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LONDON (Reuters) - As parting gifts go, Madonna's 11th studio album -- and her last before she exits long-term record label Warner Bros. -- is unusually generous, if early reviews are to be believed.
Released internationally this week, and hitting U.S. stores on Tuesday, "Hard Candy" scored solidly among rock critics, although much of the credit, or blame, they said, should go to the established hit-makers with whom she collaborated.
The dance sounds, with hip-hop influence, see Madonna return to her roots and shed the weighty issues for which she regularly campaigns. And by working with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, she puts safety first.
"It's surprising that her 11th studio album ... is an act of submission," wrote Caryn Ganz of the Rolling Stone music magazine, giving "Hard Candy" four stars out of a possible five. "For 'Hard Candy,' Madonna's midlife meditation on her own relevance, she lets top-shelf producers make her their plaything."
The Independent newspaper's Andy Gill, in a three-star review, argues that Madonna, who turns 50 this year, aims to satisfy "the sweet tooth of functional dance-pop.
"Why else would she turn to off-the-peg hit-machines The Neptunes, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, after such success with more adventurous producers like Mirwais, William Orbit and Stuart Price?"
Alexis Petridis, in a three-star rating for the Guardian, calls Timberlake's involvement in "Hard Candy" a "mixed blessing," with the familiar sounds from his last album "FutureSex/LoveSounds" "less startling (the) second time around."
He also slammed Madonna's lyrics, including a line from "Dance 2night": "You don't have to be rich and famous to be good."
But Petridis argued that production duo The Neptunes, including Williams, "ride to 'Hard Candy's' rescue," highlighting songs such as "Incredible," "Give It 2 Me" and "She's Not Me."
Jon Pareles of the New York Times believed Warner, with which Madonna has worked for 25 years, would be more than happy with the record.
"It doesn't burn bridges with her major label -- just the opposite," he wrote. "It's the kind of album a record company longs for in the current embattled market: a set of catchy, easily digestible, mass-appeal songs by a star who's not taking chances."
Madonna, one of the world's biggest-selling artists, ditched Warner Bros. last year and signed a 10-year deal, including a three-album commitment, with concert touring company Live Nation believed to be worth $120 million.
The agreement was an example of the so-called "360-degree deal" that has become increasingly popular in a music business struggling to make money just from selling records.
The "360-degree" deals typically involve publishing, touring, merchandising and digital rights, as well as recording.
The first single from Madonna's album, "4 Minutes" (featuring Justin Timberlake), went to No. 1 in the British singles charts and peaked at No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 listing.