Madonna has always been Marmite. Love or hate her she has a knack of getting people talking and that chit chat sometimes exposes our unconscious prejudices. Over the years, she's been criticized for being too sexy, too provocative and too old. She's even been accused of appropriating cultures for the purposes of her music. Let's be brutally honest here, modern music has thrived on cross-pollination, this isn't and shouldn't be seen as a negative; if anything, mixing up musical sounds and styles helps to unify people.
Nobody criticized Paul Simon for branching into world music on Graceland and if the Stones and Led Zep had never fallen in love with African American blues music we wouldn't have heavy metal. Yet, somehow when Madonna pulls in sounds from East and West, she's derided by certain factions of the music press for doing so. Whether it's ageism or sexism, at base, this criticism is exactly the kind of inequality that Madonna has been trying root out since 1983. “There's nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done” she sings nonchalantly on her new album, and she's probably right. I expect Madonna will continue to sing about the issues that resonate with her until there is a shift in attitude. Unfortunately, it seems that it could be a long time coming; which is certainly a good thing for fans and a bad thing for her critics. So it just goes to show that 36 years on, nothing has really changed; except for her alter egos.
Madonna's current incarnation of Madame X is taken from the name given to her by dance teacher Martha Graham. Graham was said to have commented that a young Madonna was a mystery, who was reinventing herself every day.
Madame X is undoubtedly Madonna's most risk-taking album. It's bold, experimental, and largely devoid of the radio-friendly hit-set that littered her early albums. After her sublime disco masterpiece, Confessions on a Dancefloor, her well-stocked oeuvre seemed a little hit and miss too. American Life had paired down moments of greatness but missed the poptastic mark. Hard Candy just tried too hard to be hip, MDNA was largely weak but topped and tailed with some sparks of pop glory, and Rebel Heart was a terrific album for well crafted, upbeat songs, but it didn't push any boundaries.
Madame X takes things into a different direction entirely. Its sound was borne from Madonna's move to Lisbon where she encountered "a melting pot of culture musically, from Angola to Guinea-Bissau to Spain to Brazil to France to Cape Verde". With such influences to draw from, the album's heterogeneous nature is understandable. It jumps from Reggaeton, disco, trap, Fado and even adds African and Indian drum beats along the way. With that in mind, the lack of narrative cohesion on the album shows that Madonna is no longer concerned with making conventional pop chart-toppers, and is prepared to embrace musical diversity with both hands, throwing musical borders to the wind in the process. Compared to a traditional Madonna album it does feel musically incongruent in places, and there are a few misses here, but it's the perfect time for her to step outside the comfort zone of her chart career.
She's always had a knack of teaming up with artists and producers who can see through her artistic vision, Working with Mirwais and Mike Dean again gives the album continuity to the past. The heavy use of vocal effects on Mirwais' tracks makes the album seem more unreal and otherworldly. But when you think that much of the material is about freedom of expression, protests and identity, having this vocal disconnect makes more sense.
Medellin is the opening track team up with Columbian superstar Maluma and plays straight into the Euro-pop dance market with its addictive cha cha cha. Admittedly the track grows on you with further listens, and the same could be said for the rest of the album. There are some classic play safe Madonna songs on the album and Crazy and Crave are worthy additions, but you'll have to dig deep into the avant-garde layers to get there.
Dark Ballet's three-act structure throws us off balance on track two. It starts off pretty safe with a commentary on fame before descending into a cheese dream courtesy of Tchaikovsky. It's chaotic and bizarre but that's partly because it's so unexpected.
God Control has the same random 'she's lost the plot' feel as you got from Gang Bang on MDNA – with the same sound effects to boot. As with many Madonna contradictions, she's gone from shooting a lover in the head on one album to smacking us in the face with the brutal reality of gun violence. The more you listen and embrace the apparent randomness of the track – including the left of field rap - the more you realise the subtle workings and sophistication at play. The disco throb that takes off midway links it to Confessions; just one of many Easter Eggs that link to her back catalogue that you'll find throughout the album.
Killers who Are Partying with its sombre Fado accompaniment sees Madame X as an Everywoman, aligning herself with the persecuted and the marginalized. Here Madonna also names poor people and rape victims along the way - and let's not forget that Madonna has been both. It may be overly simplistic lyrically, and depending on which side of the Madonna camp you fall on it will come across as either, a well-intentioned track to side with the underdog, or a clumsy attempt at self canonization; but Madonna as martyr or saviour are nothing new either. The last two tracks (Looking For Mercy and I Rise) are better examples of Madonna being subversively defiant in an attempt to empower the disenfranchised, and herself in the process.
Towards the end of the album, she declares 'Bitch I'm Loca' – that's a matter of opinion, but there has always been a fine line between madness and genius. Madame X is the sound of a post 60 Madonna with nothing left to prove. She is clearly making the music that she wants, without the pressure of having to fly up to the top of the charts. Album 14 shows Madonna is at her best when she's being original and controversial and whatever you think of her or her music, the new album it's going to have you talking.
Groupie Rating 4/5