by Bradley Donalson
Lucky number 13—Madonna has released the latest album in her 32 years as a pop artist and icon. That’s a lot to live up to—and a lot to try and outdo—but the fit 56-year-old’s album has the feel of the new and young. The Material Girl reaches across the pop sphere and incorporates elements of hip-hop, reggae, rap, and dance into her new album, as well as sampling some of her own hits. And as Madonna is want to do, she pairs religious symbolism with heavy sexuality in a way that is both shocking and not unexpected.
But let’s try something different. Seeing as how her music career has been around longer that I have, how about we take a look at this one inside a vacuum without comparing it to her previous work. (For the record, I’m going into this concept knowing that it’s impossible, but we can try, right?)
Madonna has some great pop and dance tracks. “Unapologetic Bitch” has a syncopated groove that mixes with some interesting licks that create an interesting combo accentuating M’s lyrics. We should also be prepared for the conspiracy theorists to come out of the woodwork following “Illuminati.” Her membership will probably be revoked anyway, because under the dark, driving beats and electronic ornamentation, you can hear her ethereal voice and rapid-fire lyric giving away secrets about who isn’t actually in the club. They were great cover, honey; now what are we going to do?
Madonna also knows how to play. “Body Shop” uses stripped-down accompaniment (comparatively speaking) to give a fresh sound. It sounds like a song a group of kids at McKinley High would start singing while sitting around their choir room. It’s simplistic without being simple and light without being frivolous. “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which features Nicki Minaj, seems a bit tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the concept of The Madonna that people have come to expect. (Yeah, that didn’t last long, but I made it as long as I could.) The melody seems a little simplistic before moving into rougher sounds and complex harmonies with a healthy dose of sass directed at anyone who might have forgotten who she is. And in case you did, “Iconic” blends Chance the Rapper and Mike Tyson with the icon’s trademark message of self-empowerment. And while the message appears to be rooted in classic Madonna, the elements all blend in a way that sounds new and modern. The same can be said for her ballad “Joan of Arc,” which is a soft as “Iconic” is hard, discussing the pain of being constantly in the public eye, everyone expecting perfection yet still being limited.
Of the 19 songs on Rebel Heart, not all of them are jewels. Things like “S.E.X.” using lines that seem like they were written by a teenage girl (“oh my god, you’re so hot”… seriously) and listing seemingly random items—switchblades, Novocain, dental chairs, and raw meat—as aphrodisiacs seem to be reaching beyond the pale into just being confusing. And “Holy Water” comparing her… fluids to the title liquid can be taken in stride as Madonna being Madonna and trying to push boundaries, especially when she claims that “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” It’s ironic that being shocking and unexpected has become unsurprising and expected for an artist like Madonna.
Even with some less-than-stellar offerings on the new album, it still shines. And in case you ever forget exactly how Madonna has stayed on top for over three decades, feel free to check all the references in “Veni Vidi Vici,” featuring Nas, and you’ll understand how she came, saw, and conquered.