Album Review

Madonna, ‘Rebel Heart’: Track-By-Track (Part One)

Madonna, you bitch. You #unapologeticbitch.

Last night — well, early this morning, or whenever you’re reading this — the Queen Of Pop semi-released her 13th studio album, Rebel Heart, in a swift, Beyoncé-ian drop on iTunes. Of course, unlike Bey, Madonna’s been digitally navigating us through every single song title, lyric and produce included on her upcoming LP for over a year. So, to classify this one as a complete “surprise” release would be, uh, wrong.

That being said, semi-releasing an album on the Friday night before Christmas, when most of the world was busy traveling home, sleeping and roadtripping (or, in my case, crouched in the corner of a gay bar shaking and crying), wasn’t a move most people expected Madonna to make. A rebel heart, indeed.

(To be fair, she did warn us time and time again: Trust no bitch.)

The semi-release was reactionary: 13 rough demos from this record (an entire album’s worth!) were leaked onto the Internet earlier this week, including five of the 6 songs made available at midnight. What else was there for a Queen Of Pop to do but to capitalize on the panic in the industry, polish off a few of the records closest to being finished and throw them out to the thirsty masses? And so, she did.

Let us rummage through Madonna’s Hanukkah gift — EP1, perhaps? — with a fairly sleepless (thanks Madge!) track-by-track breakdown.

“Living For Love”

Within the first few seconds of “Living For Love,” Rebel Heart is already sonically swerving away from anything she’s recorded in over a decade. Is that…’90’s House we’re hearing? It is. Yet, unlike the teen-pop acts and UK dance troupes paying homage to an era they were barely old enough to remember (self-shade, I know), Madonna lived and loved through that point in time as an actual club queen. And essentially, she’s given us a “Deeper And Deeper” for 2015. The song is transcendent, managing to be entirely in vogue (REFERENCE) with the current ’90’s House revival at radio today while staying true to all things Material Girl: Big, unapologetically gay throbbing pulsations, uplifting lyricism, religious imagery, perseverance and self-empowerment — it’s all here. It’s a total beast of a collaborative effort too, featuring MoZella, Ariel Rechtstaid, Toby Gad, Diplo and Nick Rowe. And yes, that’s Alicia Keys playing piano in the background! Fuck singing about Tanqueray in the club: This is the Madonna we’ve always known and lived to love, with flares of the future and nostalgic nods to the past.

“Devil Pray”

Of all the songs we’re treated to from Rebel Heart so far, “Devil Pray” is perhaps the most representative of Madonna’s post-Kabbalah enlightened singer-songwriterdom. Backed by a twangy gee-tar, Madge-turned-Esther serves up life lessons wrapped around warm, singalong-friendly melodies crafted alongside Ryan Tedder. It’s very American Life — but then, there are these fresh and unusual production tics that elevate the track beyond just its guitar-led backbone: A demonic vocoder on loop, orgasmic moans, synths blipping and bleeping throughout — it’s all so weird, but in the best way possible. “Mother Mary, can’t you help me? ‘Cause I’ve gone astray…” It’s a cautionary tale of getting swept up in substance (weed, whiskey and sniffing glue, to name a few), sung by the woman who’s most certainly seen, done and Instagrammed it all…and lived to tell.

“Ghosttown”

“Ghosttown” is the only song that the public hadn’t already heard prior to the Rebel Heart semi-release last night — and possibly the best surprise. Here, Madonna’s giving us the first real power ballad on the record — a sumptuous electro-ballad, at that. “When it all falls, when it all falls down…” Do you hear that? Those are sweeping melodies. MEL-O-DIES. If there was any major complaint to be made about Madonna’s past few studio albums (and trust, there were many), a lack of memorable songcraft is perhaps one of the most overwhelming offenses. “When the world…gets…cold…I’ll be your cover/Let’s…just…hold…onto each other.” She can’t do this alone — we know that well enough, and “Ghosttown” is a gorgeously earnest, us-against-the-world anthem tailored for two souls wandering alone in this mad, mad world.

“Unapologetic Bitch”

As one of Madge’s most frequently hashtagged titles teased from her latest LP, there was already a lot riding on “Unapologetic Bitch,” which was originally rumored to be the lead single from the set. It’s not anymore — the more universally appealing “Living For Love” will go out first instead — although the song certainly would have certainly raised a few eyebrows had it gone to radio: The heavily reggae-tinged Diplo track is all sorts of Rihanna-esque phucklessness, sung by a woman who has, historically, not been one to apologize (“And I’m not sorry…”) too often. “It might sound like I’m an unapologetic bitch, but sometimes you know I gotta call it like it is,” she quite contently declares across the chorus. Intriguingly, as far as uptempo tracks are concerned, “Unapologetic Bitch” is the collection’s most laid-back and breezy. Then again, it’s a break-up anthem. Sometimes, the biggest middle finger is simply remaining unbothered. (But seriously, can we get a RiRi rih-mix of this one in the near future?)

“Illuminati”

Kanye West. Madonna. It’s Madeezus, bitch. The dark and menacing “Illuminati” is purely the stuff of Yeezy’s last LP Yeezus as far as the production concerned, from the stabbing synths to the chilly, bass-heavy beats. But lyrically speaking? Madge is giving us a history lesson about what the Illuminati actually is, going all the way back to the Founding Fathers (she was there, after all) and reminding us of what it’s not: “It’s not Jay-Z and Beyonce, it’s not Nicki or Lil Wayne/It’s not Oprah and Obama, the Pope and Rihanna/Queen Elizabeth or Kanye,” she sing-raps on the name-dropping, “Vogue”-like verses. Enlightenment, The Pope and RiRi on the dance floor? Only Madonna would, and Kanye would only be too happy to help shade the distracting deception of the media. It’s like everybody in this party shining like Illuminati!

“Bitch I’m Madonna (feat. Nicki Minaj)”

It’s about time the Queen Of Pop decided to embrace her legacy and celebrate…well, Madonna. No introspection to be found here, children: Grandmadonna is popping her puss on the dance floor, reminding us of her legacy (“You can’t mess with this lucky star!”), embarrassing and entertaining us all, just as always.The twerk-friendly, clap-heavy club bop is all about popping bottles and getting 2 On. Really, it’s unhinged: “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!” she screams throughout. (Hint: You are not Madonna, because she is Madonna.) All of the Diplo and Sophie-produced noises are positively batty, from the Baauer-like beat drops to the tearing sound that rips through the speakers at the end. (Madge’s leotard busting at the seams after one too many booty drops?) To add to the balls-to-the-wall affair, Queen Minaj arrives at the tail-end to add some fierceness and pay respect to Madonna’s bad bitch-ness. (“That’s Miu Miu on my shoes” — or a shout out to MuuMuse, Nicki?) Her appreciation for Madge is well known, which only makes for an even more deliciously reverent assist. “I’m Madonna, these hoes know.

Madonna fans, we can breathe a sigh of relief: She’s actually giving us all her L-U-V this time around.

To anyone whose main (tired) criticism about Madonna is that the woman is trying to sound “current”: Well, of course she is, you idiot. What, like Taylor Swift isn’t? That’s the entire business of being a pop star.

Yes, she’s old now, and that’s certainly not going to change. But she’s also not done dancing, partying and celebrating, and fuck whoever thinks she should be: Madonna is challenging the way a 50+ year old female pop star is perceived in pop culture and how a woman her age “should” act, whether you like it or not. Sorry, she’s not slipping on a gown, belting out orchestral renditions of her greatest hits and quietly fading into obscurity — you’ll have to drag her out screaming from the studio first.

That being said, beyond the bragging and bitchiness of Rebel Heart, the album also promises to be something more introspective. Songs like “Ghosttown” and “Devil Pray” — even “Living For Love” — come from a place of someone who has truly lived (and loved) life to the fullest. Really, what more can we ask of Madonna in 2015?

This is an eclectic record based on what we’ve already heard, from ’90’s House to trap to reggae to twangy acoustic guitar-led balladry: There’s no shortage of sounds to come from Rebel Heart. Unlike Madge’s more obvious trend-hopping past LPs, from recruiting Timbaland two years too late on Hard Candy to the immediately dated-sounding dance floor foray with MDNA, Rebel Heart feels fresh and forward-thinking, and more faithful to Madonna’s #unapologeticartistry. There’s also safety in numbers: With production from acts like Diplo and Kanye, both of whom are far from one-trick production ponies, Madonna’s not going to be susceptible to serving up reductive shit.

In fact, for the first time in over a decade, Madonna’s sounds like she’s blazing trails again, just as an icon should.

…And this is only the beginning.

‘Rebel Heart’ will be released on March 10. (iTunes)