Madonna’s 14th album feels stretched thin all over the globe, layered with an ambitious concept that ends up muddled and convoluted.
There is a case to be made for classifying Madonna, in 2019, as an underdog. Granted, it requires overlooking the superstar’s grotesque wealth and enduring ability to command some sort of an audience with every public move. But her status as a pop star has degraded considerably in the last 15 years. Whereas they once inspired awe, or at least controversy, her live televised appearances of late tend to yield mockery. Her days of hit-making seem long behind her. Her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, was a mess with more tracks and less to say than any Madonna record that preceded it. Apathy ensued.
It seems that Madonna, once queen of pop and enforcer of the regimentation that comes with that, is no longer controlling her narrative. This was never more evident than in her denouncement of a recent New York Times Magazine profile by journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis, who Madonna dragged in an Instagram post for focusing on “trivial and superficial matters” such as her age. “It makes me feel raped,” wrote Madonna, echoing a contentious comment she made to Grigoriadis about her reaction to several Rebel Heart tracks leaking months before she had completed the album.
The magazine perhaps leaned too heavily into the age thing—the article, after all, was titled “Madonna at Sixty.” But of course Madonna’s age is relevant to her current story because it reminds us that her career path has always been one of uncharted territory. Today, the question is what does a veteran who redefined pop stardom for decades and do in her 60s?
Even she doesn’t seem sure on her muddled 14th album, Madame X. Convoluted in sound and concept, it is intended as a means for both dissociation and the reaffirmation of Madonna’s multitudes. “Madame X” was a nickname given to her at 19 by her dance instructor, the legendary Martha Graham. “That was in the beginning of my career when I didn’t think about who I should be or what I should be,” she told Madonna told Billboard in May. In recent press, her wariness of public scrutiny after almost four decades of stardom is palpable: “I preferred life before phone,” she told Grigoriadis regarding the internet’s consistently shabby treatment of her. You can see why she yearns for a clean slate. Hear her pining in the opening lines of Madame X’s first single, “Medellín”: “I took a pill and had a dream/I went back to my 17th year.”
At the same time, Madame X is a secret agent, a dancer, a professor, a head of state, a nun, a housekeeper, and several other things, according to Madonna’s video announcement of the album. Later, she clarified: “I embody all of those people but then I also use those people to the extreme in the form of Madame X as a disguise to do my work.” Excepting the specific eccentricities here (such as referring to Madame X in the third person on Twitter and the fashion eye patch), the Madame X concept is the most recent example of a marketing trope, in which divas use real nick- and middle names to thematically signal that they are revealing more sides of themselves than they previously allowed (see: Mariah Carey’s Mimi, Janet Jackson’s Damita Jo, and Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce). Needless to say, these exercises are rarely illuminating even when the accompanying music is good.
It’s a lot of puffery for business as usual—so much that it’s tempting to give Madonna a pass for trying. Madonna and her collaborators (chiefly Mirwais who co-helmed much of 2000’s Music and 2003’s underrated American Life) recorded in several different countries, marrying genres as disparate as Portuguese fado, baile funk, Cape Verdean batuque, and good old American trap to make a literal, at times clinical, rendering of world music. Madonna’s astonishing work ethic is written all over her voice: she raps, she sing-raps, she sings (in English, Spanish, and Portuguese). She has crafted a motif of did-they-or-didn’t-they sexual intrigue to accompany two collaborations with hunky Colombian superstar Maluma. Madonna and company have produced the shit out of virtually every notion here.
But blatant ambition has an unfortunate way of accentuating failure. In what could be most charitably described as delirious exuberance, many of Madame X’s songs trip all over themselves to change course and offer something new every few seconds for the attention-span deficient. Consequently, they often fall flat as an adolescent’s self-conscious contrivances of weirdness—the 808 gloom of “Dark Ballet” gives way to an interpolation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite: Dance of the Reed-Flutes” done in the heavily synthesized style of Wendy Carlos’ score for A Clockwork Orange. It is horrendous. On “God Control,” Madonna’s mumble-rap intro begets a creepy children’s chorus, which begets ersatz disco whose strings are in perpetual flights of fancy, which begets Madonna affecting a cheesy I’m Breathless-era accent to rap about not smoking dope using the meter of De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I.” Oh, and the song’s theme is roughly: “something…something…gun control.” This is supposed to be fun, but it’s exhausting.
Thematically, there are some vague references to civil unrest and social justice, but for the most part, Madame X is lyrically inarticulate. The grave “Killers Who Are Partying” opens with some unintentional comedy: Madonna referring to gay people as “the gay” (”I will be gay, if the gay are burned”) as if they’re elk or something. Over a shivering fado acoustic guitar and light four-on-the-floor pulse, she aligns herself with a litany of persecuted identities—people of Africa, Muslims, Israel, children—to gesture empathy without an iota of practicality. “I will be poor, if the poor are humiliated,” she sings. But no, she won’t. The poor are humiliated, and she will be wealthy for the rest of her life. The only functional implication here is to remind us of Madonna’s benevolence—the only thing this song actually expresses is an image.
Meanwhile, “Future,” begins with the line, “You ain’t woke.” Madonna sings this over a dubby Diplo beat as Quavo weaves in and out of her lines for punctuation (and eventually delivers one of his all-time least inspired verses). Madonna warbles through Auto-Tune and adopts a contemporary hip-hop posture that ends up just sounding like a flat sort of honking out of her nose. It’s not so much that she’s riffing on hip-hop that’s the problem (we’re not going to solve appropriation with one Madonna album, especially when it’s rampant); it’s that she’s being smarmy as she does it.
And look: Madonna’s always gonna Madonna. She’s always going to put her twist on culture to which she has no legitimate claim. From her first record’s dabbling in post-disco boogie to voguing to new jack swing to her Eastern philosophy-and-fashion period to revolutionary posturing to trying on Timbaland’s and Pharell’s space-age takes on R&B: Sharks bite, Madonna appropriates. Her pop exists to exploit and sand off edges, packaging esotericism for the masses. It’s just that on Madame X, she is not merely dining out on other cultures; she’s whipping around drive-thrus. Perhaps some find this sort of pretense charming, as she plays peek-a-boo with a tabla on “Extreme Occident,” describing globetrotting, feeling lost, not being lost, and then resolving that, well: “Life is a circle.” But it seems absurd to grade a superstar on a curve and to forgive her hackneyed attempts at depth simply because of who she is.
There’s a distinct tension between Madame X’s idiosyncrasies and its commercial aspirations. The best-case scenario for striking the balance is the first single “Medellín,” a sugary reggaeton cocktail shared with Maluma. The song’s beat slowly fades in and intensifies, like a great idea. But not enough of these songs are good enough to justify overlooking their imperialism, and the ones that are—the rickety, triplet-drunk “Come Alive” and “I Don’t Search I Find,” a loosely structured workout with chunky ’90s house percussion that sounds like it was ripped from The Rain Tapes—aren’t quite as extreme in their cultural pilfering. The worst-case scenario is “Crave,” a mid-tempo trap ballad with Swae Lee that sounds like a naked attempt to score Madonna her own “We Belong Together.” The singing is flat as a denial, and the lyrics are all tell, no show: “My cravings get dangerous,” Madonna warns without even the smallest sense of danger in the vicinity besides falling asleep at the wheel. What is she even talking about?
If you’ve cared about Madonna in the past, but aren’t currently viewing her through rose-colored standom, she presents an exhausting challenge: Rooting for her when you know she has done (and probably could do) better. At her height, Madonna was a great persuader who could convince you of her dominion over whatever she took on. But as her career stretches on and she finds herself in the position of niche artist, her large-scale projects have the one-way intimacy of a rich friend who drags you with her to a boutique and makes you watch her try on clothes that will sit in the back of her closet for the few months before they’re donated. Life is short; aren’t we all getting a little too old for this?
4.8 out of 10