When Madonna sings on the title track of her latest album, Rebel Heart (***1/2 out of four; out March 10), that she has “outgrown my past and I’ve shed my skin,” she is both protesting too much and engaging in understatement.
Our most durable pop star has indeed reinvented elements of her look and sound repeatedly over the past 30 years, but Madonna has retained the same essence: that of a woman who champions and demands love, in every sense of that loaded word. No single artist has been more crucial in shaping our modern view of celebrities as people who need people — and attention.
As that view has metastasized into an expectation that artists share ever more of their personal and creative lives, fame’s double-edged sword has grown a bit sharper. Madonna felt it last December, when two batches of early recordings from the Heart sessions — essentially, an album in progress — were leaked online. Her immediate response was to quickly polish remixes of the first bunch, and make them available to those who pre-ordered the album.
Rebel Heart includes those six songs and 13 more, and they present Madonna at her most determined and spiritually unplugged. The sound — crafted with such hip-hop, pop and EDM names as Kanye West, Toby Gad, Avicii and Diplo — is not so much raw as purposefully lean and piercingly direct, as are the lyrics, which mine emotions from righteous anger and pain to resolute joy.
Ghosttown mixes a disarmingly earnest sweetness with a stark, chilly arrangement, while on Heartbreak City, Madonna lashes out at a former lover over a shuffling hip-hop groove. The defiant exuberance of first single Living For Love gives way to the deceptively gentle, powerfully infectious Body Shop, with its tinkering rhythms and sly innuendo.
There are more graphic references to sex, and two song titles include a mild an expletive. A disciple, Nicki Minaj, pops up on the frisky B—ch I’m Madonna, in which the titular star chants, “You’re gonna love this. … You can’t touch this.” Madonna could be parodying followers — some of whom have absorbed her through Minaj and other younger stars — who have been inspired by her confidence and marketing savvy but are often less intuitive about things like desire and pain, be it their own or others’.
Madonna asserts both her enduring indomitability and her vulnerability, even getting self-referential a few times. On Veni Vidi Vici, she charts the past via song titles — “I saw a Ray of Light/Music saved my life” — then passes the mic to Nas, who recalls his own rise, rather more flamboyantly.
Nas raps playfully at the end, “Madonna on the track/Nas in the back.” But each is a survivor, and Rebel Heart celebrates that increasingly rare bird with a bittersweet vengeance.
Download: HeartBreak City, Body Shop, Veni Vidi Vici, Ghosttown.
Source: USA Today