Madonna will try anything once. Including vulnerability, humility, sincerity and — believe it or not — acting her age.
No fooling. After more than 30 years of pushing buttons and crossing boundaries, pop’s most predictably provocative diva tries to adopt a more subtle, mature and balanced approach on her daring 13th studio album. Even more surprising: For the most part, she succeeds impressively.
Supposedly titled in reflection of two opposing sides of her personality — fighter and lover — Rebel Heart is in many ways the 56-year-old singer-songwriter’s most emotionally intimate and revealing album. Relatively speaking, of course. After all, this is still a Madonna record. So there’s plenty of titillation, confrontation and domination in the proceedings. No lack of double-entendre lyrics (and sound effects) that blur the line between sex and religion. A slew of verbal smackdowns aimed at failed lovers, media snipers and pretenders to her queen-b---- throne. And no shortage of trendhopping dance tracks — all stylishly crafted by ultra-hip producers like Diplo and Avicii and Kanye, and decorated with cameos from VIPs like Nas, Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper and even Mike Tyson.
But along with all those essential ingredients, there are also unmistakable signs of growth and evolution in the 14-song disc (and the superior 19-song deluxe edition). You can hear it in her vocals, which seem less forced and more relaxed than they have in years. You can hear it in her lyrics, which express doubt and loss as often as triumph and confidence, and even wax nostalgic at times. You can hear it in the plethora of ballads sprinkled amid club cuts. You can even hear it in the breathing space and artistic licence she grants her various collaborators, graciously allowing them the spotlight instead of continually trying to upstage everyone.
It’s all the more ironic when you consider that she was technologically upstaged — though she controversially termed it “artistic rape” — by a hacker who leaked the bulk of these tracks late last year (a former reality-show contestant from Israel has been charged with the crime, which seems appropriately bizarre). To add insult to injury, she was blasted for using images of Gandhi and Martin Luther King to promote the album. And to add even more injury and insult, she tumbled off the stage at this year’s Brit awards. Between its many artistic risks and myriad PR hurdles, Rebel Heart could have easily unspooled into an unmitigated disaster.
Instead, it holds together as one of her most strong, dynamic and memorable albums in years. Uplifting gospel-house opener Living for Love harkens back to Like a Prayer. The druggy Devil Pray moves from dusty acoustic guitar to electropop. Co-produced by Diplo, Unapologetic B---- blends reggae, dancehall and dubstep. Illuminati boasts conspiracy theory lyrics and wobbly, buzzy sonics from Kanye. Nicki Minaj drops in on the Diplo-helmed electro-stomp B---- I’m Madonna (which rhymes with “Na, na-na na-na,” of course). The gorgeously confessional Joan of Arc finds her weeping, wounded by fame and media scrutiny. Dark shape-shifter Iconic features a Mike Tyson monologue. Piano ballad HeartBreakCity blasts a lover who used her. The disorienting Holy Water is hedonistic and randy. The Nas-guesting Veni Vidi Vici and the closing title cut are nostalgic and autobiographical, with Madonna name-checking dozens of hits in a few verses during the former.
Sure, there are a few duds like the car-sex metaphors of Body Shop. There might be one or two ballads too many. And S.E.X. becomes more ludicrous than lewd when Madonna purrs 50 shades of lines like “Oh my God, soaking wet, back and forth till we break the bed.” (Thanks for the visual there.) But even if the 74-minute album — her longest since 1992’s Erotica — might have benefitted from a judicious edit, there’s no denying that more than a few of these songs are second to none in her vast and varied catalogue. Chiefly because more frequently and honestly than ever before, they let us glimpse one of Madonna’s few private parts we haven’t already seen: Her soul.