Madonna’s influence on modern pop culture is something that can never be taken away from her. For over 30 years the Bay City native has pushed the mainstream’s envelope, stamped down doors for female artists, and has weaved through musical styles more times than she has turned her nose up at hydrangeas. It’s an achievement that very few – if any – will match again, but it leaves Madonna with the dilemma of expectation. What can she do next? The answer, according to new album Rebel Heart, is to have a few attempts all on one disc.
Rebel Heart contains some truly great pop songs that can contend with Madonna’s best, but as an overall collection, it feels like the start of three separate projects lumped together. It starts with lead single Living For Love; a thumping, uplifting dance anthem which nods back to the ’90s, but confirms her relevancy as part of house music’s revival nonetheless.
It sits nicely alongside the glitchy electronics of Iconic, where a towering pre-chorus drops into stabs of ice-cold synths for a club-ready dash of trap-pop. But between these two numbers, it’s almost like there’s a mini sonic evolution of Madonna on this record.
Rebel Heart goes from the brilliant, dancehall groove of Unapologetic Bitch and the scuzzy squiggles of Bitch I’m Madonna – both helmed by Diplo – to more reflective and sombre pop ballads such as Ghosttown and Hold Tight. At this stage in her career, if Madonna doesn’t have ‘pop chameleon’ on her LinkedIn profile (and what a ‘resumé’ that would be), then Rebel Heart alone is enough to endorse that title.
Bitch I’m Madonna hears the Queen of Pop at her most fabulously ridiculous; popping corks, “kissing anybody that’s around us” and threatening to “blow up the house”, with PC Music’s Sophie keeping production ahead of the curve with a hyperpop emboss, and Nicki Minaj strolling in as her partner in crime. It’s a track that could possibly grate on first listen, but if you let it, its teeth are waiting to dig in.
Unapologetic Bitch, on the other hand, takes full advantage of Diplo’s knack for a breezy, reggae-pop production. Despite appearing carefree on the surface, Madonna is overcoming a break-up in the only way we’d all expect her to; pause, reflect, forget. “It took a minute, but now I’m feeling strong/ It almost killed me, but I’m moving on,” she steely declares, never willing to let a man dent her armour, and rightly so.
Essentially, staying faithful to its title, Madonna’s heart is placed firmly at the centre of the album. Ghosttown is prime example that the icon still has that straight-down-the-line pop clout when she wants to do it. It’s an affecting serenade to loyalty that will bury deep into the cranium, and one that shows the most potential when it comes to mainstream chart success. Hold Tight nips at its heels with its marching beats and flourishes of pastel electronics. However, what is most encouraging on each track is the space Madonna’s voice is given to shine – something we’d like to hear more often.
Where Rebel Heart does stumble, though, is when Madonna is revisits two of her favourite themes: religion and sex. It’s most explicitly touched upon in the Kanye West-produced Holy Water, where orgasmic gasps form part of the chorus as Madonna demands “Kiss it better, kiss it better/ Don’t it taste like holy water?” It’s frustrating because the production is sharp and offers some of the most interesting moments on the album, but the overtly sexual lyrics (which includes “Yeezus loves my pussy best”) feel like forced shock value. Are they gasps of disgust, or are they gasps of pleasure? Of course, shocking the audience is Madonna’s business, but here it feels more crass than clever.
If anything, the most radical moment on Rebel Heart comes in the form of guitar-led ballad Joan of Arc. “I can’t be a superhero right now/ Even hearts made out of steel can break down,” Madonna admits, continuing to grapple with the pressures of fame and expectation 30 years into her career. It’s a reminder that behind the superstar – and when we say that, we mean the superstar – there’s a woman who is still very much a sensitive soul despite a hardened public persona. Madonna acknowledging her mortality, for some reason, feels wholly more intriguing than suggestive rhetoric that belongs with her work back in the ’90s.
So yes, Madonna’s 13th studio outing can feel like a confused bag sonically as she continues to experiment with a host of modern music’s finest. But ultimately, when she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve, Rebel Heart is some of her most captivating work in years.