’s background vocals. For the most part, the Neptunes have more success. Like Timbaland, the production duo of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams have two sides. There are the records they churn out to make an easy buck, (Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Madonna-wanna-be Gwen Stefani) and there are their more respectable experimental records (Kelis’ first album, Hugo’s work with Kenna, and their rock band N*E*R*D*) Again, like Timbaland, the Neptunes short-change Madonna and take few chances, and to too many tracks have that standard Neptunes beat, but they are still well constructed. Like Timberlake, Pharrell insists on taking the mic and singing backup, but he his inclusion is more of a production signature than an intrusion. “Candy Shop” sports the sort of skuzzy funk that the Neptunes have perfected, complete with winkingly cheesy synth-line accents. “Give It 2 Me” is somewhat forgettable until it takes a nice u-turn mid-song and gives us some inspired and strange bell sounds. If only the song had more of that energy. On “She’s Not Me” the team gives Madonna a nice disco funk to work. Does it sustain its appeal for six minutes? Not quite, but for a good four or so it works. “Incredible” is a little too busy and not all that catchy. It also is too long. For at least a while though, its dizzying quality could be seen as almost interesting. “The Beat Goes On” is a standard booty-shaking disco number. Again, it’s sort of forgettable, but Pharrell and Madonna do have some nice vocal interplay, and it has a nice surprise guest appearance by Kanye West. When West hits the mic, it’s like a much-needed wake-up call. Remember what I said about “Miles Away?” On “Spanish Lesson,” the Neptunes deliver their own flamenco-style groove, but this one is much more peppy and thrilling. It’s a standout track. Throughout “Hard Candy” Madonna and her producers take us on a mildly satisfying romp through pop-land, but the album is short on classics. There is one hit standout, however, which towers greatly over the rest of the disc. Madonna has a history of putting great tunes on otherwise weak albums. Think about what a breath of fresh air “Hollywood” was on “American Life” or “Rain” on “Erotica.” “Heartbeat” continues that trend. It’s a Neptunes track, but it is glorious and stacks up well next to classic songs of the past. If it isn’t eventually a single, than it’s a missed chance at another hit. Sure, “Hard Candy” is Madonna’s best album since “Music.” That isn’t really saying much. It’s enjoyable but as a whole, it doesn’t even come close to her eighties hey-day or even most of her nineties work. She took the easy route and made the poppiest of records when she should be doing so much more. At this point in her career, she should be taking chances. I’d like to see what she’d do if she made a record with the Dust Brothers, or Mark Ronson, or even someone as avant-guard as Tricky. She was headed in that direction by working with William Orbit, but then decided to reclaim her pop roots. It’s a path I hope she still someday explores. “Hard Candy” definitely has its weaknesses, but after all these years, Madonna is still a star. Her voice is surprisingly clear and not digitally altered throughout. It’s refreshing. Pop music is in a very bad place right now. Even when her producers let her down and underestimate her, Madonna can still show everyone how it’s done.