Only Madonna could turn an album that leaked three months before its release date into an event. Rebel Heart, her 13th studio album, is mired in the controversy of that leak, as well as her somewhat absurd declarations of famous Americans as "rebel hearts." But the album is exactly the return Madonna needed as an artist.
Madonna, of course, is one of the most recognizable stars in popular culture. As a 1980s pop starlet, she made her fame off palpable synths, a heated sexual presence, and drama that followed her around the world. She is the queen of pop, and as such, she's always been much more than her music — a dancer, an idol, a headline.
Rebel Heart reminds listeners that every ounce of her fame grew from her ability to produce hit after hit after hit:
Rebel Heart is the best album she's made in a decade
Madonna is pretty prolific for a pop star. Since her rise to fame, she hasn't gone more than three years without a new album. Instead of taking breaks or snagging a Vegas residency, she's been in the studio and on the road consistently for 30 years, which is a pretty amazing feat. It's unsurprising, then, that some of those 13 studio albums really weren't great.
Madonna's heyday, as evidenced by a couple of amazing collections, was somewhere from her 1984 release of Like a Virgin to the 1990 production of the Immaculate Collection, which is to date one of the best albums of her career. During that time period, she was an international superstar who performed on a bed once, and always oozed sex. Madonna for half a decade was the only name in pop music that really mattered, and she completely changed the game. Before her, most mega solo acts were men. After her, they've almost all been women.
Madonna's second heyday was a short, two-album period from 1998 to 2000, when she released both Ray of Light and Music. Since then, she had one good album, 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor, followed by a decade of albums that were decent but not memorable. On Rebel Heart, Madonna has made an album that couldn't possibly be categorized as a desperate attempt to stay relevant — as her last EDM-inspired album MDNA was — because it's an album about Madonna the person instead of Madonna the idol. That personal touch is what makes Rebel Heart a good album and an enjoyable listen top to bottom, even when it gets caught up in itself.
Madonna has stopped lying to herself.
At 56 years old and 12 albums into what has been a star-studded career, Madonna is no longer a young pop star trying to find her place in a messy musical industry. She doesn't need to experiment with new synths and try to adjust her vocal style. Her sound is distinctive, and, really, the synths and pop beats that made her a superstar in the '80s have never gone out of style.
There was no need for her to pretend to be younger or fresher, but she did. On her two most recent albums, 2008's Hard Candy and 2012's MDNA, Madonna didn't sound like an important voice in pop music — she sounded like everyone else. Her beats were similar to Kesha, Gaga and Katy Perry. In that mimicry, she lost herself.
But on Rebel Heart, despite its absurd number of collaborators, such as Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Diplo, and Avicii, Madonna returns to familiarity — songs about love and religion laden with heavy synthesizers and great dance beats. It's not a perfect album, but at least it sounds like her.
Take a song like, "Holy Water," which features a militaristic clapping pattern and alien synth spreads. It's a leap for Madonna, but not a huge one. The rhythm of her lyrics is no different from what we heard on Celebration. Thematically, it takes the heretical, religious commentary and sexualizes it until it's almost unrecognizable. If that's not Madonna, nothing is. And with a callback to "Vogue" in the bridge, she reminds her audience that though she's older and more mature, she's still the queen of pop.
Madonna really has, "outgrown my past and I've shed my skin," as she sings in the album's title track. Growth is painful and difficult, and Rebel Heart is the result of a decade of growing pains to become this artist — one with confidence and sex appeal, but also a very distinct sound.
Madonna performs in 2008. (Getty)
Where the album fails, it fails like Madonna always has
Madonna was viral before the internet existed. When she flung herself across a red velvet bed on stages all over the US in the early '90s, word of her behavior propagated endlessly. Her failure has always been a lack of discretion for where the line is. It's what made her famous, but it's also what gets her into trouble.
"Iconic," Rebel Heart's ninth track, is the musical equivalent of Madonna losing sight of that line. It's one of the weakest songs on the album. It's too overtly sexual to work, and too musical to showcase Madonna's ability to dance. It flops on the album and has too much of a club rhythm to do well live, either. When Chance the Rapper joins in later in the song, it seems like Madonna has completely lost control. Like some of Madonna's past albums, the track just can't decide what it wants to be. There are other songs, too, that have this problem, notably "Unapologetic Bitch" and "Illuminati."
What's great about Rebel Heart is that it doesn't shy away from those failures. Madonna knows she's overtly sexual. She knows she's lusty and at times ludicrous. In the wake of her Brit Awards performance during which a cape failed to untie and the 56-year-old performer was flung off five steps, ageism ran rampant. What Madonna does on Rebel Heart is remind listeners she is fully aware of how old she is by being honest about her sexuality and unabashed in her overblown claims.
On this album, Madonna gives you two ways to view her: as an "Unapologetic Bitch" or as someone "Living for Love." It's that second side, the one that makes this an album about reflecting on the loves and mistakes of life, that sets her up to succeed in the future. She's not the sex-goddess, untouchable idol of 1992's Erotica anymore. She's a person. And that's a Madonna with plenty of room to experiment over the next decade of her career.
Rebel Heart is out now. You can purchase it on iTunes or listen on Spotify: