The pop queens are releasing new albums within weeks of one another -- and they're smashing records in the process. Will Mariah's ''E=MC2'' or Madonna's ''Hard Candy'' end up with the edge?
Madonna, Mariah Carey
Credit: Toru Hanai/Reuters/Landov; Anthony Harvey/AP

Paris vs. Nicole. Lauren vs. Heidi. Serena vs. Blair. They’re all teeny-tiny rivalries compared with the showdown that’s about to erupt between Mariah Carey and Madonna. The pop divas, who have reportedly had a brittle relationship for years, are releasing albums within weeks of each other this month — Carey’s E=MC2 arrives on Tuesday, while Madonna’s Hard Candy hits shelves on April 29.

Carey is attempting to duplicate the success of 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, which sold a whopping 5.8 million copies and was her biggest hit in years after a very public breakdown. Hard Candy, meanwhile, marks the last album of new material that Madonna will make for longtime label Warner Bros. before she embarks on a groundbreaking $120 million deal with concert promoter Live Nation. ”I expect Mariah’s record to be one of the biggest records of the year,” predicts Billboard senior analyst Geoff Mayfield. ”You kind of have to wait with Madonna, but the single’s very accessible.”

So far, both women show no signs of slacking off. Carey’s catchy (if underwhelming) first single, ”Touch My Body,” zoomed to No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, unseating diva-in-training Leona Lewis’ ”Bleeding Love” and making her second only to the Beatles for the most No. 1 hits ever on the chart. ”Mariah reinvigorated the younger demo [with Mimi],” says John Ivey, program director for KIIS-FM in L.A. ”She has all these kids that now think she’s relevant again.” Madonna is working the same strategy, by including Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on her newest single, ”4 Minutes.” (The duo wrote and produced numerous tracks on Candy.) ”The smartest thing she could have done is to have Tim and Justin on the record,” says Ivey. ”The interesting thing too is that the first cut I heard was a lot more Madonna. The single is a lot less Madonna. The part that sticks in your head, truthfully, is Justin’s.” Either way, it’s paying off: At press time, ”4 Minutes” was No. 3 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, her highest-charting single since 2000’s ”Music.” The song helped nudge her past Elvis Presley to become the artist with the most top 10 singles ever. Still, if you’re scoring at home, the first round goes to Mariah.

The true trump card may be the critical reaction. Madonna’s Candy, with its hip-hop bent and collaborations with Pharrell Williams, Timberlake, and Timbaland, seems to encroach on Mariah’s usual territory. It’s a risk, but the uptempo album could be the most mainstream and accessible that Madonna has released in years. Meanwhile, EW has heard E=MC2 (see the EW review) and can attest that it’s a worthy successor to Mimi that will push Glitter even further from our memory.