‘Rebel Heart’ Tamed: Our 12-Track Edit of Madonna’s New Album
With more than 30 songs to work with, we restructured the overstuffed LP
Earlier this month, Madonna’s new album leaked in full. It wasn’t the first time this promotional cycle that the iconic singer has been dealt a blow by hackers, as more than 30 of her tracks trickled online in unfinished form throughout the month of December. Her final product suffers from such a severe lack of self-editing, overstuffed with clunkers, messy harmonies, lazily strung together lyrics, and an almost irreperably uneven flow.
In the interest of helping Madonna salvage this campaign (and preserve her legacy), SPIN has dug deep into every single track publically available from the Rebel Heart era to re-track and restructure the album. Our 12-track version consists of a mix of fully mastered album cuts, album demos, and a track that wasn’t ever supposed to see the light of day. We present to you Rebel Heart Tamed.
1. “Living For Love” (album version)
For all of the album’s unevenness, Madonna made the right call with Rebel Heart’s will-to-power opener: “Livin’ for Love” builds slowly to its anthemic pre-chorus, but as soon as those ’90s house piano chords hit, you’re ten years old dancing to “Vogue” or “Ray of Light” on the radio again. It’s her best club anthem in ages, and it’s probably the song that a lot of old-school Madonna fans wish that she would fashion an entire album after. We’re good with just the one throwback, though, and putting it front and center as a reminder of why we’ve loved Madonna all along is a pretty good look. ANDREW UNTERBERGER
2. “Bitch I’m Madonna” (feat. Nicki Minaj) (album version)
The most surprising thing about a song that’s actually called “Bitch, I’m Madonna” is that it doesn’t have any surprises. Our premier pop matriarch didn’t get to the top of the world by running in place, and this Diplo-helmed track braids together several key pop sounds of the last few years: the crabwalking synths of “Turn Down for What,” clippy, affected Auto-Tuned rapping à la Miley, skittering breakdowns courtesy of meta-pop provocateur Sophie and — what else? — a 16 from Her Minajesty. By the time Madge proclaims herself a bad bitch, it’s like, lady, we remember. DAN WEISS
3. “Two Steps Behind Me” (non-album demo, prod. by Avicii)
In December, this incendiary demo leaked and within an hour, Madonna had already uploaded an Instagram distancing herself from its message, quick to note that it was not about Lady Gaga as was heavily rumored: “Their [sic] are People that are so hateful. they want to create feuds between strong women that do not exist! I do not wish ill will towards any other female artist and i never have!”
Ignore that missive. “Two Steps Behind Me” finds Madonna standing atop ground strewn with the careers of pop stars who couldn’t outlast her reign. “Here we go again / In your fantasy / You can try it all / But you can’t be she,” she says with a sneer, her vocals still generally untouched by Auto-Tune, rendering her verdict icy and potent. She’s at her best when she draws blood, and this demo finds the icon at peak “Unapologetic Bitch.” BRENNAN CARLEY
4. “Rebel Heart (album demo)
This retrospective is Madonna’s sweetest melody since “What It Feels Like For a Girl,” with her register dropped an octave or two until it resembles the Liz Phair of 2005’s (underrated) Somebody’s Miracle. “I’ve spent some time as a narcissist,” she admits before slant rhyming it with “provocative,” a move that sums up her last 15 years as well as any. The album version marches along as a pop-rock respite from the two discs of EDM, but the supremely Avicii’d-up demo (one of more than five that leaked) continues the dance party well past the downtempo hours, with plucky synths, unused counterpoint vocals, and punchier disco strings. Wake her up; she’s older and wiser. D.W.
5. “Iconic” (feat. Chance the Rapper & Mike Tyson) (album version)
With its robotic, authoritarian droning, “Iconic” conveys the point that — love her or hate her — Madonna is an icon, and you’re not getting rid of her anytime soon. It’s a statement that’s hard to deny, and in many ways, it’s the album’s lynchpin. However, if we could make one additional edit to this song, it would be to drop the Mike Tyson intro: The open-armed acceptance of Tyson as a goofy celebrity, despite his reprehensible past, feels off-brand. JAMES GREBEY
6. “Body Shop” (album version)
The shuffling drums, gently plucked acoustic guitar, and dribbled-out vocals threaten to ground “Body Shop” in Jason Mraz territory before the song can really take flight. Luckily, the sneaky build of the beat — formed around handclaps, backing yelps, and even some creeping Eastern winds (damn, is that a shehnai?) — give the song much-needed levity, making it a perfect mid-album breather. The less attention paid to the cars-as-sex extended metaphor — “So pop the hood and see what’s good / I need a tune-up man” — the better, though. A.U.
7. “Joan of Arc” (album version)
Though this re-edit loads Rebel Heart with a dance-heavy first half, one of the finished album’s most shocking moments comes in the simplistic “Joan of Arc.” Its opening verse is the rawest that Madonna’s voice has sounded since Ray of Light. Accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, she sings about the pressure of fame without stooping to cliches: “Each time they take a photograph / I lose a part I can’t get back / I wanna hide.” In a perfect world, the synthed-up chorus would’ve remained as stripped and vulnerable as the track’s verses, but “Joan of Arc” revels convincingly in its vulnerability. B.C.
8. “Illuminati” (demo)
Far be it from SPIN to suggest that Kanye West stumbled in his rework of “Illuminati,” but something about the Yeezus megamind’s mastered final cut detracts from the demo’s whiplash weirdness. On Ye’s version, the track flails in overwrought production, its lyrical power lost to thunks and howls that are a little too purposeful in their creepiness. Part of the original’s charm is how organically, DIY-spooky it comes across with its incessant drum beats and a strikingly Avicii-esque post-chorus. On Rebel Heart, the song takes itself too seriously, but the warmth and humor of the “Illuminati” demo make it the more interesting inclusion. B.C.
9. “Holy Water” (album version)
In case you somehow forgot about the “Like a Prayer” video or her namesake (don’t start even get her started: “Bitch…”), the Queen of P-O-P is also the queen of church-baiting innuendos, and this one might be her bait-iest yet: “Don’t it taste like holy water?” she asks, before clarifying that yes, Yeezy did reupholster her pussy. She starts by shooing you off her pole and climaxes by quoting her own classic “Vogue,” over a maelstrom of black leather synth blips. When she finally cajoles, “I promise you it’s not a sin,” what — are you calling Madonna a liar? D.W.
10. “Heartbreak City” (album demo)
While there aren’t a ton of differences between the album version of “Heartbreak City” and its equally as emotive demo, this version’s vocals stand apart, plus it keeps off the hackneyed martial drums that sludge up the final cut. It’s also confessional-mode-Madonna on full blast: “You got just what you came for / A bit of fame and fortune / Now I’m no longer needed,” she sings with a noticeable, weeping warble. This is the way to deal with heartbreak: Drench your lyrics in nuance, expose only enough dirt to keep listeners interested, and keep the production bare. B.C.
11. “Veni Vidi Vici” (feat. Nas) (album version)
This is one of the strangest conceivable pairings, but somehow, each of them bolsters the other’s street cred. After Madge spits verses shouting out her classic tracks — how many people can construct an entire song based on callbacks to old material and her fans? — Nasty Nas jumps in with a verse that eviscerates ex-wife Kelis and outlines his own struggles. “Had a baby girl / By a crazy girl… / That ended / In a bad divorce,” he rhymes. We’re also incredibly thankful that she kept her chorus simple — “I came / I saw / I conquered” — without tacking on an unnescessary Latin retranslation. B.C.
12. “Unapologetic Bitch” (album version)
Rebel Heart really is two albums in one, as it alternates between a boisterous Madonna and a more open, thoughtful, and venerable Madge. The way she chooses to finish this exercise in dichotomy is important, so it would makes sense for her to conclude by really doubling down on her role as the Queen of Pop. She doesn’t apologize. If you didn’t like what you heard, Madonna DGAF. J.G.