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USA Today’s Review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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Madonna’s new album is full of ‘Heart’

When Madonna sings on the title track of her latest album, Rebel Heart (***1/2 out of four; out March 10), that she has “outgrown my past and I’ve shed my skin,” she is both protesting too much and engaging in understatement.

Our most durable pop star has indeed reinvented elements of her look and sound repeatedly over the past 30 years, but Madonna has retained the same essence: that of a woman who champions and demands love, in every sense of that loaded word. No single artist has been more crucial in shaping our modern view of celebrities as people who need people — and attention.

As that view has metastasized into an expectation that artists share ever more of their personal and creative lives, fame’s double-edged sword has grown a bit sharper. Madonna felt it last December, when two batches of early recordings from the Heart sessions — essentially, an album in progress — were leaked online. Her immediate response was to quickly polish remixes of the first bunch, and make them available to those who pre-ordered the album.

Rebel Heart includes those six songs and 13 more, and they present Madonna at her most determined and spiritually unplugged. The sound — crafted with such hip-hop, pop and EDM names as Kanye West, Toby Gad, Avicii and Diplo — is not so much raw as purposefully lean and piercingly direct, as are the lyrics, which mine emotions from righteous anger and pain to resolute joy.

Ghosttown mixes a disarmingly earnest sweetness with a stark, chilly arrangement, while on Heartbreak City, Madonna lashes out at a former lover over a shuffling hip-hop groove. The defiant exuberance of first single Living For Love gives way to the deceptively gentle, powerfully infectious Body Shop, with its tinkering rhythms and sly innuendo.

There are more graphic references to sex, and two song titles include a mild an expletive. A disciple, Nicki Minaj, pops up on the frisky B—ch I’m Madonna, in which the titular star chants, “You’re gonna love this. … You can’t touch this.” Madonna could be parodying followers — some of whom have absorbed her through Minaj and other younger stars — who have been inspired by her confidence and marketing savvy but are often less intuitive about things like desire and pain, be it their own or others’.

Madonna asserts both her enduring indomitability and her vulnerability, even getting self-referential a few times. On Veni Vidi Vici, she charts the past via song titles — “I saw a Ray of Light/Music saved my life” — then passes the mic to Nas, who recalls his own rise, rather more flamboyantly.

Nas raps playfully at the end, “Madonna on the track/Nas in the back.” But each is a survivor, and Rebel Heart celebrates that increasingly rare bird with a bittersweet vengeance.

Download: HeartBreak City, Body Shop, Veni Vidi Vici, Ghosttown.

USA Today

Time Out review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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Two events have blighted the release of Madonna’s thirteenth album. One, obviously, was her spectacular tumble at The Brits, but another was the online leak in December of 13 demos earmarked for the record. So in a perverse way, it’s fitting that ‘Rebel Heart’ feels like a Madonna album for the internet era. Available in editions with 14, 19 or 25 tracks, it’s a disparate, drawn-out collection that’s begging to be condensed into shorter playlists.

No matter which version you buy, you’ll find Madonna alternating between showing off, getting off and taking stock. On ‘Holy Water’ – a brilliantly ridiculous hymn to cunnilingus – she manages all three on the same song, dropping a reference to her classic hit ‘Vogue’ and boasting that either Jesus or Yeezus ‘loves my pussy best’. Her voice is so heavily distorted that it’s left to us to decide whether she’s taunting the Vatican or Kim Kardashian.

Some of the sassy stuff is excellent, especially the catchy, trap-tinged ‘Iconic’ and defiant dancehall of ‘Unapologetic Bitch’, on which Madonna tells a selfish ex-boyfriend: ‘I’m poppin’ bottles that you can’t even afford.’ The house-flavoured lead single ‘Living for Love’ is also a highlight, its resilient lyrics gaining additional pathos following last night’s already legendary mishap. ‘Lifted me up and watched me stumble,’ Madonna sings. ‘I’m gonna carry on.’

But ‘Rebel Heart’s very best moments come when Madonna gets reflective. She shows her vulnerable side on ‘Joan of Arc’, a sublime electro-folk ballad, while the affecting title track finds her confronting her past as a ‘narcissist’ over some wistful acoustic guitar chords.

It all adds up to a sprawling and varied selection box that’s definitely worth cherry-picking from. ‘Rebel Heart’ may lack cohesion, but she’s definitely not down for the count: this contains some of the best music Madonna’s made in a decade.

3 out of 5 stars

Time Out

New York Daily News Review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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‘Rebel Heart’ review: Madonna’s latest is intensely personal

Imagine a world where Madonna hates being photographed, where she considers quitting her career and admits to suffering haunting demands that she “act like the other girls.”

It’s the same world where pigs fly and figure skaters crowd the deepest recesses of hell.

Yet, somehow, that’s the world occupying significant parts of Madonna’s revelatory new album, “Rebel Heart.”

More credibly than any previous work, Madonna’s latest pulls back the curtain on her life, letting us see her hurt and yearning.

It also finds her licking her wounds over a breakup with a far less powerful boy toy — presumably the decades-her-junior dancer Brahim Zaibat, who she saw for three years, ending in 2013.

Maddy has said that she chose the album’s title to express two sides of her character: the defiant warrior and the aching lover.

While a decent portion of harder, bitchier odes do turn up, the album as a whole presents the softest, most sincere portrait of the star we’ve ever had. In the process, “Rebel Heart” coheres, offering a swift rebuke to whoever prematurely dribbled out its tracks in a dizzying variety of leaks.

It also marks a clear move away from Madonna’s last two works — “Hard Candy” and “MDNA.” Both soared on energetic pop, creating two of the most enjoyable, catchiest albums of her career. “Rebel Heart” goes for something more substantial and — dare I say? — mature.

Along the way, the long, 19-song album offers its share of groaners, missteps and songs more indebted to trendy production than solid craft. But its best moments boast some of the most finely structured pop melodies of Madonna’s 32-year career.

The slam-dunk opener, “Living for Love,” stands with her great gospel-soul songs of the past: “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself.” Of the ballads, “Ghosttown” rates with her best: “Live to Tell” and “Crazy for You.”

The way the producers recorded Madonna both bolsters the melodies and lends her depth. They’ve honeyed her voice: Madonna hasn’t sounded this rich since the sumptuous “Evita” soundtrack. In “Ghosttown,” her deep tone has some of the autumnal ache of Karen Carpenter.

All this isn’t to say Madonna doesn’t chirp, sneer and bray in places. In “Holy Water,” she’s in late-period Joan Crawford mode, putting down all comers with an unseemly pride. Then, in “Bitch I’m Madonna,” she nicks a slogan from someone far beneath her, referencing Ms. Spears’ old “It’s Britney, Bitch” line.

Madonna’s harder side finds a focus in “Unapologetic Bitch,” where she plays a spurned sugar mama. She revels in banishing an entitled young stud back to his impoverished past, a mirror, most likely, of the breakup with Zaibat.

The same scenario reels through two other songs: “HeartBreakCity” and “Living for Love,” though in the latter, the loss becomes a spur to celebrate a love that may yet come.

The music in “Living for Love” implicitly references the past, but in other passages Madonna invokes it directly. The lyrics to “Veni Vidi Vici” offer a virtual career retrospective. The title track brings an even broader life assessment — looking back at her attempts to fit in as a youth, as well as her years of acting out with provocative gestures for their own sake. Never before has Madonna copped to the latter motivation in a song. In the end, she accepts the consequences, and embraces the bravery, of her character fully enough to create her own answer to “My Way.”

The beauty of the song’s melody helps ease its self-involvement. As a lyricist, Madonna has always had trouble making her personal songs universal.

On the other hand, her persona has such cultural resonance at this point, it has become part of all pop fans. Her name is a metaphor for strength and endurance. That makes her potent enough to admit where she’s weak in “Joan Of Arc.” Here, she says that each critique drives her to private tears. In “Wash All Over Me,” she ponders either running from, or accepting the end of, her career.

It’s hard to imagine Madonna expressing things like this before, let alone making them ring true. That’s “Rebel Heart’s” peak feature: It presents a 56-year-old woman who, in the best possible sense, sounds her age.

New York Daily News

Rolling Stone’s Review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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Madonna gets down with Kanye, Avicii and more on a supercatchy, sexed-up album

For many years, Madonna avoided the Internet like gluten. But in December, the Internet decided to stop waiting for Madonna, and everything went wrong: Her music was stolen and leaked; her hasty, emotional responses on Instagram used terms like “rape” and “terrorism,” provoking (you guessed it) Internet outrage. Her swift solution was to put six songs online immediately, with a promise that 13 more would follow in March. But some of those 13 new songs have turned what might have been a modern-day pop treasure into a diamond struggling to escape the rough.

Rebel Heart is a long, passionate, self-referential meditation on losing love and finding purpose in chilling times. It’s also a chance for the Queen of Pop to floss a bit and reflect on how she painstakingly carved a path others have happily twerked down in the years since her 1983 debut. The über-fit 56-year-old star gleefully enunciates “bitch” on the refreshing, reggae-tinged “Unapologetic Bitch” and the frenetic, Nicki Minaj-assisted “Bitch I’m Madonna,” both featuring Diplo’s ear-tingling airhorn blasts. She quotes herself on three songs, calling back to iconic passages from “Vogue” and “Justify My Love” before whisper-rapping about her past hits in “Veni Vidi Vici.”

The album opens with another kind of flashback — the classic-sounding house jam “Living for Love,” a buoyant song about moving on after a breakup. The stellar “HeartBreakCity,” meanwhile, is a dramatic plunge into post-relationship hell. The singer grappled with her divorce from Guy Ritchie on her past two albums, but now that she’s back on the market, there are new fools to smack down.

Her co-pilots this time aren’t the electro mavens who assisted on 2012’s glossy MDNA nor the pop titans who lent a hand on 2008’s dancier Hard Candy — they’re trendier talents like Blood Diamonds and established hitmakers like Kanye West. Sometimes these collaborations gel perfectly, like on “Illuminati,” West’s grimy take on the Internet’s favorite conspiracy theory, and “Devil Pray,” where Avicii helps Madonna revive the strums-and-beats vibe of 2000’s Music. And Minaj’s verse on “Bitch I’m Madonna” is pure fire.

Unfortunately, cameos from Nas, Chance the Rapper and Mike Tyson don’t elevate their respective songs. And Madonna lets her own appetite for over-the-top sex songs run wild on a handful of cringy tracks like “Holy Water” (an ode to oral sex featuring the unfortunate line “Yeezus loves my pussy best”) and “S.E.X.,” which spells out an unconventional list of bedroom aids including “chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair.”

The album is at its strongest when Madonna shoves everyone to the side and just tells it to us straight. So it’s fitting that she wraps up the deluxe edition with the title track, recalling how she went from weird kid to narcissist to spiritual thinker over Avicii’s bright, orchestrated production. Deep down, Madonna does have a rebel heart — and you can’t fault her for reminding us that pop music is all the better for it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Rolling Stone

Mojo’s Review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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Like an X-rated episode of Loose Women, the new Madonna album comes pre-loaded with controversial positions, brash swagger and sexual frankness. More than once or twice, it goes a little too far. “Kiss it better, make it wetter,” coos the singer on Holy Water, spikily minimalistic paean to, ahem, personal moistness risque mix of the sacred and profane since 1992’s Erotica.

It’s a typical of roughly half the album – trendy producers provide a colourful variety of contemporary habitats while Madonna declares that she’s still here, protesting perhaps slightly too much. Some collaborations work better than others. The glacial Ryan Tedder-enabled Hold Tight is melodious but bland; Diplo’s signature wasp-farts and harsh siren blasts on Unapologetic B*tch are too familiar from M.I.A. records. Conversely, all Kanye West’s contributions – including the aforesaid Holy Water, equally suggestive S.E.X. (I’m an open door / Let you come inside of me”) and agreeably bonkers Illuminati, where Madonna imagines a nightclub full of the not-so-secret rulers of the world: Google boogie-woogieing with Jay0Z et al – are extraordinarily clever.

Best of the lot are Joan Of Arc – a grab bag of well-worn Madge The Martyr tropes re fame and the media (“Each time they take a photograph / I lose a part I can’t get back”) transformed by classic pop structuring and a beautiful vulnerable vocal – and Body Shop. The latter, with sonic input from up-and-coming Blood Diamonds and Dahi, sounds like nothing else she’s ever done: witty and pretty, with an almost indie wistfulness, heightened by church-hall handclaps and distant kid-choir ‘heys’. The central metaphor is hardly Shakespearean – Body Shop’s hero is buffing her headlights, oiling her cylinders and whathaveyou – but it’s in subtler tradition of cheeky R&B double-entendre. It makes you smile, not blush.

Madonna has admitted that winnowing 30-odd tracks to album length weighed heavily on her, and it’s resulted in a significant absurdity; you’ll have to buy the deluxe edition of Rebel Heart to acquire the title track, scooting along on its acoustic guitar strum like Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car backed onto the dancefloor. This and the defiant Veni Vidi Vici, complete with stirring Nas cameo, are at least as good as anything on the ‘standard’ album.

Still – too much decent material is a nice problem to have. With its focus on personality and reining-in of EDM banging, Rebel Heart is the first Madonna album for a while that’s at least as must for listeners as it is for dancers. Sometimes this shines too hard a light on what she has to say – as on the party-pooping just-say-no-to-acid-and-glue-prudery Devil Pray. But when her touch is lightest and her instinct for a hook is at its keenest, it underlines a known fact: no one does music like Madonna.

3 out of 5 stars

Attitude’s Review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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The jury’s still out on whether the leak of demos for Madonna’s 13th studio album has helped or hindered its success. On one hand it forced a compromised, staggered release, rather than an explosive comeback; on the other hand, the leak – plus the Queen’s newfound love of Instagram – have stirred up a level of public interest that was absent for her past two album campaigns.

Opening with Living For Love – a banger created by the curious mix of Diplo, the London Community Gospel Choir and Alicia Keys – Madonna plays the role of the scorned lover rediscovering her inner strength, (“After the heartache, I’m gonna carry on”) a theme which persists throughout on songs like Unapologetic Bitch. You might be able to rejoice in being fierce and triumphant at some points, but there are few opportunities for a good joyous song and dance. There are a few too many mid-tempo ballads, like Hold Tight (not Ryan Tedder’s finest offering), Wash All Over Me and Messiah, the best of which are probably Ghosttown and the beautiful Joan of Arc – a fresh sounding pop guitar tune treading new territory for her, and which could carry serious currency as a single.

Her work with Avicii is presented best on Devil Pray, Heartbreak City and the title track, while Kanye West’s production makes a real moment of the Yeezus-esque Illuminati. Her anti-Vogue rap of suspected Illuminati members is probably the only time Rihanna and Queen Elizabeth will feature side by side. Other Kanye assisted-numbers like Holy Water and S.E.X. are (dare I say) a little reductive. S.E.X. is Nicki Minaj-worthy, but it should be beneath Madonna in 2015. Inviting a lover to taste her ‘heaven’s door’ on Holy Water, she settles on a hook that – despite distortion – is clearly claiming “Yeezus loves my pussy best”. That’ll be news to Kim.

Clearly more comfortable with looking back these days, on much of the album, the Queen of Pop is surprisingly self-referential; from the sample of Vogue on Holy Water and Justify My Love on Best Night, to the blast of Holiday chords on Veni Vidi Vici – a song which, like the title track, reflects on how she overcame adversity to achieve her destined fame. With songs like Iconic and Bitch I’m Madonna, she also revels in her own status and fame; her own ‘bow down bitches’ moment.

Everyone has their own opinion of what Madonna should do next, meaning inevitably not everyone will be content with this delivery. Regadless, it does sound like she is attempting to tick too many boxes . There are moments where she’s absolutely owning a strong, middle-of-the-road, ‘age appropriate’ style of music that could see her lauded by music critics and the general public; there are modern, relevant tracks like Living For Love that deserve mainstream radio play; and then there are moments where she drags the tone down with a song like S.E.X. –harking back to a dated need to shock that so easily allows her good work to be overlooked.

In a sense, there are probably about two or three very different albums struggling to get out of Rebel Heart. While all of the songs work in their own way, they’re not a convincing set. Plus, with 19 tracks (and that’s not including the extra songs tacked on to the super-deluxe edition), one can’t help thinking this would be a stronger effort if half a dozen lesser tracks had been shaved off. It’s also disappointing – and confusing – that the anthemic title track is resigned to the final spot on the deluxe version. There is pure brilliance when its chorus kicks in and she cries “So I took the road less travelled by/And I barely made it out alive”, but I fear few will have the patience to stick around for it; not to mention that its position here doesn’t hold much promise of a single release for what is arguably one of her best pop songs since Hung Up.

Rebel Heart won’t be joining the ranks of Like A Prayer or Ray Of Light, but it’s fair to say that it’s superior to Hard Candy and MDNA. With a strong promotional campaign, and a few well-selected singles, 2015 could really be a year when the Queen shows her hard earned skill and reputation can still be put to use in a difficult modern landscape. After all: bitch, she’s Madonna.

7/10

Attitude

The Telegraph’s Review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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“Who do you think you are?” demands a screeching voice on the self-explanatorily titled B*tch I’m Madonna. If anyone in pop has earned the right to assert herself so rudely it is surely Madonna Louise Ciccone, an iconic A-List superstar for over 30 years. It helps that the track in question fizzes with bright energy, a handclapping rave anthem powered by a fantastically wonky synth line that sounds like a vintage arcade game played on an electronic kazoo, and topped off with a snappy Nicki Minaj rap. Madonna delivers the melody like a playground nursery rhyme, chanting about bad behaviour in a butter-wouldn’t-melt sing-song voice.
It could almost be a riposte to the BBC Radio One playlist committee, who have apparently decided the 56-year-old Madonna is no longer relevant to their demographic, relegating her current single, Living For Love, to the middle-aged ravers of Radio Two. It is hard to age gracefully in the competitive field of chart pop. Rock offers different models for the older star: dedicated muso, serious singer-songwriter, nostalgic purist. Pop demands the energy of youth, eternal engagement with the subject matters of sex and courting and a wide-eyed fascination with novelty: new sounds, new styles, new effects. Madonna has been such a trend setter over the decades it has been dispiriting to see her struggling to keep up, like an ageing hipster misusing contemporary slang. Her last two albums were over-pushy, over-sexed and overly reliant on importing chart styles from hot production teams. Rebel Heart is much, much better and the key to the change seems to be Madonna herself. For the first time in years, she doesn’t sound desperate. Indeed, she sounds like she might be having fun.
It is slightly surprising under the circumstances. Her 13th album has been aggressively targeted by hackers and beset by a series of leaks, with mixes and demos popping up all over the internet, leading Madonna to complain, somewhat histrionically, of “artistic rape.” What early versions revealed were numerous collaborators reworking and reshaping every track, including such adventurous hit-makers as Kanye West, Avicii and Diplo. There is, nonetheless, a quality of coherence to the finished album and it really does centre on the star. The tone switches dramatically between dynamic contemporary electro groove adventures, singalong pop and lush synthetic ballads, while veering emotionally between introspective vulnerability and strident defiance. Yet every track adheres to robust, classic songwriting principles, a kind of melodious elegance of structure gleaming through no matter how inventively deconstructed the arrangement. And Madonna sounds relaxed and confident, singing with the sweetness and freshness of her youth, yet with much greater technical accomplishment.
If we can overlook ludicrous techno folk song Devil Pray, in which Madonna informs us that drugs are bad, she has (mostly) checked her tendency to hectoring self-justification and holier-than-thou lecturing. Dance pop tracks like Illuminati and Iconic reflect a contemporary trend for fast, furious and funny mash ups of conflicting ideas, constantly teetering on the edge of collapse but pulling out another beat or hook to keep things moving. Body Shop has a bubblegum lightness that harks back to True Blue, the epic synths of Wash All Over Me recall Ray of Light’s rich depths, while oral sex slow burner Holy Water manages to be sacrilegious and ear-burningly naughty. She may be chasing the pop zeitgeist rather than setting it these days but at least Madonna sounds like she’s in the game again.

4 out of 5 stars

Telegraph

Uncut Magazine’s Review of Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album

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Material Girl bares all on patchy 13th
Recent Madonna albums have tended to recycle clichés and trends – detrimentally in MDNA’s case – in a bid to keep the 56-year-old at pop’s cutting edge. Rebel Heart almost gets the balance right, but at 19 tracks, most in the industrial party-pop style of cheeseball producers Diplo and Avicii, there’s simply too much going on. Booming, off-kilter electro-rap cuts written with Kanye West called “S.E.X.”, “Illuminati” and “Iconic” (featuring a Mike Tyson cameo) are certainly bracing, while on “Joan Of Arc” and “Veni Vidi Vici” she’s candidly confessional. Ultimately, the message seems to be, she’s a survivor – and she just about gets through this.

6 out of 10

Uncut

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