[Music] Madonna – Rebel Heart (review)

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Review: Despite exploiting both the public’s desire and distaste for sexual provocation throughout a career spanning more than thirty years, Madonna’s thirteenth studio album Rebel Heart sees the Queen of Pop release a song entitled “S.E.X” for the very first time. One of the most potent examples of Madonna’s flair for media manipulation would involve her using titillation and its inherent shock value as a means of establishing discourses on power, control, and AIDS anxiety on 1992’s Erotica. With song titles such as “Deeper and Deeper”, “Why’s It So Hard” and “Bad Girl” winking at you from its tracklisting, the album may as well have been sold with a pack of pearls for listeners unwilling to explore its thematic depths to clutch. “Deeper and Deeper” almost drowns in own its doe-eyed reverence for love, “Why’s It So Hard” is a plea for world peace, and “Bad Girl” wraps up its exploration of destructive vices in a poultice of self-loathing.

“S.E.X.”, meanwhile, is about sex.

Couple this transparency with the presence of even more references to the singer’s discography than 2012’s MDNA, and there’s a certainly case to made for Rebel Heart finding Madonna in an uncharacteristically unimaginative state of mind. Although the Super Deluxe Edition’s twenty-five tracks may once again present the listener with an array of musical swatches to choose from, at least the record’s evident influences are just a little more time-honoured than those of 2006’s Hard Candy – a relic of Timbaland’s mid-noughties chart ubiquity – and the tuneless EDM of MDNA.

The glassy deep house of lead single “Living For Love” is a triumph, marrying Madonna hallmarks – gospel influences, self-empowering lyrics – to Diplo’s oh-so-current but disciplined production. “Devil Pray” never fully cashes in on the country-dance credentials presented in disillusioned verses in which Madonna appeals to a higher power for salvation, instead luring its chorus away from the barn dance and into a demonic orgy turned rave.

There are moments in which Rebel Heart feels genuinely fresh; Diplo and PC Music’s SOPHIE buff the plastic arrogance of the Nicki Minaj-featuring “Bitch I’m Madonna” with a decidedly cartoonish and auto-tuned sheen, rounding it off with confrontational blasts of what sounds like a dog being unnerved by a frantically pulled zip. “Iconic” could become Madonna’s very own “Eye Of the Tiger”, with a mouthy prologue from Mike Tyson fizzing into cascades of quasi-industrial beats, a victory lap of a chorus (“I can! / Icon! / Two letters apart”) and an appearance from Chance The Rapper. Producer Kanye West is in Yeezus mode on “Illuminati”, propping up Madonna’s intentionally dead-eyed anti-conspiratorial raps (“It’s not Isis or the Phoenix, The Pyramids of Egypt; Don’t make it into something sordid”) with heavy, sluggishly churning synths.

Critics will be quick to note the divide between these edgier cuts and the record’s more heartfelt and traditionally structured offerings. “Ghosttown”, the piano-led “HeartBreakCity”, and the largely acoustic “Joan of Arc” are easily Madonna’s finest ballads in a decade, but there are instances of the dualities implied by the record’s title intersecting. On “Body Shop”, her floaty voice woos a lover over a gossamer-light folk arrangement with a series of car-related puns, but when you hear Madonna sing “jumpstart my heart”, there is something sweet to take from them not all being exclusively sexual. On “Inside Out”, a slightly gigglesome topline of “Let me love from the inside out” doubles as both as a sexual solicitation and an unconditional acceptance of a lover’s flaws.

There’s little resembling an encompassing musical thread to Rebel Heart. Uptempo’s are something of a rarity, with many of the club-orientated tracks pacing themselves to deliver more fleshed out choruses. The self-referencing gets occasionally tiresome on “Holy Water” and “Veni Vidi Vici”; the first a deliriously camp (“Bitch, get off my pole!”) endorsement of female ejaculation with an unnecessary interpolation of “Vogue”, the second a wistful retrospective of Madonna’s life and career with lyrics made up of shout outs to her biggest hits: “I expressed myself, came like a virgin down the aisle / Exposed my naked ass, and I did it with a smile.”

So that brings us back to “S.E.X”. After so many years in the game, Madonna has probably earned the right to serve up such dimly derivative material if she should so wish. But Rebel Heart also embraces all of her strengths as an artist, from theatrical balladry (“Messiah”) to cocksure dancefloor fillers (“Unapologetic Bitch”) to exercises in sensual R&B (the bhangra-infused “Best Night”). At 56, Madonna is carving out a cultural space for older women in the music industry and beyond to further explore their sexuality and creativity. The fruits of her efforts will obviously take a few years to quantify and appreciate, but the adventurous streak running throughout much of her latest record shows why Madonna will always be a rebel at heart.

8.5 / 10

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