KYLE ANDERSON It’s been sort of a rough 21st century for Madonna. After the stellar premillennial onetwo punch of Ray of Light and Music, it’s felt like she has 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?
ADAM MARKOVITZ Even for those of us who remember her imperial phase (c. 1985–2001), she’s become a giant cultural question mark. Is Madonna a still-active pop star in a slow period? A nostalgia act who puts out new music? A living legend who won’t go gently into that good four-nights-a-week Vegas residency? Rebel 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 nice melodies and thoughtful lyrics buried under a lot of badass posturing, Madonna doesn’t either. Her best albums always had a clear goal, whether it was dancing or shocking or chakra-ing. This time it feels like she just wants to prove she isn’t finished yet.
ANDERSON You’re not wrong. Both sonically and philosophically, the album is all over the place. The opener, lead single “Living for Love,” has a big sexy disco underbelly and just enough Diplo glitch to give it some edge. Then there’s the rocksteady dub “Unapologetic Bitch,” the post-Yeezus robo-grind “Illuminati,” the electro-campfire sing-along “Joan of Arc.” All that style whiplash can be vertigo-inducing. And yet despite the idea overload, I like way more here than I expected to. I would have assumed that a Mike Tyson rant, a barely intelligible Chance the Rapper verse, and seemingly six different hooks would make “Iconic” my most skipped track. Yet I kind of admire its chaos. Same goes for “Holy Water”: I should be completely over the idea of Madonna juxtaposing Christian imagery with frank sexuality, which she has been doing for three decades. Maybe it’s the bass gurgles that remind me of classic Massive Attack or the reference to “Vogue,” but she sells it for me. I can’t stand “Body Shop,” though—an extended car/sex metaphor that sounds as if 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” is amateur-hour erotica from somebody who once released an album literally called Erotica. But I do like the weird touches. She name-checks Bieber and the Pope on “Illuminati” and then implies that her body fluids are a sacrament on “Holy Water.” “Body Shop” has the most natural vocals on the album; Madonna sounds like an actual human woman instead of Siri singing Fifty Shades of Grey on low batteries. The funny, creative, outrageous Madonna we’ve known is still in here somewhere. It just takes a lot of patience to find her.
ANDERSON I have faith that she’ll reveal herself with repeated listens. (Weirdly, for an album mostly designed to move people in a club, it’s actually a pretty fascinating headphone trip.) This may be damning it with faint praise, but this is Madonna’s best outing since 2000’s Music, and that earns Rebel Heart a solid B.
MARKOVITZ I love that she’s as frustrating and ambitious as ever—still difficult, complicated, and hard to pin down. But that’s how I’d describe this album, too. If Like a Prayer is her A game, and something rocky but rewarding like Bedtime Stories is B level, then this gets a C+.
“Living for Love”