Madonna has been around for a while. Over 30 years, in fact. We’re not talking about Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. We’re talking about MADONNA: the pop star, the celebrity, the icon, the example of everything that’s right about pop culture or everything that’s wrong about it depending on which side of the debate you fall under. Nobody is more aware of this fact than Madonna herself, a theme she constantly revisits on her 13th studio album, Rebel Heart.
Coincidentally, she is also quite tired of your bullshit.
The album starts off with the lead single, “Living For Love,” a dance floor anthem surrounded by gospel choirs and rapturous piano. It’s a great song, playing both to Madonna’s club-kid roots and to the pop audiences that made her famous. However, it’s a bit of a fake-out, as the rest of the album quickly slides into a mix of mid-tempo electronica, urban radio and Europop. While the other songs never reach the pure high of “Living,” it also reveals a different kind of Madonna than the ones we’ve seen on previous albums. She’s honest but not truly vulnerable, and she’s the most fully self-aware that she’s been since 1998’s Ray Of Light (which still stands as her creative peak).
Madonna worked with a small army of producers and writers, including Diplo, Avicii, MoZella and Kanye West. It’s actually quite impressive how she was able to forget such a consistent sonic palette and direction in an album largely composed by committee (no song has fewer than 3 writers, most have 4 or 5). The sounds are often intentionally over-processed (especially kick drums), and Madonna is not shy about using Auto-Tune, although songs like the sublime “Joan Of Arc” prove that she doesn’t need it. The lo-fi vibe gives the album a solid ground to thrive, giving the songs at least the sheen of authenticity, such as “S.E.X.,” which reads as mechanically erotic on purpose.
Most of the songs swagger on a groove composed of widely varying instruments and styles, but it never comes off as haphazard. Acoustic guitars and highly sequenced vocals exist in harmony on “Devil Pray,” while a pop ballad meets an industrial production in “Ghosttown.” Unlike Music, which also jumped styles with abandon, Rebel Heart feels far more coherent and thought-out. The reggae jam “Unapologetic Bitch” fits well with the orchestral “Messiah” and the of-the-moment rave/pop of “Hold Tight.” Madonna actually manages to sound like she’s genuinely having fun on “Body Shop,” which comes off as the quirky, winking pop of Marina and the Diamonds married to the bouncing vocal melodies and everyday-life-as-metaphor of Utada Hikaru.
One of the most interesting parts of the album, however, is a kind of omnipresent (albeit refreshing) self-awareness. More so than any other album, Madonna references herself and her body of work as one and the same, fully integrating herself as a person with herself as an icon and claiming dominion over her identity. It’s most obvious on the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Bitch I’m Madonna.” “Veni Vidi Vici” contains lyrics referencing her biggest hits and even says “I Conquered” right in the title. The endearingly absurd “Holy Water” straight-up samples the rap from “Vogue.” Madonna’s also not afraid to use her status as a weapon, even while she takes the piss out of her own image, like in the dark and hypnotic “Illuminati.” That track was appropriately enough produced by Kanye West, a man who similarly cannot be separated from his work.
The approach doesn’t always work. “Iconic” constantly builds momentum but never really hits a peak, and it’s undone by an extended sample of a Mike Tyson speech, who’s “iconic” for reasons unrelated to his skill as a boxer. “HeartBreakCity” builds around a simple structure and vocal, but it sounds more like a b-side to the far, far superior and thematically simpatico and sonically more diverse “Ghosttown.” The otherwise pleasant “Wash All Over Me” is marked by some unfortunate choices in phrasing by Madonna herself, even while her vocal otherwise sounds in peak form.
But then again, Madonna has never truly been a singer. She has always been an entertainer first and foremost, an experience and a force of nature. In many ways, Rebel Heart sounds like a response to the critics who constantly attack her for her age and her sexuality, people who are genuinely frightened of a woman choosing to own her sexuality and her career at all times, despite traditional conventions. After the middling mid-life identity crisis of MDNA, Madonna seems to have finally remembered that bitch, she actually IS Madonna. Welcome back.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+