Madonna’s new album “Madame X,” released Friday, is many things — an alter ego, a love letter to Portugal, a multicultural musical patch work, a wild and daring musical experiment and also her best effort since “Confessions on a Dance Floor” (2005).
“Madame X is a secret agent,” she says. “Traveling around the world. Changing identities. Fighting for freedom. Bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer. A professor. A head of state. A housekeeper. An equestrian. A prisoner. A student. A mother. A child. A teacher. A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. A spy in the house of love.” The nickname was given to her by famed dance instructor Martha Graham, who was her teacher at 19, because she would come to class each day with a different identity. Clearly that moniker stuck with Madonna and through Madame X, she remains a creative force with something to say.
The opening track is the Latin-infused “Medellin” featuring Colombian rapper Maluma. When compared to the other offerings on the album, this comes off as one of the weaker tracks. Why this was released as the lead single is as big a mystery as to why Madonna has chosen to wear a diamond-encrusted eye patch as high fashion. But since it’s been a national pastime to question or criticize Madonna’s choices, fans have learned to buckle up and weather the ride with her, for better or worse. Perhaps it’s fitting that she sings “Let’s take a trip” in this opener because that is exactly what’s in store.
As the “cha-cha-cha” of Medellin fades into the bleak start of “Dark Ballet,” Madonna sings with forceful confidence about how she can dress like a boy and dress like a girl and, ironically, how our world is “obsessed with fame.” It then takes an abrupt left turn into a cascading piano solo that spills right into an electronic rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”
Where is this going? Her bizarre tongue-in-cheek declamation midway through asks, “Can’t you hear outside of your Supreme hoodie, the wind that’s beginning to howl?” We’re not done. It then make a swift U-turn back to the original composition and quietly ends with Madonna imitating the wind by repeatedly blowing air from her lips because “the storm isn’t in the air, it’s inside of us.” Provocative pop art brilliance or extreme hot mess? Whatever it is, the song (and accompanying music video) is a bold statement of extreme artistic expression unprecedented by Madonna and is the first of several standout tracks.
Much like “Dark Ballet,” “God Control” starts off slow, but soon switches gears with colorful twists and turns before coming to an exhilarating end.This is arguably the best track on the album. “Everybody knows the damn truth/Our nation lied and lost respect,” Madonna sings through gritted teeth (or was she just wearing her grills?) and “I think I understand why people get a gun/I think I understand why we all give up.”
While no stranger to political commentary on past projects, the stark frankness in these lyrics make the statements from “American Life” sound like “Like a Virgin.” When it breaks into a church choir singing “We lost God control,” a breath can barely be caught before jumping into an infectious swirling disco beat perfectly fit for dance floor consumption, all while Madonna repeatedly urges us to “wake up.” When she whispers, “everybody knows the damn truth,” it sounds incredibly similar to her 2001 club hit “Impressive Instant” from “Music.” These elements successfully blend together to produce her best dance track since “Hung Up.”
If “Music” and “American Life” had a baby with “Confessions on a Dance Floor” as its stepmother, it would be the mid-tempo treasure “I Don’t Search I Find.” There are strong references to her 1991 single “Rescue Me” due to carefully placed finger snaps and assertive spoken-word verses during the bridge before exclamations of “Finally enough love.” The comparisons to her earlier albums are easily made due to the heavy presence of Mirwais Ahmadzai, who produced and co-wrote six tracks on “Madame X,” five tracks “Music,” and virtually everything on “American Life,” which makes “Madame X” feel like the third entry in an album trilogy.
“Crave” (with Swae Lee) is the most radio friendly of the pack, which is why it is currently climbing Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. Unlike “Medellin,” where Maluma’s solo parts dominate, the contributions of Swae Lee are evenly placed and end up as the best vocal collaboration on the album.
“Crazy” is the unexpected earworm of “Madame X.” When, if ever, have you heard an accordion in a pop song outside of a Weird Al parody? The chorus pounds into your head in a good way and at one point Madonna sings “I bent my knees for your like a prayer” which is not the only “Like a Prayer” nod within this album.
“Batuka” and “Faz Gostoso” are the most notable examples of the influence Portugal has injected into Madonna since she moved to Lisbon early last year. With thundering drums and an eclectic mix of instruments and voices courtesy of Afro-Portuguese group Orquestra de Batukadeiras, “Batuka” comes off like a fabulous jam session. Madonna sings “Get that old man/Put him in a jail.” Is she talking about Trump? One can only assume as much. “Faz Gostoso,” which in Portuguese translates to “makes delicious,” features Brazilian singer Anitta. It is not quite as good as “Batuka,” but still fun.
While nothing completely falls flat, there are some tracks that don’t shine as brightly as others. “Bitch I’m Loca” (not to be confused with “Rebel Heart’s” “Bitch I’m Madonna”) is the first that comes to mind. Did we really need another flirty collaboration with Maluma? The reggae-drenched “Future” (released as a promotional single last month) has Madonna trading verses with American rapper Quavo.
While not entirely out of place nor as unnecessary as “Bitch I’m Loca,” it remains a shadow to the light of the other tracks surrounding it. “Killers Who Are Partying” enters martyrdom territory with lyrics like “I will be gay if the gay are burned” and “I will be Islam if Islam is hated.” It goes on and on, ending with “I’ll be a woman if she is raped and her heart is breaking.”
The empowering album closer “I Rise” was, in Madonna’s own words, written “as a way of giving a voice to all marginalized people who feel they don’t have the opportunity to speak their mind. This year is the 50th anniversary of Pride and I hope this song encourages all individuals to be who they are, to speak their minds and to love themselves.” Not without political commentary, the track opens with the voice of Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez.
The deluxe edition includes bonus tracks “Looking for Mercy” and “Extreme Occident,” while the deluxe box set further includes “Funana”, “Back That Up to the Beat”, and “Ciao Bella,” The most interesting of the bonus tracks is “Funana” where late icons Whitney Houston, George Michael, Prince, and Aretha Franklin (among others) are name dropped in a “Vogue”-style memoriam.