3 out of 5 stars
Very few living artists compare to Madonna for cultural impact and musical legacy. Over almost four decades in the public eye she has caused controversy for merely existing. On Madame X, her 14th studio album, she uses various personas and borrows heavily from Latin hip hop, dancehall and reggaeton to steer the power of controversy into something positive.
The album begins with Medellín, on which she is joined by the Colombian rapper Maluma. It’s a quirky, low-tempo island song – and very much a Marmite one – designed to get you moving, its “One, two, cha-cha-cha” refrain telling you exactly what to do.
The playfulness of Medellín is quickly overshadowed by Dark Ballet and God Control, songs that take an experimental stand against authoritarianism and gun control through distorted Black Mirror-style pop. Now that’s a mouthful.
While she sounds like a circus ringmaster on the fritz on Dark Ballet, which samples The Nutcracker, God Control rattles together a gospel choir, gunshots, vocodered vocals and disco beats to basically shake our shoulders and tell us to wake up, sheeple.
Recorded between her homes in New York, Lisbon, London and Los Angeles, Madame X sees Madonna go global in her musical quest for peace and equality, singing in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
While the gypsy taunts of Killers Who Are Partying miss the mark (“I’ll be Islam if Islam is hated, I’ll be Israel if they’re incarcerated, I’ll be Native Indian if the Indian has been taken,” she drawls), the gimmick-free, uplifting ballad I Rise is more earnest.
Opening with a snippet of We Call BS, the viral speech made by the young gun-control activist Emma González, who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last year, she sings: “Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you.” Madonna knows the power she wields, and as a long-time advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV, she plays that card very well.
The most interesting moments come when we hear how she navigates the personal. Removing the brand and the bravado, she breaks it down on Looking for Mercy. She shows strength in her weary cry for empathy, removing the many layers of armour she has had to wear as Madonna the icon.
But don’t confuse this need for love as a weakness. On the zorbing 1990s disco song I Don’t Search I Find, complete with Vogue-style sass, she reminds us that she always gets what she wants. “Finally, enough love is coming…”
Madonna’s choice of collaborators is the album’s strongest suit by far. The Brazilian pop star Anitta joins her on Faz Gostoso, a Latin-tinged seduction track that comes fitted with a carnivale breakdown – alarms, sirens and drums all piling up – and the American rapper Quavo joins her on Future, a sun-kissed call for progress.
Ever altering her identity, either physically, spiritually or emotionally, Madonna takes on numerous characters (and many, many accents) to create a wild and varied universe that’s reflective of the general doom the world is swilling around in. “Madame X is a secret agent. Travelling around the world. Changing identities,” she says in the album’s teaser video. “A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. A spy in the house of love.”
Her voice is heavily disguised throughout, pushing the sometimes manic concept of this album even further. Standing up against technological, social and political distortion, it’s a big and ballsy production that’s so bizarre in places, you can’t help but be impressed.