Review Summary: Madonna is as Madonna does.
Should we really be excited for a new Madonna album in the year 2019?
Sure, Madonna's persistence in the wake of her noticable aging, and and growing unpopularity amongst booming pop idols is something to admire, but a lot of times it has only served to act as a window into what many choose to see as a middle aged woman trying too hard to prove she's relevant. Not a lot of people will go out of their way to deny that Madonna's prime is way behind her- even die-hards nowadays seem to find it hard to not roll their eyes at every embarrassing promotional tactic she employs with each and every album she releases. A fine example of this was in 2015, when she compared the leak of her Rebel Heart
album to being raped
, and the bizarre viral promo art featuring historic icons bound in S&M gear. If this had happened when Madonna was in her 1993 Erotica
phase, maybe it would have been passable, but nearly 22 years later, age 56 is an age that such a move has the general public thinking you should know better. With how hard she tries to maintain her relevance, it's almost impossible to shake the feeling that most of everybody finds it hard to care about Madonna anymore. Exactly what has caused this is debatable- to me, it seems to be that the success of Madge's comeback Confessions on a Dance Floor
saw her on the wrong side of an artistic transformation; the success of that album seems to have given birth to a Madonna less concerned with re-inventing herself and more concerned with trying to get everyone to ignore her age in order to expand her sphere of influence, and the effects of the free-fall in quality that occurred with Hard Candy
and Rebel Heart
was felt hard. That's obviously a pretty baseless accusation on its face, but one quick listen to those albums, and hearing gems like "Ghosttown", "Falling Free" and "Miles Away" buried beneath seas of "Gang Bang"s, "Spanish Lesson"s and "Bitch I'm Madonna"s makes this almost hilariously impossible to ignore.
And so here we are in 2019. Madonna is 60, has released her first album in four years (her third this decade too), and doesn't seem to really care what people think anymore, let alone fans who have been there "since the beginning". And for her, that's a monkey off her back. It seems to be one for us too, because Madame X
is a perfect portrait of someone who has hit the bottom and has nowhere to go but up. And she tries- dear lord she tries. She doesn't always succeed, but like everyone who has nowhere else to go after a steep decline in relevance, she seems to understand that baby steps are the most important of any. Whether it will stand out among her past few records or just go on to be yet another desperate attempt to stay relevant is debatable, but what's not debatable is that Madonna hasn't lost her way of capturing your attention just yet.
In true Madonna fashion, Madame X
is at its best at its absolute weirdest. In fact, this is detectable right off the bat with opening track "Medellin"; people expecting an energetic starter along the lines of "Girl Gone Wild" will be surprised to hear the bombast traded for a carribean-influenced tune that's as sexy and danceable as it is melancholy and almost dreamlike. It's the first of quite a few duets too, the first of two with Colombian rapper Maluma. Despite the May-December age difference, it's surprising just how much chemistry they have- the two flirt with each other in Spanglish, with little moments of "Te gusta" and "slow down Papi" interspersed with a recurring "One, two, two one, one, two, cha-cha-cha", and these permeate almost psychedelic lyrics that at times even contain a helpful dash of self-deprecative bitterness ("Forgave myself for being me
"). The next track follows suit, with "Dark Ballet" starting off as a typical modern Madonna number before devolving into a nightmarish, bizarre synth rendition of "Dance of the Reed Flutes" while Madonna mumbles some nonsense about how "they're insane" and "they think we don't know" over top. It should make you roll your eyes and cringe, but it ends up being easily the most original thing she has done in quite some time. Likewise, "Batuka" is one heavily autotuned call-and-response song that will put some people off due to either the overly preachy nature or the extremely detectable autotune, but the infectiously catchy beat and hypnotic nature of the music easily overpowers that and ends up showing that Madonna's knack for experimentation is still there.
Which is why it's incredibly bizarre that when all is business as usual for Madonna is when the album becomes almost cringeworthy or eye-rolling. A gorgeously rustic melody on "Killers Who are Partying" is wasted due to virtue-signal happy lyrics where she attempts to put herself in the shoes of the oppressed that's about as subtle as a shovel across the face. "I Rise" follows suit, with even more questionable ideas like sampling a speech from Emma Gonzalez (paired with overly inspiration porn-ish lyrics to boot), and ill-advised tracks like "Crazy" or "Bitch I'm Loca" (the less said about the latter, the better). And it's also not without some missed opportunites. "God Control" could be an excellent throwback to her Confessions
with the overtly disco-influenced beat, but its ill-fated attempts at commentary on America's obsession with guns cause it to fall flat on its face (and also slightly hypocritical from someone who gave us "Revolver", "Oh Dear Daddy" and "Gang Bang". In fact, one of the more questionable decisions was to only include the album's best song, "Extreme Occident", on the Deluxe Edition of the album. Said song is a melancholy ballad that stays mostly downbeat, with some eletronic tribal sections here and there, and its lyrics are as confessional and raw from Madonna as we'll get in 2018.
One of the more fascinating aspects about the album is its pseudo-conceptual nature. Madame X, according to Madonna, is a secret agent, and every song is supposed to represent a different aspect of hers. In fact, one big positive of this album is that much of the ADHD that littered Rebel Heart
and Hard Candy
(and simultaneously made them hard to sit through) is missing from the album. That's right, this album is probably her most conceptually consistent since Confessions
. It doesn't have the same "one big long track" feel that album does, but every song seems to flow into each other and more or less build on them. In fact, "Crave", "Crazy", and "Come Alive" all in a row are a fine example of the album's flow, and even the weak tracks feel like they're a part of something bigger- a first for Madonna in a very long time.
When all is said and done, Madame X
is probably the most honest product Madonna has put out in a while. That's not a particularly grand endorsement, nor is it to say it's her best album she's released in ages, but it shows that Madonna finally has something of an artistic vision and is interested in pursuing it. It won't win back people who at this point have jumped ship, but it's easily better than most of what she's put out in the past decade- after all, in the year 2019, Madonna is as Madonna does.