Pop icon's 14th studio album is introspective and vibrantly self-confident
It's hard to know what to look forward to the most from a new Madonna album; the familiar line of descent between the NYC-flavoured brand of smart bubblegum pop she first started releasing in 1982, or a sense of chameleonic musical change which she's made work for her and often pushed hard in the direction of breaking point for more or less the past three decades. For Madame X, her fourteenth record and the first since 2015's Rebel Heart, both and neither are the focus.
The most revolutionary thing about Madonna in 2019 – and to varying degrees this century, in fact – is the way her careful curation of her sound, well-tapped range of current influences and thoughtful array of production partners has signposted the cellular breakdown of previous rigid genre boundaries in the age of the online marketplace. 'Medellin', the first track on the album (also its first pre-released song) both strikes out for new ground via the Latin trap style of its collaborator Maluma – the energised, summery sexuality of the song is influenced by his home country, Colombia, and Madonna's own new life in Lisbon – and is immersed in the light, introspective, vibrantly self-confident qualities of Madonna's own music.
In the track, she imagines herself at the age of 17 again, where she 'allowed myself to be naïve / be someone I've never been'. It's a gorgeous sentiment, opposite to the raw rhythm of the track, about travel and adventure and open-mindedness broadening the most experienced soul; the same style and artistic pairing also appears later, to less striking effect, on 'Loca'.
'Medellin' is followed by 'Dark Ballet', which approaches the same idea from the opposite direction – a moody, odd collision of virtuosic grand piano and Daft Punk-like vocoder in which she floats graciously above the concept of caring what anyone thinks about her: 'People tell me to shut my mouth… I'm not concerned,' she rolls her eyes. Mirwais, the producer partly responsible for Madonna's trio of club-focused records in the early 2000s (from 2000's Music to 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor), reactivates a successful partnership with his contributions here, which includes these first two tracks and 'God Control', a mighty fusion of 'Like a Prayer'-style gospel chorus with swirling disco strings and Madonna's pointed political raps.
'Everybody knows the damn truth / our nation lied / we've lost respect,' she hollers, and her eager assertion that 'I don't smoke / it's true' is probably a good idea in the age of the conspiracy theory. This is the record's crowd-pleaser and call to arms, the one most likely to set a stadium alight, while Mirwais' other contribution is the other stand-out; across a breathy but emphatic vocal which is every bit as decisive as that of 'Vogue', 'I Don't Search I Find' is a moody, melancholy club banger.
At fifteen tracks, Madame X feels more like an opus than an album which is going for instant pop appeal, however; one which is invested more in exploring a breadth of ideas than it is in churning out the bubblegum hits. In this regard, Madonna's vocal presence in a number of the songs feels as much like a message-carrier as the whole purpose of their existence, just another instrument amid – for example – the futurist dancehall of the Diplo-produced 'Future', its vocal shared with the rapper Quavo, and the mantra-like rap over the afrofuturist 'Batuka'.
A lull in the centre appears around the tracks 'Crave' and 'Crazy', their light, Latin balladry filling time pleasantly enough, while the one genuine dull note is 'Killers Who Are Partying', over whose serious Spanish guitars Madonna imagines herself taking on the mantle of others' poverty, sexuality and African-ness in a moment of too-far overplayed martyrdom.
More pleasing are those moments where she fuses the personal and personal in perfect synchronicity, making her point and unleashing her own feelings in a manner where neither counteracts the other – a sentiment most perfectly expressed on the icy closer 'I Rise', its spoken-word intro a sample of the gun control campaigner Emma Gonzalez, and its perfectly-balanced mood and intent the kind which only an artist as in-control as Madonna might manage in a song which still counts as perfect pop music.