The two stars talk about late nights, long rehearsals, and sweating the details. The first in a series of new conversations between artists
Welcome to Rolling Stone’s 2021 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2021 print issue, hitting stands on November 2nd — with four special covers, including this one. We’ll be rolling out all 10 stories this week and next, so check back often.
The moment Madonna and Maluma get to Brooklyn’s Caribbean Social Club in Williamsburg, they ignite a frenzy. Both arrive around 8 p.m. on a swampy August night at the 48-year-old neighborhood gem lovingly known as Toñita’s, Madonna fresh from her 63rd birthday celebration in Italy’s southern region of Puglia and Maluma before rehearsals for his Papi Juancho tour. Throngs of neighbors, regulars, and fans crowd along Grand Street, drinks in hand. They blast music — including several Madonna hits — and try to get a glimpse of the stars through the doors of the club. Inside, Madonna (who chose the venue) and Maluma kick off a five-hour photo shoot while blaring Wizkid over the sound system. An older woman watches with delight and taps her giant gold rings against a domino table; she’s none other than Toñita herself, the club owner, who has been asked to be in a few photos.
It’s past midnight when Madonna and Maluma finally settle into a tiny table against the wall. The room is noticeably steamy. Both artists are eager to get their conversation started, but because it’s being filmed, they have to wait under hot white lights while the cameras get rolling — and the heat is making them a little delirious. Maluma sings drowsily to himself and puffs on a cigar while Madonna tries to decide if she likes the bright red blazer she has on. (She trades it for one with pinstripes.) As people buzz around them, adjusting mics and makeup, Maluma suddenly looks at Madonna from across the table. “This is a natural conversation between you and I,” he tells her with feigned seriousness. “This is a regular talk.” She breaks into a smile: “Natural. Organic. Authentic. Real,” she jokes back.
Within minutes, the din of the room fades away. It’s been more than two years since they first teamed up for “Medellín,” their 2019 song, and they have a lot to catch up on. Their one-on-one is also a chance to dive deeper into each other’s careers: Maluma has seen Madonna in action in the studio and on shoots, and he wants to know all about the visionary whose four-decade, constantly evolving artistry has shifted the entire pop paradigm more than once. Apologetically, he pulls out his phone (“Sorry, I didn’t remember these!”) to bring up the questions he’s written about her upcoming projects, including her new concert film, Madame X. Madonna has printed her list of questions for Maluma and lays them on the table; she’s curious about Maluma’s inspirations and the way he’s crisscrossed different genres while becoming a global star. They end up trading stories until nearly 2 a.m., while the impromptu block party formed in their honor rages on outside.
Maluma: How does it feel doing an interview at 1 a.m.? Be honest, please.
Madonna: I’m good with it. I’m used to staying up late. I’m a night owl.
Maluma: What time do you go to bed every day?
Madonna: 4 a.m.
Maluma: What? Have you been doing this for a long time?
Madonna: Mm . . . a couple of years. It’s getting later and later.
Maluma: I remember the first time that we went to the studio in London. Do you remember? It was, like, 8 p.m.
Madonna: That’s just when the juices start flowing!
Maluma: And I was like, we’re going to stay here until, I don’t know, 12. And then it was 12:30, it was 1, it was 1:30, 2, 3, 4! [Laughs.]
Madonna: That’s when you start drinking tequila and espresso.
Maluma: You gave me the solution! Tequila and espresso. Thank you very much. That was a very important thing in my life. After that, my life changed.
Madonna: I have a theory that people who were born in the daytime are most alive in the day and people who were born at night feel most creative and alive at night.
Maluma: I wake up every morning at 6 a.m., I go to the gym—
Madonna: Maybe you were born at 6 a.m.!
Maluma: I go to work out, then I go to the studio, then I have some time to play with my dogs, then at 8, 9 p.m., I’m done. I go to bed.
Madonna: You’re an old man.
Maluma: I’m an old man? For doing that?
Madonna: Those are old-man hours. You go to bed at 8? That’s crazy.
Maluma: [Laughs.] We’re all different, come on. So, you were the creative director for the Madame X tour and concert film, and involved in everything from the wardrobe to the set design to the choreography. Why is it so important to you to be involved in every aspect?
Madonna: Because the entire show is an extension of me. I love dance, I love art, I love set design. I love video, I love film, I love fashion, clothes. So, A., because I love all of those things. But B., because every aspect of the show is an extension of me, I feel like I need to pay attention to all the details.
Maluma: I remember.
Madonna: [Smiling.] You remember. Remember when we were on the set of the video [for “Medellín”]? The room was so ugly, remember we had to change the lighting completely?
Maluma: The lighting, the sofa. You almost changed me.
Madonna: Yeah, but I realized there was no replacement, so . . .
Maluma: [Laughs.] You better! OK, next question — why did you decide on the role of director as well as co-writer in Madame X?
Madonna: My show is my vision, my philosophy, my soul. I need to orchestrate everything. I have a message, and I need to be clear about it. I can’t rely on other people to do it for me.
Maluma: I love that. Since the first time that I met you, I saw how real you are with your art. You just do whatever you want—
Madonna: Well, I don’t do whatever I want. I fight for what I think is important, that’s for sure.
Maluma: You changed my vision in many ways. I’m still young and I’m still learning a bunch of things in this industry and my career, but it was an important thing to just be more confident in myself. That’s how you say it, right?
Madonna: Yup, confident.
Maluma: Since I met you, that’s something that I always do, and I really appreciate that. Cheers.
Madonna: [Laughs.] Cheers. But also, I hope that after you worked with me, you started paying more attention to lighting and costumes and things like that. Did you?
Maluma: Absolutely. Things like, I don’t know, maybe women—
Madonna: Don’t be sexist.
Maluma: Maybe you guys pay more attention to details.
Madonna: You haven’t met my sons.
Maluma: I met them!
Madonna: You met David, yeah. But everyone pays attention to details.
Maluma: Yeah, but I think you’re on another level.
Madonna: If I could look back at the beginning of my career, I probably focused mostly on me at the beginning; and then as I started doing more shows or videos, I started paying attention to more details of everything, and I started to get more involved.
Maluma: I would like to do it the same way as you do.
Madonna: Watch out, I’m going to come see your show! It better be good.
Maluma: Yo, guys, she said that, right? She said she’s coming to my shows! [Laughs.] Next question. You’re currently writing a film about your life. How was the process for you, reliving all those experiences?
Madonna: Writing my script is the most draining, challenging experience I’ve ever had. It’s kind of like psychotherapy in a way, because I have to remember every detail from my childhood till now. Remembering all the things that made me decide to be who I am, my journey as an artist, my decision to leave Michigan to go to New York, all the things that happened to me when I was young and naive, my relationships with my family and friends, watching many of my friends die — sometimes, I have writing sessions where I go to bed and I just want to cry. You know what I mean? The thing is, I realize I forgot a lot of things, and reliving, digging deep, trying to recall emotions that I felt in certain moments, both joyful and traumatic experiences . . . I realize I’ve lived a crazy life.
Maluma: But beautiful at the same time.
Madonna: Beautiful, obviously. But I would find myself at night, lying there in bed, thinking, “My God, did that really happen to me? Did I really know that person?”
Maluma: Well, you know I love you. And everything you do is a success.
Madonna: I wouldn’t say that. Success is subjective.
Maluma: I always say success for me is when I feel happy with all the things that I do, and I have my balance and my tranquility. For me, that’s a success.
Madonna: Obviously your career will go in many directions, and you’ll have ups and — I’m sorry — but you’re going to have some downs, too, because that’s life. But then again, it won’t be a down, because everything that happens to us is a teacher and we learn from it. It’s useless to think of things that happen to you as bad, I guess. They’re just learning experiences you had to go through.
Maluma: I agree. Thank you.
Madonna: I think it’s my turn.
Maluma: This is the moment where I get nervous. Should I drink a little bit? Yeah.
Madonna: All of your music is in Spanish, right?
Maluma: Yeah, like 99.9 percent.
Madonna: And you started out as a reggaeton artist, and you seem like you’re moving in a new direction. Do you feel like that? I hate the word “pop.”
Maluma: I love reggaeton. I was raised listening to reggaeton, and for sure it’s part of my blood and my DNA. But I love making different genres.
Madonna: “Medellín,” for instance, that song we did.
Maluma: Yeah, that’s different — different beat, different rhythm, different lyrics. I love doing salsa music, I love doing reggaeton, I love doing pop, I love doing ballads. When we talk about pop, it’s something that’s “popular” — for me, it doesn’t have any meaning, because everything we do is pop. It’s popular, it’s for the people. So I do whatever I love. I remember one time I went to Los Angeles, and I had this amazing studio session with these producers from there. The session was great. I recorded, like, seven or eight songs in English, right? And they were good, but I don’t know, I just didn’t feel myself when I listened to the songs over and over again. I was like, “That’s not Maluma.”
Madonna: “That’s not me.”
Maluma: Right, that’s not my essence. I’ve been a huge fan of American music for a long time. I grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B and all of these amazing artists: Ja Rule and 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg and, of course, you. But I don’t feel like I have to sing in English just to conquer the world or to do the things that I want to do.
Madonna: I don’t think you do, either.
Maluma: I feel like people can fall in love with the person who I am. I don’t have to try and be someone else.
Madonna: You’re not consciously trying to be Colombian.
Maluma: It’s just me. I was born like this. But if I had an option to sing in English, I would do it. Maybe in the future.
Madonna: Here’s a question — what inspires you?
Maluma: I would say my family. They’re a big, big inspiration. My country, my Latin roots. I remember when I was, like, 12 years old, and all these dreams started. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to sing about all the things I was living, even though I was 12 years old. I just wanted to sing to my mom, my dad, and my sister, and that was a beautiful thing that I don’t want to lose.
Madonna: So life inspires you. The things that are important to you.
Maluma: Exactly. Life, family, my roots, my country. I could say even my animals, they inspire me.
Madonna: I was just going to say your horses!
Maluma: My horses, my dogs, the people who surround me. I would say they’re my inspiration.
Madonna: I would say the same thing. I’m very inspired by my children, my family, my experiences in life, love, loss, betrayal. The things that happen to us as humans — that’s what inspires me, I guess. The struggle.
Maluma: That’s a big part of inspiration, when you don’t feel that good.
Madonna: Yeah, it’s way easier to write a song when you’re in a bad mood. Let’s face it. [Laughs.]
Maluma: 100 percent, I agree. [Talking to others in the room] Are you guys in a sauna?
Madonna: All the weight I gained in Puglia, I’m losing right now. So, what I want to talk about next — we’ve been living for the past year and a half in this strange isolation, like a limbo. There’s been time for writing and introspection. How’s it been for you?
Maluma: I had the chance to write my new album, Papi Juancho. For the first time in eight years, I stayed for months in Colombia, in Medellín, with my mom. I have this beautiful house, I never enjoyed it before. I built it, and then I started just touring, and then the pandemic happened. So, for me, I was forced to go back to Medellín. I had my studio over there, so I started writing songs and not thinking that we had to do a commercial album. We didn’t know what was going to happen, so we were just there, writing new songs, and I did the album, Papi Juancho. Then, I did the song “Hawái,” which is the biggest song in my career. It was a productive moment, and I enjoyed it a lot, to be honest. I know there’s a lot of people that had a bad moment—
Madonna: Yeah. Didn’t have the luxury that we had, to continue to be free.
Maluma: Exactly. Thank God I had my house there, I had my garden where I could walk.
Madonna: On the subject of Papi Juancho, that’s the name of your tour. Are you excited?
Maluma: Yeah, I’m superexcited and nervous.
Madonna: I’m jealous. I’ve missed performing.
Maluma: Why don’t you come perform “Medellín”?
Madonna: That’s one song!
Maluma: Well, you can stay.
Madonna: [Laughs.] I’ll just be a backup dancer!
Maluma: I’ll be there, like a fan, watching you sing. It’ll be your show, not mine.
Madonna: I feel like a lot of people are looking forward to it. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. And I think people are really longing for live performance.
Maluma: We need it, too. I remember that I went to one of your shows here in New York when you were doing Madame X, and I saw how happy you were there onstage. Right now, I’m like, I need that energy. I’m nervous, but that’s good. It’s like a good adrenaline that I’m feeling in my body.
Madonna: Nervous is good. It means you care.
Maluma: For real, I want to hug [the audience]. It’s been a long time — almost two years since I did the last show. It’s going to be beautiful. You’re more than invited . . . don’t say you’re jealous. We can do a tour together. That would be nice.
Madonna: I’m going to make you rehearse a lot!
Maluma: Remember when we were rehearsing for the Billboard [Music] Awards? Oh, my God. That was beautiful. But I remember getting home at 2 a.m. and I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve never rehearsed like this in my life.”
Madonna: I started as a dancer, and that’s informed my way of being onstage and my way of using space. That’s why I can work those long hours and keep going. Dancers are a breed of their own. We punish ourselves and we push through the pain. Even if we’re injured, we don’t care.
Maluma: I used to play soccer. I quit when I was 16 years old, and I started making my career, but I still have that discipline. I just try to be balanced, not too hard on myself. I don’t like to punish myself.
Madonna: You’re not like me.
Maluma: No. Once I want to have fun, I just do it. I remember when I was playing soccer, I was playing soccer for three hours every day. Well, you know, because David, your son, he plays soccer!
Madonna: Yeah. It’s a beautiful sport.
Maluma: I love it, and I owe everything to soccer, my mentality and my dedication. But now I feel like I know how to balance it a little bit better.
Madonna: You should have a soccer moment in your show, like when you dribble the ball.
Maluma: That would be nice. You guys heard that?
Madonna: I knew we were going to do a scene [with horses] at the end of “Medellín,” and there are amazing horses in Portugal, as you know. I was like, “Oh, God, what am I going to do with Maluma? He’s probably never been on a horse before!” Then you got on a stallion and galloped away.
Maluma: It was funny, because it was an Arabic stallion that I rode. That’s one of the most difficult horses to ride. And Madonna, that’s the way she is, she was like, “Oh, go ride that stallion, that super-aggressive horse. You can do it.”
Madonna: Yeah, but I was wearing a bridal gown.
Maluma: So I was like, “Fuck it, let’s go.” And then I had fun. But then, actually, I came down from the horse, and I was like, “Can you bring a Lusitano horse?” Because I have Lusitano horses in Colombia. They have a lot of adrenaline, but they’re easier to control. I miss them every time I go on tour. I have to say it. I have my beautiful horse named Hercules. He’s a black, beautiful, big stallion, and he’s one of the loves of my life. I take care of them like my children.
Madonna, Lisbon was a big influence on your last album, and Maluma, you released a tribute to the music of Jamaica this year. What role does travel play in your work?
Madonna: Traveling is such an important part of growing if you’re an artist, to discover music from around the world. I had no intention of making my last record when I moved to Lisbon. In fact, I was miserable when I moved to Lisbon. I was like, “I’m making this sacrifice for my son so he can play soccer. What am I going to do? I don’t know anybody.” And then I ended up meeting the most amazing musicians. Portugal is a melting pot of so many African immigrants from Angola and Guinea-Bissau. But like, even for my birthday, we went to southern Italy and listened to the music from that region. I end up working with people every time I go somewhere. I was in Biarritz for a birthday some years ago, and I ran into this group of singers who sing in Basque, in those semi-tones. They sound like monks when they sing. They’re called Kalakan, and I ended up going on tour with them. When I was in Portugal, a lot of those musicians ended up going on tour with me.
Maluma: It’s the same for me. That’s why I decided to go to Jamaica: I wanted to do this album called 7 Days in Jamaica, because it was one of my biggest inspirations — dancehall, reggae, and reggaeton. I wanted to go there and feel the spirit of Bob Marley. I got there and I had the opportunity to work with Ziggy Marley, one of his sons, and for me it was everything. Just going there and having this experience made my life more beautiful. Even the slang they use there is special.
Madonna: Did you stay in Kingston?
Maluma: Yeah, and also Ocho Rios. I’m planning on doing my next album with different African artists. I feel that’s the future in urban music and Latin American music. That’s the next step for me. I’m going to keep traveling. I’m pretty sure I haven’t traveled the way Madonna did.
Madonna: You will in 30 years.