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Beat by Beat Review: Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” Safely Evolves Without Reinventing

After last week’s leaks, Madonna released six new songs this weekend as an “early Christmas present,” featuring Diplo, Avicii, Nicki Minaj and some PC Music homages.

by Zel McCarthy
Dec 21 2014, 9:45pm

Even though many Madonna fans have been naughty, the Queen of Pop decided to be nice on Saturday, gifting the world six songs from her next album Rebel Heart, after twice that many leaked a few days before. While these finished versions prove that the leaks were, in fact, rough demos in some cases, they also prove that Madonna's rebel heart is deceitful above all things: This is not a reinvention for the pop singer but rather a safe and studied bid to reclaim her place at radio, the pop charts and (if there's time) dancefloors. Producers on this set include Diplo, Avicii and Kanye West, but because in each instance they are co-producing with Madonna herself, it's her sound, not theirs, that takes the lead and defines the sonic vision of this evolution in her oeuvre across these six tracks. 

1.  "Living for Love"
In what had to have been an utterly bizarre writing session, the album's opening cut sees Madonna and Diplo teaming up with co-writers MoZella (known for Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball"), Ariel Rechstaid (producer and Grammy winner for Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City), Toby Gad (co-writer of John Legend's "All of Me") engineer Nick Rowe (credits include Haim and Snoop Lion) and Alicia Keys (yes, that Alicia Keys). Musically, "Living for Love" reflects the coterie of personalities of all who worked on it and while that's hardly a compliment, the record's success is a testament to the pop star herself, whose "Like A Prayer" allusions and quasi-personal lyrics of redemption transcend its overly A&R'd writing and production. Her indelible persona gives the track its spinal cord. There's a bass break in the chorus that is a missed opportunity to go full-on club, but that's what remixes are for, one supposes. 

2. "Devil Play"
"Who gonna save my soul," go the pitched-down lyrics in the instrumental-dominant chorus tag of a tune that has Madonna mining familiar thematic territory of sin and salvation, name checking the Virgin Mary and angels for good measure. "Devil Play" is technically an anti-drug anthem, calling out everything from drinking whiskey to sniffing glue. In some ways, this is redemption for her infamous "how many people in this crowd have seen Molly?" stunt at Ultra in 2012 when she appeared on stage with Avicii. There's a certain irony in the fact that he produced this cut, but we'll leave that alone.

3. "Ghosttown"
What could have been a staid power ballad vocal performance takes on some edge thanks to some vocoder tricks and dramatic synth percussion. It's the best midtempo Madonna record since 2008's "Miles Away," though that might not mean much. Even so, this is a solid piece of album filler that showcases the singer's vocal chops and rarely-deployed emotional sincerity.

4. "Unapologetic Bitch"
A dancehall beat and a Major Lazer-esque instrumental break is the best use of Diplo on Rebel Heart thus-far. Co-written with Nicki Minaj (who does not appear on the record), "Unapologetic Bitch" sounds like the most accurate representation of the Queen of Pop's personality. 

5. "Illuminati"
Madonna loves infusing a little kabbalah spirituality into a dance track now and again, this time produced by Kanye and his longtime collaborators Mike Dean and Charlie Heat. "It's like, everybody in this party shining like illuminati" she says on "Illuminati." The illuminati, you see, is not Beyoncé or LeBron James. The illuminati is a media conspiracy. This song proves it. In fact, says Madonna, we are all illuminati. So there. Go enjoy your empowerment.

6. "Bitch I'm Madonna"
Few are entitled to a line like the one this song's title comes from. As it has for decades, the tautology of being Madonna includes the right to adopt the style of other artists, in this case PC Music star Hannah Diamond, whose "Every Night" must have been in Diplo's heavy rotation when he was knob-twiddling here. Nicki Minaj is featured on this but her performance is secondary in ingenuity to her verse on 2012's "I Don't Give A." Still, this is the best dance record of this six song set and a fine note to end on until March when the rest of Rebel Heart is unleashed on the world.

For an artist whose reinvention has stalled somewhat in the last ten years after the resplendent Confessions on a Dance Floor, Rebel Heart sounds like a return to form: a dance record that's both current and invigorated by a good-time bad girl. Still, having Diplo produce half your album is hardly rebellious, and it would have been nice to see Madonna explore and champion the sounds of lesser-known producers as she once did for Mirwais, Stuart Price and William Orbit. Working with the biggest names in dance music when dance music is at its apex and with songwriters who pen hits for Maroon 5 (Savan Kotecha), Demi Lovato (Jason Evigan) and One Direction (Carl Falk) is not that cool and just kind of boring for those who actually listen to dance music (which, news flash, is everybody under the age of 25). All that aside, this Madonna is far more self-assured than the more directionless Madonna of previous albums MDNA and Hard Candy. Even in its glory, Rebel Heart does not sound like the comeback album of the rebel we know Madonna to be.

Madonna's Rebel Heart is available as pre-order iTunes and on streaming services now. The full album drops through Boy Toy/Live Nation/Interscope in March.

Zel McCarthy is the Editor-in-Chief of THUMP.

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