On paper, Madonna singing about the Illuminati sounds atrocious, but Rebel Heart is easily Madge's best album in at least 16 years. The artist initially planned to drop the album in the spring, but after a series of tracks leaked, she decided to release the first six song on iTunes, three months before the whole album comes out in March.
When the songs premiered, gay Twitter naturally exploded—some people were literally downloading the tracks on their smartphones at gay bars—but many fans expected little from Madonna's 13th album. Since her 1998 comeback Ray of Light, Madonna has released five full-lengths, but only two have been truly worthwhile: Music and Confessions on a Dance Floor. In recent years, instead of collaborating with relatively obscure producers as she did on classics like Erotica and Ray of Light, Madonna has hired major names like Timbaland and Benny Benassi. The results, 2008's Hard Candy and 2012's MDNA, sounded tepid. On "Give Me All Your Luvin'," a 2012 song featuring Nicki Minaj and MIA, she sounded downright bland when placed next to the rappers' swag, like the queen of pop was attempting to reclaim her title from female MCs who had never stolen her throne in the first place. Coupled with an awkward Super Bowl performance and a lackluster grinding session with Miley Cyrus, some fans believed Madonna had lost her creative way and become a vampire lusting after her competitors' youth.
Rebel Heart takes this critique and uses it as gasoline for empowerment anthems and vulnerable confessions perfect for the surreal, tragic year known as 2014 . The lead single "Living for Love" discusses surviving after a breakup with a guy Madonna left herself vulnerable to. (The person could easily be her haters.) "I'm gonna carry on," Madonna triumphantly sings. "Living for love / I'm not giving up."
Against a throbbing Diplo beat on a later track called "Bitch, I'm Madonna," her angriest song since 1994's "Human Nature," the pop star sings about "jumping in the pool and swimming with our clothes on" and then imitates the ageist critics who complain about her dressing like a twentysomething. "Who do you think you are?" she angrily asks, before answering herself: "Bitch, I'm Madonna." Next, Nicki Minaj jumps on the track, embodying Madonna. "Ain't got a thing left for me to prove / It's that bottle service all night," she raps. "Bitch, I'm Madonna. These hoes know." Unlike her "Give Me All Your Luvin'" verse, Minaj's vocal swagger compliments Madonna instead of overpowering her. Madonna's anger gives her a charisma we haven't seen since she danced alone in a dance studio to "Hung Up" nearly a decade ago.
On another Diplo joint, "Unapologetic Bitch," she becomes an Anna Wintour–like boss, echoing "Human Nature": "It might sound like I'm an unapologetic bitch / but sometimes, you know I've got to call it like it is," she sings. "You know you never really knew how much you loved me 'til you lost me / Did you? / You know you never really knew how much your selfish bullshit cost me / Oh, fuck you."
As she did on her recent tour, where she flashed her nipple while singing a ballad version of "Like a Virgin," Madonna veers into the ridiculous on "Illuminati." "Rihanna don't know the new world order," she sings. "It's not Isis or the phoenix, cameras of Egypt." The song starts as a vague, confusing meditation on the media, but the song's chorus ("It's like everybody in this party shining like Illuminati") elevates the track from a piece of camp to a great dance banger. Few listeners can relate to a global superstar's analysis of a celebrity-oriented conspiracy theory, but everyone can relate to feeling like a superstar at a club for a few fleeting minutes.
Madonna's surprising relatability sounds like downright vulnerability on other tracks. "Devil Pray" opens with string sounds reminiscent of Madonna's American Life singer-songwriter phase, but avoids the awkwardness of a pop star channeling her inner Liz Phair when a beat kicks in as Madonna sings, "We can do drugs and we can smoke weed and we can drink whiskey." (She goes on to brag about how they could sniff glue and take E. Did I mention she's 56?) Like "Illuminati," the refrain seems absurd, but when Madonna admits she's "getting weaker" and asks to "sing hallelujah" and save her "soul," she sounds honest, even spiritual, and for the first time since Confessions on a Dance Floor, she finally fucking nails it.
The vulnerability crescendos on the standout track "Ghosttown," one of those great dance songs that's moving but not catchy enough to become a single. "Everything's gone to hell," Madonna sings. "All we've got is love." Capturing the mood of the country, she asks how we've got to such an odd, terrible place. During the refrain she sounds like she's painting herself as a savior, belting, "When it all falls down / I'll be your fire when the lights go out." But at the end of the chorus, she reveals she's discussing a one-on-one relationship with the listener: "We'll be two souls in a ghost town."
The trick captures what made Madonna great in the 80s and 90s: her ability to sing cliches ("I am a material girl," "we need a holiday," "you've got to make him express himself") and transform them into both personalized anthems and universal truths. And the slick, expensive production is catchy as hell this time around. What else can you ask for?
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