Release Date: March 10, 2015
As the woman who reinvented and ultimately defined what pop stardom means, Madonna understands the first rule of it better than anyone else: Never be afraid to embarrass yourself. In her 30-plus-year reign as the genre’s queen, Madge has acutely displayed the difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness, and why it’s as important to have plenty of the former as it is to lack the latter entirely. Top-40 titans are more compelling when it’s evident they know exactly what they’re doing, but once it’s clear that they’re adjusting their music or personality based on audience perception or expectation, it’s probably already over for them.
At age 56, she is still generating excessive debate and extensive criticism for this reason — she fails to kowtow to the public’s assumption that popular icons (and female ones in particular) should age gracefully, or at least obviously. Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th and latest album, references drug usage, name-drops (other) celebrities, and contains no shortage of eye-rolling double entendres. It’s not about motherhood, it’s not about nostalgia, and it’s definitely not about being less than a decade away from social security. It’s an album that makes it exceptionally easy for critics — or just the Internet at large — to turn Madonna into a punchline, the old hag that still thinks she’s 25 and just can’t understand that no one wants to hear a 50-something talking about how Yeezus ranks her pussy. It also contains a number of Madonna’s best songs in years.
The highlights on Rebel Heart are the ones in which the increasingly caustic pop legend embraces her nasty side and just lets the haters have at it — to the point where both of the best songs have “Bitch” in the title. “Unapologetic Bitch” is about as successful and seamless a rebranding as Madge could ask for in the year 2015. Co-written and produced by Diplo, a man prone to the occasional bout of unapologetic bitchiness himself, the reggae-tinged banger is as snarlingly exhilarating as “Human Nature” was 20 years ago, but now Madonna is done with even feigning shock at being told what not to talk about, instead casually proffering, “I gotta call it like it is.” Even better is “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which throws a dash of PC Music capo SOPHIE’s ping-ponging oddball freneticisim into Diplo’s block-dropping beats, with the diva alternating between pitch-shifted shrieks of “Who do you think you are??” and the sing-songy title taunt. It might not be your favorite Madonna, but it’s unquestionably her, and it’s far more compelling than the anonymous EDM enthusiast she played on MDNA.
Not all of the record’s more ostentatious moments pop in quite same way. “Illuminati” wastes a potentially explosive, blacklit Kanye beat on a muddled, hashtagging lyric that isn’t even as conspiracy-baiting as it thinks it is, while the laundry list of intoxicants referenced sneeringly in the fallen-angel ballad “Devil Pray” makes the song sound like a mid-’80s PSA. Slow songs are a problem for Rebel Heart in general — ponderous, over-serious and exhausted with halfhearted Catholic guilt, they bog down what could otherwise be the most fun album Madonna’s made in at least a decade. But not all the best songs are headline-grabbers, either — “Livin’ for Love” achieves communal dancefloor euphoria simply by harkening back to “Vogue”-era house piano and catchphrase chorusing, while “Body Shop” is fun enough in its sllippery, Eastern-flavored production to be imminently forgivable for its groaning cars-as-sex metaphor.
Ultimately, even in the record’s clunkier moments, it’s gratifying to hear Madonna leaning defiantly (and gleefully) into what many would consider to be the less savory elements of her personality. As Tina Fey would no doubt point out, it’s far too late for Madonna’s career to attempt a Meryl Streep-like third act, where she gracefully flits between gigs, stunning with grace and professionalism and proving the role model for all younger aspirants. Madonna’s Rebel Heart is actually much closer to that of former VMAs combatant Courtney Love, a Bad Girl who has alienated casual fans over the years with her unwillingness to age out of her brattiness, but is beloved by her more rabid fans for just that reason. If she’s going down, she’s gonna go down bitching.