Madonna’s importance to music, popular culture, and the LGBTQ community need not be questioned at this point. She’s an all-time legend as far as those categories mentioned concerned. Yet, the rollout of Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th album, has been about celebrating her importance. Though Rebel Heart has not been well received so far, critics have been warmer to the idea of embracing Madonna as the icon she is. The last couple weeks has taken on the shape of a celebration of something other than Madonna’s career (Staff: an article celebrating the highlights of Madonna’s career is a pitch if any of you want to take it). My hypothesis is that Rebel Heart is music criticism patting itself on the back because pop is en vogue. It’s also very uninteresting, which is not for a lack of trying—Madonna’s working with in-demand producers and hopping around genres. But that’s precisely the problem: she spends more time talking about her importance than doing anything important.
While this is certainly as fresh as Madonna has been in years, Rebel Heart doesn’t do much more than show what Madonna sounds like over club beats. Sure it’s not Kanye she’s referencing on “Illuminati,” but the song’s hook is the most Yeezus thing put to straight-up EDM production (and yes, Kanye is a listed producer on this particular song). Elsewhere, there’s Diplo’s Jack Ü-inspired dancehall drops on “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” which achieve nothing but making these songs MOR club fare and announcing Diplo’s presence in the studio. The assembly-line beats are the most interesting thing about Rebel Heart until Nicki Minaj shows up and snatches the “Bitch I’m Madonna” from the Queen of Pop. But even Minaj sounds bored on the track compared to the highlights of her most recent album, The Pinkprint (which, full disclosure, I enjoyed quite a bit).
The second of the half of Rebel Heart sounds like a blur of any average dance club the last couple of years, which is the period time a lot of the producers and writers have earned their way onto a Madonna album. “Iconic” is a reminder that if we took these beats and gave them to Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa, we’d have the closest to an Album of the Year contender as these beats can be rode to, but zone out for a second and you’ll forget Chance ever showed up. In a way, Rebel Heart sounds like bits and pieces 2014 (Mustard is not on any beats, ho.) in the way that “Ray of Light” sounded like the obvious choice to have in a radio rotation between “Jumper” and “Smooth”. It’s actually the lack of an obvious massive hit that keeps Rebel Heart from being a spiritual successor to Ray of Light with the latter’s massive title track the hit that Madonna is nowhere close to finding this time.
Madonna sounds most inspired on Rebel Heart’s ballads, which allow her melodies and choruses to do the heavy lifting. As such, “Body Shop” is easily the best song and the subtlest sexual metaphor (somehow) on this album. Of course, she follows this up with “Holy Water”, which the refrains are “Bitch, get off my pole!” and “Don’t it taste like holy water?” If there’s a 50-something that can pull off that degree of boss bitch, it’s surely Madonna, but the song simply doesn’t float.
So it should come as no surprise that the attitude of Rebel Heart picks up where 2012’s tepid MDNA leaves off: an elder stateswoman trying to regain a piece of her youth. This time around, she surely taps into what the young’ins could consider cool, but there’s no escaping the corniness and haphazard songs that populate this album. Maybe she’ll strike pay dirt when she appears on Kanye West’s So Help Me God later this year. Still, it’s worth reminding those whose Madonna knowledge starts at kissing Britney Spears just what Madonna meant to people at various junctions of the 80s and 90s. Madonna has earned the license to keep releasing bad albums if it means her importance is retold every few years.
Album Rating: 2/5
Footnote: Her brushing off Ariel Pink with the “who are you?” line is actually the best song on Rebel Heart.