The Queen of Pop had a rough week. Over the last year, Madonna has been highly prolific on social media, letting us in on the process to diligently complete her upcoming 13th studio album. With pictures showing off collaborators (Diplo, Avicii) and hashtags showing off song titles, it was clear she wasn’t shy about whetting our appetites. However, she clearly wasn’t ready to give away the store when a big chunk of unfinished demos found their way onto the internet. For an artist as controlling over her art as Madonna is, there was no bigger monkey wrench that could have thwarted her plans. After taking to her familiar social media platform to express her distaste for the theft of her integrity, Madge rallied and pulled off one of the best recoveries in recent pop history…if not ever. Instead of wallowing in her sorrow, the Queen of Pop exemplified just why she had earned that title by thinking on her feet and rush releasing 6 finished tracks from the upcoming album, now known to be entitled Rebel Heart. This move shocked everyone from her fans to critics, but it was clear by the initial response that this was a genius recovery from an otherwise devastating blow to her artistic process. While it is impossible to review these 6 songs as a complete album or even an EP seeing as the rest Rebel Heart is coming in March, and it would be totally remiss to pin all the focus on lead single “Living For Love,” let’s take this track by track and see just what the incomparable Madonna has truly pulled off.
LIVING FOR LOVE
“Living For Love” is a return-to-form lead single. This Diplo production, which also seeks help from the likes of Alicia Keys, is a house clunker that borrows some classic elements from Madge’s hey day (gospel choir, thundering piano line,) but showcases a rejuvenating self awareness that was severely lacking from some of her more recent works. Breaking the trend of launching an album with the help of featured artists, Madonna has full reign over our attention here with her hopeful lyrics and dazzling melody that could have been ripped right out of her Like A Prayer era. Despite not taking a massive, game-changing artistic detour, “Living For Love” is a triumph that exemplifies her worth to continue to sustain a presence on both radio and the dance floor.
“Devil Pray” is a particularly compelling track, co-produced with Avicii, Blood Diamonds, Dahi, and Falk. If you look through the fog of drug references and routine religious imagery, the experience is revealed to be about seeking a bigger, more sustainable natural connection, but in true Madonna form, she had to take an edgy detour. The real highlight here is the backing track, though, which begins with a folksy guitar and becomes a mid-tempo electro house groove that teases us constantly. When it hits its stride, it’s actually quite euphoric, although unconventionally. “Devil Pray” is easily one of the better latter day Madonna tracks.
Madonna hasn’t pulled off a ballad this gentle and powerful since the ’90s. This Billboard-assisted production sees Madge stepping out of her dance floor comfort zone, but into something she’s constantly kept coming back to ever since she flawlessly pulled of “Live To Tell” back in the mid-80s. This explosive power ballad tackles her motif of hope, this time in the context of a post-apocalyptic world, and her motherly vocals bring a layer of warmth and peace to an otherwise grim track. “Ghosttown” is the kind of song that only a pop star like Madonna could pull off without having to bring up the words “cheesy” or “boring” even once.
Off all the phrases-now-song-titles Madonna has been throwing around this past year, none have been as prevalent as “Unapologetic Bitch.” The completed track is another Diplo production, that remains both true to form and varied enough to really showcase the groundwork for a diverse, but cohesive record. The song weaves in elements of reggae and dancehall that could have been an authentic ska anthem had they not chosen to replace blaring horns with synthesizers. Nonetheless, Madonna doing her best Gwen Stefani impression actually comes out sounding pretty successful, and, naturally, damn catchy.
With Kanye currently at his most batshit crazy as a producer, it seems to be the perfect time for him to rejoin forces with Madonna to create something particularly ballsy. While “Illuminati” isn’t quite the offbeat masterpiece we’d hope for, it holds some incredible worth. Tackling the widespread, outlandish Illuminati conspiracy theory, and essentially name checking anyone and everyone who has ever been associated with it, Madge both has some fun and makes some sense of it. Production wise, there’s nothing particularly climactic or explosive, but its restraint actually endears us to it a little more than it would have otherwise.
BITCH I’M MADONNA (featuring Nicki Minaj)
Easily the most intriguing track of the lot, “Bitch I’m Madonna,” features a rather impressive, but brief appearance from Nicki Minaj, a clear continuation of their MDNA collabo “I Don’t Give A” that famously climaxed in the exclamation, “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna, bitch!” This textbook Diplo production is a bonafide party anthem that steals most of the attention from Madonna’s (almost inaudible) spit-fire vocals, but it somehow actually comes together quite well. “Bitch” is sure to become a club anthem, if not a concert favorite, even despite its shamelessness; it is deliriously fun.