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Madonna's 'Rebel Heart' review: A love it/loathe it debate

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After a long, rocky walk-up, Madonna’s Rebel Heart has finally been unleashed. Since Madonna is bigger than all of us, it took two of EW’s music experts to unpack the deluxe edition of her 13th album. A version of this exchange appears in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly—but here is the unexpurgated virtual conversation between two conflicted fans. 

Kyle Anderson: It’s been sort of a rough 21st century for Madonna. After the stellar premillennial one-two punch of Ray of Light and Music, it’s felt like she’s been following rather than innovating. Rebel Heart is stuffed with top-level talent—Diplo, Avicii, Kanye—but at the end of the day, they’re not who we’re here for. Adam, what are your expectations of a Madonna album in 2015, and how did those expectations play into your first listen of Rebel Heart?

Adam Markovitz: Sorry, who’s Madonna?

Just kidding—except I’m sure that’s what a lot of kids were wondering when she showed up in their Vine feeds after the Brit Awards blooper. Even for those of us who were alive during her ’80s/’90s imperial phase, she’s become a giant cultural question mark. Is Madonna a still-active pop star in a slow period? A nostalgia act who occasionally puts out new music? A living legend who won’t go gently into that good four-nights-a-week Vegas residency? This album has an electro-rap track called “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” but I honestly don’t know what that means anymore. And by the sound of Rebel Heart—which has some genuinely interesting moments buried under a whole lot of boring I’m-still-a-badass posturing—Madonna doesn’t know, either.

Anderson: You’re not wrong. Both sonically and philosophically, Rebel Heart is all over the place. The opening track, the single “Living For Love,” is a pretty straightforward modern dance song: big sexy disco underbelly, splashy keyboard bliss, and just enough Diplo glitch to give it some edge. It’s good, but it also sounds like it could have been recorded by whatever boldfaced diva you prefer. Though the rest of the album was clearly conceived in the digital womb, there’s an awful lot of disjointed mask-wearing: the rocksteady dub of “Unapologetic Bitch,” the post-Yeezus robo-grind of “Illuminati,” the gauzy digital folk singalong “Joan of Arc.” It can be dizzying and vertigo-inducing, as though neither Madonna nor the listener will ever be able to find solid ground.

And yet, despite the idea overload, I like way more of Rebel Heart than I expected to. If you described to me the strange headphones collage “Iconic”— which features a Mike Tyson rant, a brief and barely-intelligible Chance the Rapper verse, and seemingly six different hooks—I would assume it would be my most-skipped track. Yet I kind of admire its barely-conscious chaos. Same goes with “Holy Water”: I should be completely over the idea of Madonna juxtaposing Christian imagery and Earthy sexuality, which she has been doing for literally three decades. But maybe it’s the bass gurgles that remind me of Massive Attack or the reference to “Vogue,” but she sells it for me.

Adam, what tracks stand out to you as the best, and what do you think are the biggest failures? I can’t stand “Body Shop,” which features a weirdly mumbly delivery and an extended car/sex metaphor that sounds as though she just discovered literary devices.

Markovitz: “S.E.X.” is pretty awful. “Oh my God/Soaking wet/Back and forth/Until we break the bed,” isn’t clever or insightful; it’s amateur-hour erotica from somebody who once released an album called Erotica.

Honestly, I don’t hear any potential hits on this album aside from “Living For Love.” (And even that’s a stretch.) But what I do hear occasionally is weirdness. And I love that. She name-checks Bieber and the Pope on “Illuminati,” and then implies that her body fluids are a sacrament on “Holy Water.” I actually like “Body Shop,” which has some neat sonics, including the most natural vocals on the album—Madonna sounds like an actual human woman performing, instead of like Siri singing 50 Shades of Grey on low batteries. I wish there were more bits like that.

The funny, creative, outrageous Madonna we knew and loved is still in here somewhere—she’s just hiding under a lot of dense, dark electronica. So the question becomes: How many people are still willing to put in the time to find her?

Anderson: That’s the big question. Madonna is almost certainly a victim of her own massive influence: Today, we have a cavalcade of artists (and especially women) poking at pop’s fresh edges, indulging in reinvention, and genre-hopping in ways that are simultaneously more accessible and daring than Rebel Heart. It’s a challenging album, and I like wrestling with a lot of what’s going on here, but it doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding or as head-rushingly satisfying as, say, Charli XCX’s caustically delicious Sucker. I also agree that there aren’t any immediately recognizable hits on Rebel Heart, though it would not shock me if next single “Ghosttown” became a smash—it has a widescreen sensibility and the same kind of thick chorus that a lot of Sia songs have.

My other big problem is that there are a bunch of songs I really dig from a production standpoint, but I end up wishing they were instrumentals because either the vocal performance sounds impossibly fake or the lyrics are sad-trombone lame. This is especially true of “Devil Pray,” a cool little mid tempo dance track with handclaps and Spanish guitar that is completely derailed by Madge just naming off a bunch of drugs she could do—it’s like Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” gone horribly wrong.

Still—and this may be damning it with faint praise—I think this is Madonna’s best output since Music, and I have faith these songs will reveal themselves more and more with repeated listens. (Weirdly, for an album mostly designed to move people in a club, it’s actually a pretty fascinating headphones experience.) That’s a solid B in my book. What say you?

Markovitz: For me, an A-level Madonna album is a game-changer, like Like a Prayer or Ray of Light. B-level is something rocky but rewarding, like Bedtime Stories. (Remember how great “Human Nature” is?)

On that scale, Rebel Heart is a C+. It has some great stuff in it: a few memorable hooks, some neat production, a lot of musical chutzpah. And I love the fact that Madonna is still as frustrating and ambitious as ever. She didn’t get where she is by pandering to people who want safe-and-shiny jingles, and she isn’t about to start now. But she’s always been at her best when she had a clear objective, whether it was dancing or shocking or chakra-ing. With Rebel Heart, it seems like her only goal was to put out new music to prove that she isn’t done yet. It’s a difficult, complicated, hard-to-pin-down album that feels polished and unfinished at the same time—just like the person who made it.

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