Monday, December 22, 2014

Madonna Gets Her Groove Back With the 'Rebel Heart' Six

Madonna, it seems, has managed to surprise everyone once again. Following last week's massive leak of unfinished material from her upcoming album, the Queen of Pop was understandably upset and characteristically vocal about it (although her comparisons of the incident to "rape" and "terrorism" ruffled some feathers). Because the album wasn't finished, nor did it have a title or release date, it was unclear how, and if, she would recover from the damage.

Madonna Interview Magazine

The answer to that arrived on Saturday, and it was a bit more ingenious than most would have expected. The album, now entitled Rebel Heart (a phrase that first emerged on Madonna's Instagram, in April), appeared on iTunes for pre-order, with a release date of March 10, 2015 - with six tracks available for immediate download, including lead single "Living for Love."

This not only sent the album to #1 on the iTunes album chart in the US and many other countries, but all six tracks to the top ten of the singles charts (although as of this writing only one remains in the top ten, with the rest still in the top twenty) thanks, apparently, to a loophole in the algorithm that allows pre-release tracks to count on the singles chart (tracks from regular album releases don't appear on the singles chart in the same way). It remains to be seen how Billboard handles this on its singles charts, but for now it's looking like Madonna, by taking advantage of the very latest understanding of digital music practices, has diverted a potential disaster toward a potential late-career hit.

A major element of the early popularity of Rebel Heart, though, is the quality of the music itself. The six available tracks, including long-hinted at "Unapologetic Bitch" and a Nicki Minaj feature, vary from pretty good to kinda great, and they work even more effectively as a group. It's enough to suggest, much more than one or two good singles, that the album will be much stronger and more cohesive than her previous two releases, the valiant if shoddy postmodernist effort MDNA (2012) and the dated Timbaland/Timberlake confabulation Hard Candy (2008).

Four tracks are helmed by Diplo and songwriter Toby Gad ("If I Were A Boy," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "All of Me"); the other two come from dance and pop bigwigs like Avicii, Billboard ("Hold It Against Me"), and Max Martin protegee Rami Yacoub ("It's Gonna Be Me," "Shape of My Heart," every early Britney Spears hit). The writing is consistently solid, as well; songwriting help comes from the likes of Alicia Keys, Savan Kotecha, MoZella ("Wrecking Ball"), Ariel Rechstaid ("Hey There Delilah," "Everything is Embarrassing"), and veteran studio writers behind hits like "Heart Attack," "Talk Dirty," "Halo," and "SOS".

Keys and Madonna
Free from the thematic confines of a concept or breakup album, Rebel Heart so far appears to be a collection of good old fashioned pop songs, which adds to its accessibility and mainstream appeal. Still, a lot of the album so far sounds like the direct offspring of MDNA, although this isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Ghosttown" and "Devil Prays" feature the sort of melancholy, vaguely church-y sound of the opening to "Girl Gone Wild" ("Devil Prays" even reaches back to American Life and Hard Candy's folk-y guitar pop), while the Minaj collab "Bitch I'm Madonna" is a bald reboot of "I Don't Give A—" and breakup-themed "Unapologetic Bitch" could have fit easily on MDNA

But the differences that make the Rebel Heart Six a superior bunch probably lies in the choice of collaborators; while in the leadup to MDNA much was made of Madonna's efforts to work with the most up and coming names in EDM production, her choices (Benny Benassi, William Orbit, Martin Solveig-trying-to-be-William Orbit) seemed cynical rather than genuine, and the lack of artistic chemistry was palpable. 

This time her picks are more adventurous — Diplo may by now be the mainstream way to push the envelope, but she also taps Pitchfork-endorsed producer Blood Diamonds (Grimes, Tinashe) and über-new British electronic artist Sᴏᴘʜɪᴇ, not to mention Kanye West itself on the very Kanye (and Kanye-name-dropping) "Illuminati". She works well with Diplo, whose restraint keeps pace with hers and is no less remarkable, and other tracks without him are anchored by veteran pop heavyweights keeping things from capsizing, so there are no careening-into-the-ditch moments like the M.I.A. WTF-fest "B-Day Song" from MDNA.

A Madonna album called Rebel Heart runs the risk of overplaying its theme, writing a rabble-rousing check its butt can't cash no matter how exposed it is, like MDNA often does (see also Charli XCX's Sucker). So far, this doesn't seem to be a big issue, partly because the work with Diplo especially does trend toward the bold side, but also because the hyperbolic rebel talk is kept mostly to reasonable levels. "Unapologetic Bitch," probably the weakest of the group, does seem on paper like more of an affront than it ultimately plays as, and "Bitch I'm Madonna" is confidently underplayed. 

Madonna Nun Instagram

"Illuminati" has the makings of a hot internet firestorm, with its trolling of conspiracy theorists and name-dropping of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and others, but it actually just fizzles into a tame "Everybody in this party shining like Illuminati" clubbing metaphor. Of course, you have to actually listen to the song to get that, whereas the names and the "now the media's misleading us all" post-chorus are easily picked up as soundbites for the argumentative (see also Lily Allen's "Sheezus"). In the end, though, I'm not much bothered because it sounds so good, and that's more than enough in contemporary electronic pop.

In fact, all of Rebel Heart sounds pretty good right now, and at a time when music popularity seems more influenced by beats and production than big choruses, lyrics, or charisma, maybe this is a smart and timely artistic decision by the 56 year old pop star. A big criticism of Madonna's 21st century albums has been that she hasn't stayed ahead or even on top of current musical trends but rather fallen dottily behind (or, in the case of 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor, purposely reverted backwards), and this has fueled complaints about her age. Time will tell whether and to what extent Rebel Heart's initial popularity will be sustained, but as of this moment it seems feasible that Madonna could have one more big relevant musical moment up her sleeve.

Rebel Heart Cover
Click image to pre-order Rebel Heart on iTunes

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