Here’s the good news: Rebel Heart is better than anything Madonna has put out in a while – a long while. Critical opinion is fairly unified on the fact that it’s her best since 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. And while it’s not as consistently good as the non-stop dancetravaganza of Confessions, it’s light-years ahead of the half-assed Hard Candy and the genuinely awful MDNA. Track-for-track, it has as many good songs as 2003’s bold but uneven American Life.
Rebel Heart’s first three tracks are all strong, offering a promising beginning. “Living For Love,” the opener, is the best lead single Madonna has put out since “Hung Up,” beginning with old-school house piano but quickly growing into something fresh and contemporary; it sits comfortably at the intersection of dance and pop music over which Madonna has reigned for as long as anyone can remember. “Living” is followed by “Devil Pray,” which harks back to the singer’s acoustic-guitar-and-cowboy hat phase and is followed in turn by the fist-pumping power balladry of “Ghosttown.” This opening trio is, frankly, a relief; I was hoping to like this record, and front-loading it with actual songs that have actual melodies really helps.
Madonna has always had two great strengths, both neglected in recent years: perfect dance-pop anthems and excellent ballads, many of them co-authored by Patrick Leonard, whose absence since 1997’s Ray of Light has been strongly felt. There’s no “Live to Tell” or “This Used To Be My Playground” on Rebel Heart, unfortunately, but the graceful, jaunty “Joan of Arc” is pretty and convincing, sincere without her trying to sell it too hard, and album closer “Wash All Over Me” is a good ballad if not a great one. Even better is the genuinely sweet “Body Shop,” a lighthearted, gentle number with verses built around mandolin and handclaps that segue into more distinctively urban choruses; it’s a hip-hop luau unlike anything else in Madonna’s catalogue – this is exactly the kind of risk she should be taking. And hidden among the bonus tracks in the album’s deluxe edition is the beautiful, quasi-Middle-Eastern “Best Night,” whose downbeat sensuality deserves a place on many a sex playlist alongside earlier Madonna steamers like “Justify My Love” and “Bedtime Story.”
So that’s the good news. But there’s also bad news, and the bad news is that while the album is far from terrible, it’s also far from uniformly great. The best songs on Rebel Heart are memorable, well-constructed pop numbers. Its worst songs, however, are frankly embarrassing, which is a shame, because they distract from what would otherwise have been a much stronger album.
The most egregiously bad of these songs are piled up together right in the middle of the album, one after another: between them, “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Illuminati,” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” make a very convincing argument for pushing the stop button. They are as tinny, incongruous, and desperate as any of the clunkers from her more recent albums. Even her delivery is just plain off. Madonna has never had the greatest singing voice, but she’s always put everything she could into it, singing from the heart and making up with conviction what she lacks in native talent. But in recent years, her puzzling efforts to adopt the stylings and trappings of contemporary hip-hop have resulted in her ordinary singing voice being replaced by the bratty, nasal patter showcased by this lackluster trilogy.
The thin, uninteresting reggae stomp of “Unapologetic Bitch” made my eyes roll; the conspiracy-theory mish-mash of “Illuminati” tries hard to sound profound but just comes across like nobody did any research before writing these lyrics (or this melody); and the worst offender of all is the sneering, inane “Bitch I’m Madonna.” Does anyone listening to this album not know who Madonna is? “We’ll be drinking and nobody’s gonna stop us!” she declares in the first few seconds of the song, which is all well and good, but also makes me wonder, honestly, when the last time was that anybody tried to stop Madonna from doing anything. What starts as a jittery adolescent EDM tune quickly turns into a budget-price trap anthem. “We go hard or we go home,” asserts what very badly wants to be a rousing chorus which instead sounds tone-deaf and forced. Just how ill-suited Madonna is to this sonic environment becomes immediately apparent in a guest verse by Nicki Minaj, who effortlessly lives and breathes the frenzied, bossy energy Madonna desperately tries to conjure here. It’s telling – and sad – that when Minaj says “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” it sounds far more convincing than when Madonna says it.
Madonna’s music has always been about fusing diverse new genres onto a solid pop backbone. In this case, there are two main generic influences, the first being hip-hop. Minaj is one of a number of luminaries involved with the recording sessions for Rebel Heart; others include Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and Nas. Along with their names, she also tries to borrow some of hip-hop’s lexicon and brash braggadocio, to generally unfortunate effect. The other generic influence is EDM; much of the album bears the production stamp of Diplo and Avicii.
At some point in the past decade or so, Madonna has gone from being on the cutting edge of setting trends to being on the bleeding edge of chasing after them. A lot of this, to be fair, has to do with the way popular culture and its distribution channels have changed. Mainstream pop artists like Madonna were once gatekeepers – there was no other way for experimental music or club culture to reach a mass audience; whether it was the ethnomusicology of Paul Simon or the Talking Heads or Bowie’s relentless cherry picking of stylistic influences, new sounds appeared on the radio when an pop artist adopted them. To anyone who didn’t independently seek out underground or alternative milieus, these styles sounded edgy and fresh when fused with pop structures. But today a dazzling variety of sounds and styles are not only available but continually thrust upon us. As a teenager, I had no idea who Shep Pettibone or William Orbit or Mirwais were until I heard their names associated with Madonna; but virtually all of Rebel Heart’s listeners will be well aware of Avicii or Kanye West. But the problem goes deeper than that; it’s not just a question of finding unknown talent. There’s just a feverish desperation that has come to characterize Madonna’s work in the past ten years, a drive to keep up with the pop starlets and brash young producers who are tearing up today’s music festivals.
Not all these efforts fail. “Holy Water” is four minutes of throbbing, growling fun, leavened with the kind of convincing, ballsy sass Madonna brought to older hits like “Human Nature” and “Bye Bye Baby.” “Hold Tight” is a strong, solid pop song even with the buzzing, whiny synth lines that are the irritating hallmark of so much contemporary EDM. And, to give credit where credit is due, a genuinely good track is “Iconic,” featuring Chance and, um, Mike Tyson, a fusion of classic house motifs, EDM verses, and hip-hop choruses that sounds like a disaster on paper but actually works surprisingly well. If this had been the only track of its kind on the album, it would have stood as a bold departure, but its refreshing effect is marred by the trilogy of clunkers discussed above and by warmed-over Miley Cyrus bangers like “Inside Out.” Speaking of tweens, let’s not even discuss “S.E.X.,” a song that actually opens with the lyrics “Oh my god, you’re so hot”; could this actually be the same woman whose assured, intimidating sexual confidence produced songs like “Erotica”? There’s just no explanation for how a musician who 25 years ago had a fully matured sexuality could devolve into the simpering, virginal fantasies of a high schooler.
Just to be clear, the lackluster desperation of Madonna’s stylistic borrowings is not a function of age, despite the barrage of misogyny and ageism unleashed at her since her recent tumble at the Brit awards: Björk, seven years younger than Madonna, and Grace Jones, ten years older than her, are both shining examples of vital artists rooted in dance culture whose music continues to sound edgy and fresh after decades in the business. It’s more a question of attitude than of age, and Madonna’s determination to speak the sonic language of teenagers is does nothing but distract both her and the listener from her true talent: solid, well-crafted pop songs with finely-honed melodies and strong, reliable grooves. Unlike her last couple of albums, this talent is clearly evident on Rebel Heart; it’s just dispersed among the clunkers.
The deluxe edition of the album runs almost 90 minutes, but buried in it is the genuinely terrific 10- or 12-track record that Madonna should have made. As Alexis Petridis shrewdly observed in his review of Rebel Heart for The Guardian, the album sounds like it’s split between the songs Madonna wants to make and the songs she feels obligated to. Here’s hoping that her next album will be tighter, more focused, and more calm, centered entirely on the former (and maybe let’s bring back Patrick Leonard). There’s no need to write Madonna off just yet; but we should definitely expect more from her at this point in her career. In the meantime, if you unclick some of those boxes in your iTunes tracklist and reorder the songs a little, you can turn Rebel Heart into a genuinely worthwhile pop album.
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