Album Review

‘Rebel Heart’: Madonna’s Unapologetic Pop Conquest (Album Review)

rebel-heart

Once upon a time, there lived an #UnapologeticBitch named Madonna.

She was baptized with #HolyWater but born with a #RebelHeart, which led her to take the road less traveled by.

And in her quest to express herself and encourage the world to start #LivingForLove,  she eventually became #Iconic.

32 years, 13 studio albums, nine worldwide tours and one Sock Bitch since the release of her 1983 self-titled debut, Madonna has never had a better sense of who she is, was and (let it) will be.

Following the Timbaland and Pharrell-helmed nu-disco-meets-hip-hop of 2008’s Hard Candy (which, ironically, sounds current again in a post-“Blurred Lines” world) and the slightly late-to-the-party EDM trip on 2012’s MDNA, Rebel Heart is Madonna’s most ambitious work in over a decade, placing the singer back at her rightful spot ahead of the pop curve.

But the journey leading up to the release of Rebel Heart (out today, March 10) has been thoroughly more turbulent than that of any other pop star’s album campaign — and it all starts on Instagram.

Almost as soon as the pop icon first discovered the photo sharing social network, she began to spill details of the creation of her forthcoming LP in real time. (That is, when she wasn’t too busy taking bathroom selfies.)

She revealed dozens of producers, like Diplo and Blood Diamonds. She teased lyrics in her captions. Hashtags, used over and over like a mantra on all of her photos for months — #livingforlove, #unapologeticbitch, #iconic, #rebelheart — provided the album’s song titles. By the end of last year, fans had already committed the contents of Rebel Heart to memory before it was even given a title.

As a result, it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the album started to spring a leak…or thirty.

#RebelLeak

The Internet is as constructive and helpful in bringing to people together as it is in doing dangerous things and hurting people. It’s a double-edged sword. – Madonna, Billboard

When two songs from the album sessions, “Rebel Heart” and “Wash All Over Me,” slipped through the cracks over Thanksgiving weekend last year, fans didn’t fret. After all, a few songs leaked ahead of schedule never hurt anybody, right? Even if it were an intentional move to gauge public interest, this wasn’t a cause for concern.

But by mid-December, the entire album surfaced in the form of dozens of demos in various stages of completion, reportedly at the hands of a hacker who breached Madonna’s personal emails. And unlike the album leak we’ve come to expect today, which happens one or two weeks before an album’s release, the hack happened well before the album was even given a release date — let alone a name.

Team Madge quickly scrambled to polish six songs in December to tide over fans (read the first track-by-track), then dropped three more in February after her Grammy Awards performance (read the second track-by-track), but the campaign hiccups didn’t end there.

M’s well intentioned, poorly executed #RebelHeart Instagram art campaign backfired in the beginning of the year after a few politically incorrect snafus, causing the “Unapologetic Bitch” to, uh, apologize. The album then leaked for a second time, in a more finished form, one month ahead of schedule. And of course, there was the cape yank (and thud) heard down the stairs and felt ’round the world at the 2015 BRIT Awards.

For being the Queen Of Pop, Madonna’s unshakable legacy suddenly felt awfully vulnerable.

#RebelSpeak

What started out as an invigorating, life-enhancing, joyous experience evolved into something quite crazy. A strange artistic process, but a sign of the time. We’re all digital, we’re all vulnerable and everything’s instant — so instant. Instant success and instant failure. Instant discovery, instant destruction, instant construction. It’s as splendid and wonderful as it is devastating. Honestly, to me it’s the death of being an artist in many ways. – Madonna, New York Times

Madge was clearly left angry and emotional after the theft of her premature work (who wouldn’t be?), and the leak quickly became the talking point of the campaign. But, as it turned out, the messiness also afforded Madonna the opportunity to speak more candidly, providing some of her best interviews in years. She skipped over the tired narratives beaten to death during the MDNA campaign about maintaining her Queen Of Pop legacy (that Gaga feud is so boring and over) , allowing her to provide thoughtful commentary on agism, sexism and the digital landscape in which we all live (for love).

The woman has plenty of opinions (#nofilter) after all, and that’s one of the many reasons why she remains so interesting to this day.

#RebelBitch

 I feel like I’ve earned the right to say, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna. Don’t fuck with me.’ I’m allowed to do this now. I’ve earned my stripes. – Madonna, Refinery29

With Diplo, Madonna found her fucks when it came to her music — then quickly threw them out again. The songs that she and the Major Lazer DJ/producer crafted together for Rebel Heart are cocky and carefree, like the electronic reggae kiss-off, “Unapologetic Bitch.”

You know you never really knew how much your selfish bullshit cost me…well, fuck you!” she defiantly declares before a noisy, stinging Diplo beat blast takes over the speakers. The song is as much of a break-up anthem  as it is a breezy earworm, and likely just one of the many truly sick-sounding songs that will earn her flack for “trying to be current” from The Relevancy Police on the Internet.

But M don’t give a fuck, and the cockiness fully comes to a head with “Bitch I’m Madonna” which, from the title alone, should be enough of a warning: Bold, loud and entirely bonkers, the club cut is a full-on explosion of noisy beat drops, yelping (“WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!”) and ample sass. Think it’s a bit much? Well bitch, she’s earned it! And Nicki Minaj — a known Madge super-fan — only provides the most perfect cherry on top with her own bossed up guest verse. These two continue to create power femme magic when they team up (“I Don’t Give A”), and this one is certainly no exception. “I’m Madonna, these hoes know.

Mercifully, Madge’s sonic influences on Rebel Heart are much darker and interesting than previous albums as well.

Yeezus comes to mind when it comes to “Illuminati,” which delights in cold and chilly electronic textures as Madge plays schoolteacher and gives the children a good schoolin’ about the true enlightened meaning behind the Illuminati. Spoiler alert: It’s nothing to do with Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, although I’m still quite sure Rihanna is the Illuminati high priestess.

Similarly, “Devil Pray” has no idea what it wants to be (in the best way possible), as Madonna provides a cautionary tale of excess atop a gradually morphing melting pot of acoustic guitars, blippy electronica, orgasmic moans and warped demon vocals. It’s thrillingly experimental — fitting for a song about dabbling in all sorts of drugs to achieve a temporary high.

#RebelHump

I continue to express myself — my sexuality — in my 50s, even though that’s also considered taboo, and I get a lot of shit for it. But in 20 years, Miley Cyrus probably won’t get shit for it. Then, it’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s nothing new.” – Madonna, Billboard 

It wouldn’t be a proper Madonna record without some major raunch, which comes to a head (eh heh) with the delightfully, defiantly over-the-top “S.E.X.”

Somehow, the song’s gone from being one of the most cringeworthy demos to the album’s so-bad-it’s-amazing surprise. “Oh my God…you’re so hot,” she monotones above spooky twinkles and icy piano, the effect of which is sort of like being in a Sex Ed class held inside of a haunted house. “A lesson in sexology,” she purrs before rapping through a laundry list of vaguely sexy things, ranging from fetish (“golden showers”)  to the all-out ridiculous: “Dental chair”? But why?!  It’s American Horror Story: Madge, basically.

The song, like a few others on the LP, is almost intentionally begging for the usual bitching from her critics: It’s desperate. It’s embarrassing. It’s gross. 

“Coitus in mid-life can of course still be a richly rewarding experience, but must we hear quite so many details?” squeamishly whined NME last week before giving the album a five out of ten stars. And that, in a nutshell, is why Madonna still needs to make songs like “S.E.X.”

Yes, an older women can still want to fuck —  and fuck you for attempting to dictate what she can and can’t be doing at her age.

She supplies a more spiritual kind of sensuality on “Best Night,” a smoky late night session that sounds like it’s been lifted from the Erotica sessions and treated with just a hint of the Eastern influences on Ray Of Light. “You can call me M tonight” she seduces across the intoxicating drum loops. She goes a step further during the breathy bridge, interpolating “Justify My Love” (“Wanting…waiting…for you…“) while seductively delivering her requests. “Repeat it like a mantra…

“Body Shop” is one of the album’s most bizarre productions, as Madge innocently coos an overabundance of automotive innuendo (“You can polish the headlights!“) across plucky strings and handclaps.

But the most shocking moment of sexploitation comes in the form of the Natalia Kills-assisted “Holy Water,” which turns the sacred stuff of the church into, um, a euphemism for her…juices. “Kiss it better, make it wetter…don’t it taste like holy water?” she orgasmically purrs, slapping up against a menacing beat. (Just don’t say no — she’s got a sword.)

There’s only too much to love here, from the nasty thumping bass to the endlessly quotable and caption-ready phrases, from “Bitch, get off my pole!” to “Bless yourself and genuflect” to “Yeezus loves my pussy best.”

Blasphemy has truly never tasted sweeter.

#RebelHurt

The reason I wanted to call the record Rebel Heart was because I felt like it explored two very distinct sides of my personality. The rebellious, renegade side of me, and the romantic side of me. In my mind, it was almost like I wanted to do a two-record set. – Madonna, Billboard

Don’t let the noisiest and porniest moments on Rebel Heart fool you, though: There’s an equal amount of introspection on this LP.

Madonna might forever be synonymous with the dance floor, but she’s always been a formidable balladeer. (See: Something To Remember.) Here, she gives us a variety of ballads to work with: There’s the prayer-like “Messiah,” a devotional rich in orchestration and poetic binaries (“I am the moon with no light of my own/You are the sun guarding the throne”). And on the anthemic “HeartBreakCity,” she angrily breaks down after a break-up across a marching drum beat. “You had a few secrets I was never told, now everybody’s talking and I’m last to know.” Consider it the bitter follow-up to Bedtime Stories‘ “Secret,” perhaps?

Time may go by so slowly, but she tackles impending mortality head-on with the chill-inducing “Ghosttown,” an apocalyptic, us-against-the-world ode that sees Madge sticking it out to the very end with her loved ones. “This world has turned to dust, all we’ve got left is love/Might as well start with us singing a new song…” The explosive power ballad feels like the perfect theme for a major disaster flick. And the bridge, in particular, hits hard: “Even with no light, we’re gonna shine like gold/In this mad, mad…in this mad, mad world…

No ballad on this album feels more personal than “Joan Of Arc,” in which the usually #UnapologeticBitch lets down her shield and sword with the help of Toby Gad, MoZella and S1 to very honestly, openly reveal that she’s not quite as strong as she lets on. “Each time they write a hateful word dragging my soul into the dirt/I wanna die/Never admit it, but it hurts.”

Nothing’s better than some Empowermentdonna, but there’s something particularly striking about seeing the icon wounded in action and still susceptible to criticism. These lyrics and melodies are some of the strongest she’s produced in years…if not decades: “Being destructive isn’t brave/They couldn’t say it to my face/One day, I won’t care…but for the moment, I’m not there.”

Gulp.

#RebelHeart

When I think about popular culture now, I can’t help but think that we’re living in the age of loneliness. There’s this illusion that we all have instant access to each other, but we actually have no real connection. – Madonna, Pitchfork

No matter how dark the wilderness becomes, Rebel Heart remains a fiercely encouraging ray of light through the trees — hardly a new theme for the woman who brought us “Express Yourself” roughly 25 years ago.

Sure, self-empowerment can often be a stale subject in pop, but if there’s any pop star worth taking tips from in this day and age, it’s Madonna: The bitch has seen, done and sniffed it all, from thrusting on stage at Danceteria in 1982 to riding in atop a giant chariot carried in by hundreds of gladiators at the Super Bowl thirty years later — and she’s still winning to this day.

As a result, there is a conviction in the album’s most encouraging moments that feels much more valuable.

If there’s any one resounding statement of self to come from Rebel Heart, it’s “Living For Love,” a glorious pairing of ’90’s House pulsations (a la “Deeper & Deeper”) and church-like harmonies and hand claps. It’s the ultimate dust-off-and-dance mood enhancer — and its healing properties have already been proven live in front of the world. A heartbroken Matadonna won’t be kept down after she’s tumbled, even when she’s being dragged backwards down a staircase by her minotaurs. “I’m gonna carry on!” Up! Up! Up!

Meanwhile, “Hold Tight” sees Madge offering a sincere helping hand, armed with a seriously incredible, tribal-like rush of a chorus (“Hold! Tight! Everything’s gonna…” WOOSH!) and a genuinely superb bridge, backed by MNEK‘s rich vocals: “If you hurt then I wanna be the one that’s bleeding…

Elsewhere, M enlists Mike Tyson as her personal hype-man before entering the ring as everyone’s favorite Hard Candy boxing queen, M-Dolla. She offers inspirational food for thought (“I can’t, icon, two letters apart!“) across muscular, bass-heavy beats. It’s purely an adrenaline rush of gym-friendly motivation, complimented a step further by Chance The Rapper‘s nimble verse at the end, which somehow manages to mention Michael Jackson and synagogues all in one go. Heroic, sort of.

And then there’s the business of “Rebel Heart”: The album’s title track has (tragically) been neutered since its superior demo days, going from a thunderous blast of rebellious resilience to a more casual acoustic guitar sing-along ’round the campfire. It’s a shame she opted to strip back the epic quality of the song — but then, we’ve still got the original.

Besides, that chorus remains one of the album’s best: “So I took the road less traveled by and I barely made it out alive...”

#RebelHalcyon

There’s a lot of reminiscing on this album. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for over three decades, so in many ways I feel like a survivor. I see that many of my peers, and friends, and people I collaborated with are no longer with us. That gave me pause. I said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I made it this far.’ That was a catalyst for me. – Madonna, NY Daily News

Despite being a new album, Rebel Heart almost feels like a greatest hits.

Sure, she’s thrown together collections (Celebration) and visual retrospectives on her tours, but here is the first time Madonna — an artist notorious for being unwilling to repeat herself — has so directly referenced her own artistic legacy: from the sample of “Vogue” in “Holy Water,” to a “Justify My Love” interpolation in “Best Night,” to the sentimental nods to former friends (and lovers) Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat on super deluxe track “Graffiti Heart,” the familiar throwback pulsations of “Living For Love” — even “you can’t mess with this lucky star!” in “Bitch I’m Madonna.”

The throughly clever, career-spanning “Veni Vidi Vici” is perhaps the most blunt form of nostalgia, in which she references no less than a dozen of her own hits and career milestones. Accompanied by her pal Nas, who supplies a fiery verse about his own personal and professional triumphs and low points (including some Kelis shade!), Madge strolls through her discography to tell her own story, from New York City outcast to superstar. Each line is nearly too good to be true: “I expressed myself, came like a virgin down the aisle/Exposed my naked ass and I did it with a smile/When it came to sex, I knew I walked the borderline/And when I struck a pose, all the gay boys lost their mind.”

Yaaaaaas, queen!

#RebelQueen

Well, I do think of myself as a Queen… – Madonna, Rolling Stone

It’s too soon to declare Rebel Heart as Madonna’s best (will anything make a more cohesive statement than Erotica, Ray Of Light or Confessions?), but it is, at least, one of, and arguably the most representative of her as an artist: Cocky, sexual, aggressive, pious, vulnerable, exploitative, embarrassing, romantic, messy, optimistic. This album is Madonna to its core. 

Beyond that, the actual songcraft and melodies haven’t been this rich or interesting in at least a decade, if not longer. Some of the lyrical themes border on cringe or cliché (lots of falling down and getting back up again on this album — classic Madge), but creative flourishes keep the LP’s production colorful and engaging with each listen.

The album is rich and meaty, from an over-stuffed tracklist (25 tracks on the super deluxe edition!), to the endless list of collaborators. And while a certain sound has dominated throughout plenty of her records past — the euphoric dance-pop of Madonna, the New York City-bred grit of Erotica, the earthy, spiritual undertones of Ray Of Light  — the only musical consistency Rebel Heart has to offer is its inconsistency, which isn’t a bad thing…just a wonderfully messy thing.

By now, Madonna needs no more Hot 100 hits or record-breaking albums. She really doesn’t need to make new music at all, period. Her legacy is cemented. And yet, she carries on, moving forward by looking back — and seemingly more inspired than ever.

I came, I saw, I conquered,” Madonna sings over and over again on “Veni Vidi Vici.” From any other artist, the phrase would likely produce an eye-roll. But when it’s being sung by Madonna, Queen Of Pop, for over thirty years running, there’s an actual weight to that statement. It’s not hyperbole at all…it’s just a fact. She really did.

Long live the Queen.

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‘Rebel Heart’ was released on March 10. (iTunes)