Madonna's last album, MDNA, released in 2012, continued the pop chanteuse's penchant for dance-friendly anthems, with successful singles that included "Girl Gone Wild" and "Turn Up the Radio." Nonetheless, many fans and critics argued that the album lacked "heart." With Madonna's latest record, Rebel Heart, out March 10th (officially, though anyone who has wanted to hear it has already done so thanks to the numerous leaks), no one can accuse her of not putting Like A Prayer/Ray of Light level emotion into it.
Beginning with "Living for Love," a song that's been compared to "Express Yourself" in terms of its anthemic nature, Madonna solidified her place on the dance charts with a first single that would go on to become her 44th number one on the dance floor. Being an unusual pop song for the fact that it addresses the topic of moving on after losing love as opposed to simply waxing melancholy about it (see: "I Will Always Love You," etc.), the song is a unique addition to the canon of pop staples.
"Devil Pray" follows "Living for Love" and echoes the folksy sound of "Don't Tell Me." While certain ageist parties might have trouble swallowing Madonna singing, "And we can do drugs and we can smoke weed and we can drink whiskey/Yeah we can get high and we can get stoned/And we can sniff glue and we can do E and we can drop acid/Forever be lost with no way home," the natural twang of her vocals can't help but win you over.
The mid-pace tempo of "Ghosttown," one of the only ballad-y songs on Rebel Heart (undoubtedly to further prove that the Queen of Pop hasn't gone soft), showcases Madonna at her most supportive as she croons, "When it all falls, when it all falls down/I'll be your fire when the light goes out/When there's no one, no one else around/We'll be two souls in a ghost town." This is the most obvious choice for her "rest" song while on tour, as evidenced by her performance on the French talk show Le Grand Journal.
The Rasta-infused, blatantly Diplo-produced "Unapologetic Bitch" is arguably the sassiest track on Rebel Heart, and quite possibly Madonna's entire career. While speculation continues over who M is referring to when she seethes, "I'm poppin' bottles that you can't even afford/I'm throwin' parties and you won't get in the door," one can take his pick of the youthful litter of men Madonna has dated that fit this description, including Jesus Luz, Brahim Zaibat and Timor Steffens. Whoever the vitriol is directed at, it makes for one of the best songs to dance to from the record.
Kanye West continues the roster of noteworthy producers on Rebel Heart with the gritty, visceral beats of "Illuminati." Both embracing and putting the kibosh on rumors of being a member of the illuminati, Madonna sings, "The all-seeing eye is watching tonight/That's what it is, the truth and the light." Flipping the script on the perceived definition of illuminati, Madonna, in an interview with Rolling Stone, stated, "The real Illuminati were a group of scientists, artists, philosophers and writers who came about in what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, after the Dark Ages, when there was no writing and no art and no creativity and no spirituality, and life was really at a standstill. And right after that, everything flourished. So we had people like Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Isaac Newton, and all these great minds and great thinkers, and they were called Illuminati."
The declarative "Bitch I'm Madonna" rivals "Unapologetic Bitch" for best dance track off Rebel Heart, with a SOPHIE-produced bassline that's perfected by backing vocals from Nicki Minaj (joining forces with Madonna again after their collaboration with M.I.A. on MDNA's "Give Me All Your Luvin'"). "Hold Tight" slows down the pace ever so slightly, with uplifting lyrics in a similar vein as "Ghosttown." Urging, "Hold tight, as long as you're by my side/Hold tight, everything's gonna be all right/I know we'll find a way, push to the limit with no end in sight," Madonna makes you feel as though you might just be able to get through your ordeal.
The most quintessential ballad, "Joan of Arc," succeeds "Hold Tight" and displays the "heart" side of Madonna as the "rebel" takes a backseat. Expressing her lament over the judgment and ire constantly thrown her way, she mourns, "Each time they write a hateful word, draggin' my soul into the dirt/I wanna die/Never admit it, but it hurts." The previously unadmitted admission gives us a glimpse into what Madonna has been dealing with for most of her career, especially what critics mockingly call her golden years.
Madonna persists in the easy creation of anthems with "Iconic" featuring the somewhat odd and unexpected pairing of Mike Tyson and Chance the Rapper. Madonna had probably been wanting to collaborate with Tyson ever since they went on a double date with their then respective significant others to see Big Top Pee-Wee and Tyson fell asleep. Making the distinction, "I can, icon/Two letters apart," Madonna succinctly elucidates what separates those who are weak from those who are strong.
The "heart" side of Madonna shines through again on another dramatic slow jam, "HeartBreakCity," in which she bears a husky voice that bemoans, "You said I was your queen/I tried to give your everything/And now you want your freedom/Now I'm in the middle of heartbreak city/'Cause I'm in the middle of a world not pretty." Again, it seems as though Madonna is addressing one of her many youthful lovers of the recent past. And, in a way, also her fans, who have abandoned her more willingly as she "grows older," though really, it's they who have become old in the worst sense of the word for being too expectant of Madonna to fit into a certain musical mold.
"Body Shop" is one of the most unanticipated offerings among the eclectic styles. As only Madonna could do, she uses the allegory of her own body as something that can be dropped off at a "mechanic's" where he "can keep it overnight." In terms of sexual metaphor, it's very well-done. And for those who are uncomfortable with 56-year-old Madonna continuing to talk about sex, well, there's another song serving as a bonus track later on that's liable to make them cringe even more.
Persisting in her commitment to the exploration of Catholicism on "Holy Water," Madonna, in true form, combines the sacred with the profane by assuring, "There's somethin' you gotta hit/It's sacred and immaculate/I can let you in heaven's door/I promise you it's not a sin/Find salvation deep within/We can do it here on the floor." Luckily, she's already been excommunicated. And the clincher of sinful lyrics? "Yeezus loves my pussy best."
The underground sound of the backbeat on "Inside Out" complements the earnestness of Madonna's insistence, "I wanna know what you're all about/You're beautiful when you're broken down/Let your walls crumble to the ground/Let me love you from the inside out." The theme of this song is in stark contrast to her rebellion against love on previous songs on Rebel Heart, including "Unapologetic Bitch" and "HeartBreakCity."
The technical closer of the album (there are plenty more bonus tracks to conclude it), "Wash All Over Me," is Madonna at her most Ray of Light-era etherealness. As though acknowledging how out of touch she feels with the current musical landscape, M sings, "In a world that's changing, I'm a stranger in a strange land." Reaching the height of her poetical lyricism, she adds, "You can thread a needle with the teardrop from my eyes/It's a pure injustice to be witness to the things I see."
Surprisingly, the first bonus track to round out Rebel Heart, "Auto-Tune Baby," has nothing to do with every pop star's favorite voice-manipulating tool, but instead being lulled to sleep by a lover, with Madonna urging, "You can rock me, rock me now/Put my head on your shoulder." Bonus track number two, "Best Night," brings out Madonna's playful, taunting side again as she references the lyrics to "Justify My Love" by inviting, "Surrender to the pleasure (wanting)/When we breathe together (waiting)/It's either now or never (for you)/This feeling will take over."
The impish tone of "Veni Vidi Vici" is Madonna at her most self-referential and self-deferential. With most of the lyrics containing song titles from her prior albums, she confidently asserts (with Nas to back her up), "I came, I saw, I conquered." As mentioned earlier, Madonna gets especially raunchy on "S.E.X." Considering she literally wrote the book on it, it's no shock that she would write a song about a matter that's long been dear to her heart (and vag).
In keeping with the title motifs of "Joan of Arc" and "Holy Water," "Messiah" further solidifies Madonna's devotion to the art of religion. With faint similarities to the spiritual vibe of "Spanish Eyes" from the Like A Prayer album, the sonically hypnotizing music is set against vocals that yearn, "I'll light a candle here in the dark/Making my way to your heart/I'll cast a spell that you can't undo/Till you wake up and find that you love me too." "Rebel Heart" proves Madonna will never fully recover from her repressive childhood as she sings, "I've lived my life like a masochist/Hearing my father say, 'Told you so, told you so! Why can't you be like other girls?' I said, 'Oh no, that's not me and I don't think it'll ever be.'" And to Tony Ciccone's chagrin/delight, it never was.
The emotional "Beautiful Scars" finds Madonna imploring, "Just take me with all my stupid flaws/Changing me's like shooting in the dark." Her impassioned strain on this song is on the same level as other classic ballads like "Live to Tell." "Borrowed Time" is a hair on the maudlin side (think the oft forgotten "Hey You" that was released in 2007) with anti-war, pro-unity lyrics that are, if nothing else, a notch above 1986's "Love Makes the World Go Round." The second to last bonus track (mind you, there's a fuck ton of bonus tracks because this was originally slated to be a double album), "Addicted"--not to be confused with "I'm Addicted" off MDNA--could have easily passed as regular album material with its ardent exploration of being "addicted to the one that got away."
Finally, there is "Graffiti Heart," a song title that's redundant, but it's fine. Referencing her former lover, Jean-Michel Basquiat, to make the point that graffiti artists are capable of signaling change, Madonna asks, "What do you got? Show me your Basquiat. He didn't keep it all to himself/Even with Keith out on the street/He died fighting, so you can do it as well." Apart from the grab bag of "Living for Love" remixes that also cap off the album, "Graffiti Heart" is an appropriate way to end it, as its message promotes the notion that a rebellious heart and spirit can never die, living on through art.