When a handful of Madonna demos leaked last week — an event she called “artistic rape” and a “form of terrorism” — she decided to fight fire with fire by releasing the official versions of six songs cut from her upcoming thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart. The bundle of new tracks represent her first collection of new material since 2012’s MDNA, a lukewarm flirtation with contemporary club music. Thing is, though, there’s a joy to every new Madonna release that’s just separated from determining the quality of the actual music: at this point in her career she’s pop’s cockroach, resilient and hardy and shockingly adaptable. With each new record, there are lessons about the genre’s present and near future in the specific sounds and figures she chooses to help realize her vision.
Based on this first batch of Rebel Heart material, Madonna is looking to strike a balance. First, there’s are the figures at the centre of EDM and synth-pop, her chosen modes of operation — meaning writers and producers like Diplo, Avicii, and Savan Kotecha. Then, she ropes in artists working at the vanguard across a variety of genres, from superstars like Kanye West to relative nobodies like producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Sophie. This is a savvy move — what a surprise, a smart play from one of the canniest pop stars to ever roam an arena — because it allows her to play to the masses while still pushing boundaries.
The songs that lead off this first Rebel Heart blast, lead single “Living for Love” and “Devil Pray,” could fit in neatly on the radio beside this year’s British house-pop crossovers and Avicii’s own “Hey Brother.” The ones that close it, namely the abrasive half-rapped Kanye collaboration “Illuminati” and caffeine-drunk trap anthem/Nicki Minaj feature “Bitch I’m Madonna,” hew closer to the spirit of PC Music’s obscure SoundCloud accounts and the sharp edges of Yeezus.
And because Madonna exists in rarefied air, the kind reserved for luminaries like herself and Prince and very few others, each of her new releases is less of an independent statement than a response to everything she’s done before, another chapter tacked onto an epic novel with no definite end. The tones, themes, and imagery that make up her musical toolbox — the frank sensuality, the various methods of intoxication, the lapsed Catholicism, the uncompromising confidence — are gospel at this point, and they elevate some of the more forgettable Rebel Heart material to a base level of pleasure. It’s fun to hear Madonna deliver a line like, “It might sound like I’m an unapologetic bitch / but sometimes you know I gotta call I like it is” (and try on 2 Chainz’ flow, just for kicks) because she has three’ decades worth of unapologetic bitchiness in her back pocket. It’s an easy score, sure, but it’s effective. And if the complete version of Rebel Heart, due March 10th via Interscope, can deliver a few more of those easy scores alongside a bit more adventurous songwriting, the album could be Madonna’s finest in almost a decade.