The early ’80s Madonna bopping around in her Lucky Star video single-handedly fueled my lifelong fixations on the artist and pop music at large. I gave each phase of her recording career my full attention and was mostly rewarded for two decades following that initial exposure. While I certainly owe the superstar some gratitude in terms of my own music-fan trajectory, I can still look at her recent decade or so of music and acknowledge feelings of disappointment.
It’s no secret that pop’s queen is a perennial trend-chaser, yet it seemed on the 2012 collection MDNA that she and her producers tried too hard to be all things to all fans, sacrificing some of her signature dynamism (and thematic cohesion) in the process. Truth be told, I’d resigned to the fact that I loved the old Madonna and was simply putting up with the new one.
Things have changed a bit on that front since last week. After the online leak of demos from an album that Madonna’s been teasing for months, her own frustration inspired her to counter said leak with her own shrewd marketing move. Late Friday evening, she released the first six completed songs of the album, dubbed Rebel Heart, and promised the rest in March (praying for a SXSW show, Universe). Since then she’s been topping iTunes charts and trending on Twitter.
Honestly, I think this is a viable approach for all future Madonna projects. It allows fresh fans and jaded ones like me to process new material in smaller chunks, to get to know songs and the ideas behind them. I can’t wait to hear finished versions of songs that Dallas’ S1 contributed to Madge’s LP (including one called Joan of Arc), but for now I’m content with the directions of the six available tracks.
My thoughts on each:
The opening song (and likely first single) evokes the stripped-down Shep Pettibone redux of Like A Prayer that appeared on The Immaculate Collection. It’s a solid melding of club beats, brassy piano chords from Alicia Keys, beautiful choir-singer exhalations, and Madonna’s own world-weary vocal which gradually frees itself over the course of the track. Co-written by Keys, gifted pop producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Sky Ferreira, Haim) and producer Diplo among others, the tune shows a side of Madonna that’s less prickly or defiant than we see on Instagram these days. She’s still attuned to themes of familial love, which is a good thing. And that dance break is killer.
Madonna will never grow weary of the dance-folk approach she took with the divisive 2003 American Life album. That its defining style has become more en vogue on the charts in recent months can be attributed in part to Avicii, who co-writes and produces Devil Pray with Blood Diamonds, DJ Dahi and Carl Falk. It’s a song that uses drug references to get somewhere deeper: Madge told Rolling Stone in her explanation of the song that while euphoric effects of narcotics never quite last, intense personal exploration is the better alternative. Living for Love, features some of M’s best melodies in years, but I’m more impressed by the darker elements of the arrangement that surface during a headphone listen.
The artist sounds quite natural delivering the I’ll-stand-by-you lyrics of this one, even there are some slightly distracting vocal effects (hey, at least they’re obvious). Canadian producer Billboard achieves an epic, “Umbrella”-worthy quality. I could see this one being a radio hit for Madonna – something she probably needs to help drive the full album to success when it hits stores in March.
Diplo’s on the boards for this electro dancehall kiss off anthem, and Nicki Minaj is listed as a co-writer (although there’s no rap verse). I’m betting Minaj encouraged Madonna to apply that unexpected staccato rap style to the verses. It’s a nice surprise from an artist who’s done too much retreading on the last couple of albums.
Here, Madonna riffs on the celebs-as-all-powerful-beings myth, throwing out household names in lower-register raps that lead to coolly sung choruses. The song’s a bit difficult to explain or pin down, which is probably what made producer Kanye West so enthusiastic about working on it. It’s right in his wheelhouse as a music-maker, but it also incorporates the Dirty South approach of co-producer Mike Dean.
This is really the only so-so track to be found in the first piece of Rebel Heart. It’s the pop-star equivalent of a hip-hop brag track, and it features a well-delivered Minaj verse. Whimsical concept and shrewd song title, considering Madonna’s ever-present influence on theatrical pop. But it’s not quite as effective at sassing as, say, Vogue. There I go again bringing up the old stuff …
Source: Dallas Morning News