[Update: 10 reviews added, including Pitchfork & Spin] Madonna “Rebel Heart” Reviews
March 7, 2015 News

[Update: 10 reviews added, including Pitchfork & Spin] Madonna “Rebel Heart” Reviews

Update:

It’s difficult to take Madonna at face value. She is on her third generation of pop iconhood, after all, and her work comes freighted with decades of discussions about sexuality, appropriation, and whether what she is doing is “shocking” or “fake” or “appropriate.” In the run-up to Rebel Heart, a series of bad-press flare-ups—myriad Instagram-based controversies, comparing her album leak to rape—suggested that maybe Madonna had slipped from our reality entirely. Yet, the surprise of Rebel Heart, her 13th album, is its groundedness, its centering of the Real Madonna in the mix.

In a way, Rebel Heart fits squarely into a growing canon that also includes Björk’s Vulnicura, Kim Gordon’s new memoir and the autobiography of Slits guitarist Viv Albertine: female artists of a certain age making mature, candid work about divorce, and the rediscovery of the artistic self that follows in the wake of the rupture of their domestic life. Rebel Heart, like Vulnicura, digs in on the vertiginous aftermath (most spectacularly on “Living for Love” and “HeartBreakCity”), and finds steadiness in the pure loves of children, the bedrock of self, and spiritualism. As is traditional Madonna™, her lyrics reach for top-shelf Catholicism, conflating spiritual and sexual salvation in a way that never makes entirely clear whether the supplication is being offered at the foot of Christ or a bedmate.

On the absolution-seeking “Devil Pray”, she sings about the futility of escaping pain and recites a garbage head’s shopping list of street drugs that offer brief relief—including, but not limited to, sniffing glue. As she chants “Save my soul/ Devil’s here to fool ya” a bed of throaty, orgasmic samples rises in the mix, a hundred tiny Madonna-voices in coital abyss. It is a strange, tender, comical thing, this Madonna song that cites huffing and invokes the presence of “Lucifer.” But ultimately, it’s a boring stadium-throb lite-EDM song about seeking sobriety and/or big-G God. It’s also a Madonna-doing-Madonna cliche, which is too often the downfall of Rebel Heart.

The good news is that most of the time, Madonna-doing-Madonna seems in on the joke. There’s the masterfully campy “Bitch I’m Madonna”, and then the 50 Shades of What-the-Actual-Fuck of “S.E.X.”, which goes from trad break-you-off/come-inside talk to mentions of “chopsticks,” a “dental chair,” a “golden shower” and raw meat as erotic objects in a voice that sounds like she’s calling on her Creepy Frog phone while wearing a zipped fetish mask. On “Holy Water” she draws a comparison reminiscent of Lana Del Rey and Pepsi-Cola.

The deep production team on Rebel Heart—Ariel Rechtshaid and Diplo in particular—have previously done work referencing classic ’80s Madonna, and seemingly have a good sense of what suits her voice and still-evolving mature-era aesthetic. The soulful diva house of “Living for Love” sounds like it should have been the single off the Mary J. Blige London Sessions album, complete with celestial gospel chorus and piano 8s. It kicks off the album and serves as its thesis—Madonna as triumphant (yet vulnerable) phoenix from the flame, seeking good love and God, raving in the dawn after the darkness. Much of the 14-track domestic commercial version (as well as crushingly long 25-track super deluxe version) mines the same territory.

When she’s not hammering self-help maxims in the breakup zone, she is ordering the pop cosmos around her, much like she’s been doing since approximately 1985. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is a fantastic argument that the Sophie, Nicki Minaj, Diplo & Madonna album should come out, like, tomorrow and save everyone’s summer. It’s corny and glorious, its Nicki verse the most energizing 26 seconds of the album—and it’s also a convincing plea for big-tent EDM to get weird. On the surface it’s essentially the most artful Kesha song anyone’s ever made, but grows progressively more warped and bubblegum until it falls apart amid seizing saw synths. It’s Madonna as cartoon diva, but then it’s piggybacked by the pained ballad flipside: On “Joan of Arc” she opens up, as much as any ultra famous pop performer can in four minutes, about how hard it is to be the public Madonna, followed by paparazzi and dissected by trolls online. “Just hold me while I cry my eyes out,” she sings.

It’s a curious cocktail, one that makes it seem like she is actively taking on the mantle of What Madonna Means To Us In 2015. Rebel Heart finds her recoiling and resigning from it, refusing it, fucking with us, examining her own history and playfully crushing it under her boot heel. Yet, while some songs never quite make their point, others drill down on bad ones. The cringe-inducing “Body Shop”—wherein Madonna takes a body-as-a-car metaphor into mortifying territory that makes you wish for an Auto Wrecker: “You can polish the headlights/ You can smooth out the fender.” (Bon Scott is probably spinning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken.) With songs like that sandwiched between unabashed bangers and tenderhearted treacle, and constant codeswitching from Madonna the character to Madonna the human being, Rebel Heart grows confusing and irreconcilably uneven as it progresses. As valiantly as the album tries, it’s hard to hit reset on the Madonna we’ve known and loved, after 30 years of campaigning for our hearts and minds.

As the woman who reinvented and ultimately defined what pop stardom means, Madonna understands the first rule of it better than anyone else: Never be afraid to embarrass yourself. In her 30-plus-year reign as the genre’s queen, Madge has acutely displayed the difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness, and why it’s as important to have plenty of the former as it is to lack the latter entirely. Top-40 titans are more compelling when it’s evident they know exactly what they’re doing, but once it’s clear that they’re adjusting their music or personality based on audience perception or expectation, it’s probably already over for them.

At age 56, she is still generating excessive debate and extensive criticism for this reason — she fails to kowtow to the public’s assumption that popular icons (and female ones in particular) should age gracefully, or at least obviously. Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th and latest album, references drug usage, name-drops (other) celebrities, and contains no shortage of eye-rolling double entendres. It’s not about motherhood, it’s not about nostalgia, and it’s definitely not about being less than a decade away from social security. It’s an album that makes it exceptionally easy for critics — or just the Internet at large — to turn Madonna into a punchline, the old hag that still thinks she’s 25 and just can’t understand that no one wants to hear a 50-something talking about how Yeezus ranks her pussy. It also contains a number of Madonna’s best songs in years.

The highlights on Rebel Heart are the ones in which the increasingly caustic pop legend embraces her nasty side and just lets the haters have at it — to the point where both of the best songs have “Bitch” in the title. “Unapologetic Bitch” is about as successful and seamless a rebranding as Madge could ask for in the year 2015. Co-written and produced by Diplo, a man prone to the occasional bout of unapologetic bitchiness himself, the reggae-tinged banger is as snarlingly exhilarating as “Human Nature” was 20 years ago, but now Madonna is done with even feigning shock at being told what not to talk about, instead casually proffering, “I gotta call it like it is.” Even better is “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which throws a dash of PC Music capo SOPHIE’s ping-ponging oddball freneticisim into Diplo’s block-dropping beats, with the diva alternating between pitch-shifted shrieks of “Who do you think you are??” and the sing-songy title taunt. It might not be your favorite Madonna, but it’s unquestionably her, and it’s far more compelling than the anonymous EDM enthusiast she played on MDNA.

Not all of the record’s more ostentatious moments pop in quite same way. “Illuminati” wastes a potentially explosive, blacklit Kanye beat on a muddled, hashtagging lyric that isn’t even as conspiracy-baiting as it thinks it is, while the laundry list of intoxicants referenced sneeringly in the fallen-angel ballad “Devil Pray” makes the song sound like a mid-’80s PSA. Slow songs are a problem for Rebel Heart in general — ponderous, over-serious and exhausted with halfhearted Catholic guilt, they bog down what could otherwise be the most fun album Madonna’s made in at least a decade. But not all the best songs are headline-grabbers, either — “Livin’ for Love” achieves communal dancefloor euphoria simply by harkening back to “Vogue”-era house piano and catchphrase chorusing, while “Body Shop” is fun enough in its sllippery, Eastern-flavored production to be imminently forgivable for its groaning cars-as-sex metaphor.

Ultimately, even in the record’s clunkier moments, it’s gratifying to hear Madonna leaning defiantly (and gleefully) into what many would consider to be the less savory elements of her personality. As Tina Fey would no doubt point out, it’s far too late for Madonna’s career to attempt a Meryl Streep-like third act, where she gracefully flits between gigs, stunning with grace and professionalism and proving the role model for all younger aspirants. Madonna’s Rebel Heart is actually much closer to that of former VMAs combatant Courtney Love, a Bad Girl who has alienated casual fans over the years with her unwillingness to age out of her brattiness, but is beloved by her more rabid fans for just that reason. If she’s going down, she’s gonna go down bitching.

Madonna is not easily humbled, so hearing her address her personal turmoil so openly on the new album “Rebel Heart” will come as a shock for many longtime fans. Especially striking is the way she references her breakup with toyboy Brahim Zaibat, on the bitter “HeartBreakCity.”

“You got just what you came for/A bit of fame and fortune,” she seethes, while on other reflective ballads such as “Wash All Over Me,” she simply sounds doleful and lost. The potential hits are few, and her clubfooted approach to songs about sex are definitely not highlights (hearing her declare “Yeezus loves my p - - sy best” on the Kanye-produced “Holy Water” will send shudders across the world). But at its best, “Rebel Heart” is the sound of Madonna falling down, getting back up and carrying on. It’s something she’s gotten very good at lately.

The previous two Madonna studio albums, “MDNA” (2012) and “Hard Candy” (2008), have come off as transparent attempts at co-opting the latest waves of dance music. She used to be a step ahead of the mainstream, artfully cannibalizing underground danceclub moves and turning them into pop gold. Now she was playing catch-up.

She sounds less desperate on her 13th studio album, “Rebel Heart” (Boy Toy/Live Nation/Interscope). Though Madonna is celebrated and vilified as a button-pushing rabble-rouser, she has actually done some of her finest work in a more introspective vein. Her best album in the last two decades, “Ray of Light” (1998), was also her most atmospheric and inward-looking. And “Rebel Heart” is in many ways a distant cousin, an unusually personal album that seems less about keeping up and more about taking stock. At least three songs reference her past hits, but she’s not celebrating herself all the time. On the contrary, she reveals insecurities that make her sound somehow more human and uncharacteristically vulnerable.

The album sags from an excess of songs and multiple personalities.

The 19 tracks on the deluxe version cram together Diplo’s airhorn-blast ravers, wispier confessionals and a handful of daring outliers. Surprisingly, the keeper moments are the most inward-looking. That coincides with Madonna’s increasing acuity as a ballad singer; the squeaky-voiced pop diva has developed a warmer tone as she’s matured.

The electro-pop ballads “Ghosttown” and “HeartBreakCity” simmer in melancholy as Madonna reflects on a broken relationship (she ended a three-year fling with dancer Brahim Zaibat in 2013). “Joan of Arc” suggests that the steely air of self-confidence that has carried the singer through decades of stirring things up may be just a shield for deeper insecurities. The title track revisits some of the folk-rock tropes that have tripped up Madonna in the past, but the arrangement skips along with brisk strings and finger snaps while the singer psychoanalyzes herself as an individualist bedeviled by narcissism (who knew?). In addressing character flaws and missteps with unprecedented candor, she suggests how a onetime provocateur can mature and still remain interesting, if not remain at the center of pop culture as she once was.

She hedges her bets on the dance cuts. The coldly remote “S.E.X.” should be subtitled “Y.A.W.N.,” “Holy Water” conflates religion and erotica for the 3,243rd time in Madonna’s career, and the reggae-tinged “Unapologetic B …” and the pumped up “B… I’m Madonna” come off as half-hearted attempts to keep up with the younger competition on the pop charts, including Nicki Minaj, who raps on the latter track.

How much better would this album have been without those missteps and a few more tracks that venture outside of Madonna’s comfort zone? The wacky conspiracy theories and squelching video-game beats of the West-produced “Illuminati” and the low-key industrial-folk ballad “Body Shop” are welcome simply because they’re so unexpected. They’re part of a messily inconsistent but still-fascinating album, the type of Madonna release that no one could’ve predicted when she was in her “Like a Virgin” infancy.

Madonna is pop music’s matriarch. Since her explosion into music in the ’80s and her “Like a Virgin” era, she has continually reinvented herself to last through wave after wave of music. Her newest release, Rebel Heart, has the veteran unapologetically asserting dominance in her genre.

To start, Madonna managed to get some of the best modern talent in pop music onto this album. Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper and Nas are all featured on the album. Additionally, Kanye West, Diplo and Avicii produced tracks — giving Madonna’s 13th studio album the shine of one of a younger artist. Much of the album concerns Madonna realizing her stardom and iconic nature, as evidenced by the tracks “Iconic” and “Bitch I’m Madonna.” She is far more than an artist these days.

The ’80s sex idol left her mark on pop music, and there are few artists in the industry today who cannot attribute at least some portion of their sound to Madonna. She is iconic and she knows it, as she references her status in several tracks.

“I can, Icon, two letters apart/ One step, away, of being lost in the dark/ Just shine your light like a beautiful star/ Show the world who you are/ Who you are” sings the artist on “Iconic” featuring Chance the Rapper. The track received attention when it was released, as people were intrigued by a collaboration between the queen of pop and an up-and-coming rapper; though ths song it is a little cheesy and a little too upbeat, it has hit qualities.

Though all the pre-released tracks are pop and EDM tracks, there are plenty of slower ballads on the album, with almost as much emotional instrumentation as there is radio fodder. One beautiful track, “Wash All Over Me,” — though it is classic Madonna — is still fresh and somewhat heartbreaking. If the EDM hits appeal to her icon image, these ballads are the real Madonna. She sings about how hard it is to be constantly in the spotlight, about love and about herself as more than just a sex symbol. Many critics consider this personal touch to be the album’s best quality, and rightfully so as Madonna bears all for this record.

“Wash All Over Me,” like many tracks on Rebel Heart, uses unique sounds to achieve its aims. In this case, it’s the sound of a drumline distorted to sound like a syncopated heartbeat, giving the whole song its texture. It sounds like an upbeat, hopeful version of “House of the Rising Sun” by Animals, and it truly shines as one of the most underrated songs on the album.

Though Madonna is now 56, she is still unafraid to confront the topic that made her famous: sex. A majority of the tracks on Rebel Heart are about sex — there is one blatantly titled “S.E.X.” — and one employing a pretty poorly thought out metaphor to religion entitled “Holy Water.” She’s a sex icon, and though she is of the age of most moms, Madonna is still making music that would make mothers uncomfortable. In “S.E.X.,” Madonna describes in great depth her sexual knowledge, references many intense sexual positions and practices such as using handcuffs and whips; the lyrics make pretty much anyone listening squirm a little. In the ’80s, all it took was comparing herself to a virgin to spark controversy, but now, it seems it takes much, much more. With 19 tracks on Rebel Heart, her 13th album, they can’t all be good. When you’ve been making music for 30 years you’re allowed a few duds here and there.

Closing out the album is the title track “Rebel Heart,” a fun, hopeful song about Madonna’s rebellious nature and how she made a name for herself as such. If this album tells the story of her career, this song is the retrospective. Her album focuses on her past, her music, her sexual persona and her personal life, all culminating in this song about how good it is to be a rebel.

Madonna is one of the most recognizable names to ever come out of the music industry, and she opened the door for artists to be comfortable with exploring sexual material while making herself into a pop icon. This album is good. It may not be the Madonna you expect from the ’80s, nor is it a fine tuned pop album made for the radio today, but it is certainly worth a listen, if only to hear the likes of Nicki Minaj and Chance the Rapper working with one of the most relevant pop artists of all time.

The pop queen co-wrote all of the songs on the collection, and she co-produced the project with such acclaimed musicians and producers as Diplo, Avicii and Kanye West.
Her CD was released on Interscope Records and it opens with “Living For Love.”
It is followed by the laid-back “Dirty Pray,” which is easy to clap along to. “Ghosttown” is a haunting ballad, while “Illuminati” has an infectious melody that is reminiscent of a Lady Gaga track. While her collaboration with rapper Nicki Minaj is mediocre at best, she more than makes up for it with the upbeat and refreshing “Hold Tight,” where her vocals are crystalline.
“Joan of Arc” is a highlight track on the album for sure. Her vocals are mellifluous coupled with its empowering lyrics, especially with the Joan of Arc comparisons. She sings it like a delicate lullaby.
“Iconic” is a collaboration with Chance the Rapper, and “HeartBreak City” is a piano-driven ballad. “Body Shop” is mellow and “Holy Water” is a spitfire dance track. “Inside Out” is sonically powerful and melodically stunning. It closes with the haunting “Wash All Over Me.”
The Verdict
Overall, Madonna delivers on her latest studio album Rebel Heart. There is a lot of variety on this album that will please her diverse group of fans. It is safe to say that one could never go wrong with any Madonna CD. It is no wonder that she is the best-selling female recording artist of all-time. This new CD earns an A- rating.

Madonna has been everything. Madonna is the reason female pop stars are able to be multifaceted, evolutionary, sexy-and-smart, vulnerable-and-empowering creatures instead of fembots programmed to either be contagiously happy or soul-stirringly sad for the sake of easy entertainment. Without her, the world would have a different idea of the entire modern concept of what a female pop star is/can be/should be. Sure, someone else with a big attitude and an even bigger nerve might have come along at the right time, but it’s hard to imagine just anyone becoming such a permanent visionary in our musical landscape as Madonna — particularly in a way that, for the most part, has retained relevance.

When you start to think like this, it’s easy to give the 56-year-old icon a break. The thing is, Madonna doesn’t want you to cut her any slack. She is prepared for you to compare her to the very competition she is responsible for creating. (I imagine it would be hard for her to not think about them, in at least some small way she’d never admit, as children — and would anyone with an active ego blame her?) There’s at least one point in every Madonna interview where the reader may think, “Holy shit, this woman could devour me whole.” It starts to become clear that Madonna doesn’t set expectations on the basis of her audience or her critics — she’d go this hard whether they were watching or not. But like most gym rats, she would prefer to catch your eye while she’s bettering herself.

Ageless, innately intense, obsessed with relevance, and refusing to be pinned down: if the last decade of Madonna’s discography are any indication, it is difficult even for her to be all these things at once. And so, she often works in cycles that explore the dichotomy of personal songs and party songs. After a string of personal, pseudo-political albums in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s albums (starting with her middle-aged opus Ray of Light), Madge stacked her last three albums — 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, 2008’s Hard Candy, and 2012’s MDNA — with dance-floor frivolity of varying styles. The formula got less successful as the years passed — Confessions was one of Madonna’s most musically forward-thinking albums despite being a disco homage in many ways, but by MDNA, instead of an innovator obsessed with the next big sound, Madonna came across a little like Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls: trying way too hard to be cool. It was time for a new cycle.

On Rebel Heart, Madonna’s new album out this week, she offers up a nearly even split of personal and party tracks on her 19-song deluxe edition — something 2000’s Music also achieved. Her collaborators here are either contemporary commercial giants (Ryan Tedder, Avicii, Toby Gad), sonic innovators (Blood Diamonds, Ariel Rechtshaid, Sophie), or both (Kanye, Diplo). Boss-ass bestie Nicki Minaj returns to guest on the so-bad-it’s-good “Bitch I’m Madonna,” retribution for Madge involving her on two pretty forgettable MDNA tracks (then again, what wasn’t forgettable on MDNA?). Nas, Chance the Rapper, and Mike Tyson guest too, in that descending order of quality. There are plenty of new and shiny ideas in this melange of sounds, but lyrically, Rebel Heart is Madonna’s most self-referential album to date, complete with puns based on her past hits (Nas collaboration “Veni Vedi Vici”) and a brief sampling of “Vogue” (“Holy Water”). Pop’s all-time provocateur shocks in a new way: as she recently told Pitchfork, “It feels like the right time to look back.”

Madonna hasn’t been relegated as a personality to just two dimensions in a of couple of decades now, but musically, her desire to be everything at once has decreased over time. This is a quality I’ve always appreciated in late-career Madonna: the sense that she has all the time in the world. On record, there’s not this pressure to be, all at once, as serious as possible, as sexy as she can be, as controversial, and as carefree. Each album doesn’t have to be a complete self-portrait. This is what makes Rebel Heart different. By the end, it starts to take the misshape of a career retrospective — something it has no business doing, considering its hit-or-miss variance from song to song, lack of cohesion, bad sex jokes (if there is one thing Madonna can’t pull off in her music, it’s humor), and Madge’s own transcendent history.

Given this, I’m left to wonder why it is that I hear so many other pop stars in Rebel Heart. Is it Madonna’s influence, or Madonna’s trend-chasing? With their slight electro-reggae vibes (i.e. Diplo making his presence known) and bad attitudes, “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Hold Tight” could be huge hits for Rihanna. “Joan of Arc” sounds like the sonically generic soul-searching of Katy Perry’s Prism, despite containing the album’s strongest, realest lyrics (Madonna discusses the toll of fame on her life). With its foreboding trap chorus, stupid-big EDM drops, and wildly Kanye bridge, “Iconic” would sound incredible as a Minaj track. “Ghosttown,” one of the album’s best and most vulnerable tracks, embraces a post-Lorde/Drake flood of spacious electronics in pop; when the bridge goes to a gospel organ, remember to note that “Like a Prayer” is part of why this sound even exists in white pop (and Madonna’s intense Catholicism one reason why religious imagery is common). No doubt the infectious house throwback “Living for Love” is Madonna’s “Believe,” though it would be hard to deem someone who performed at the Super Bowl three years ago in need of a big comeback like Cher was back in ’98.

In recent years, Madonna has found herself — with an increasing frequency that I have no doubt correlates with age — compared to Cher and Kylie Minogue. I get it — the still-got-it dance-floor divas with a flair for dramatics and mad love for the gays. Though the big, sassy hits on Rebel Heart — “Living for Love” and “Bitch I’m Madonna”— are likely what will endure, it matters — considering Madonna’s recent output — that they’re in the context of an album with emotional intimacy. I’m certainly curious to see where she goes for her 14th record, while MDNA left me less than hungry for Rebel Heart initially.

I’m not saying it’s ever easy to ignore the promo circus and new personas rolled out around every Madonna release, but Rebel Heart has been particularly present. Though the album’s December leaks left her defeated and dramatic as ever (she called it “artistic rape”), the act may have helped Madonna bring awareness to the album. For all the fuss, it’s a shame Rebel Heart isn’t all it could be, all Madonna has been previously. I suppose when you’re Madonna, your biggest competition is yourself.

Madonna’s 13th studio album, “Rebel Heart,” beats with romance and rebellion. At 19 tracks, it’s an overstuffed triptych through the iconic performer’s life, careening between uplifting dance tracks, like the percolating “Living for Love” — her 44th No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart — and corrosively bitter tunes such as the Avicii-produced “HeartBreakCity.”

Songs such as the largely acoustic “Devil Pray,” which will stylistically remind many of “Don’t Tell Me”; the achingly vulnerable “Joan of Arc”; and the deceptively double entendre-filled, lilting “Body Shop” course with vitality and showcase some of Madonna’s best singing in years.

While the majority of the material falls solidly in the positive, some of the tunes undoubtedly meant to sound fierce and liberating just feel tired, like the electro-clash braggadocio of “Bitch I’m Madonna,” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the tedious X-rated bump-and-grind of the Kanye West-produced “Holy Water.”

In perhaps her most complex album, Madonna seems determined to plant a flag for her 30-plus year career, even giving a crash course in Madonna-ology on the self-referential “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” featuring Nas, during which she playfully incorporate phrases and titles from past hits. At its best, “Rebel Heart” pulsates with a vibrancy that reveals both the sour and the sweet in Madonna’s extremely complicated life and leaves no doubt that she still has a lot more to share.

Like a virgin, Madonna is pure again. Cleansed of the unbecoming trend grabs that marred the icon’s erratic predecessors – namely the sinfully juvenile “Hard Candy” and “MDNA,” better but still pastiche – our Blessed Goddess steps back into her ray of light and applies a new shine to an old sound.

For once, Madonna doesn’t keep nostalgia at bay. In fact, during “Rebel Heart,” her most sophisticated release since 2005′s “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” she keeps wistfulness close by. The result is tangled, tortured but shockingly authentic, as she basks in all the heyday glory that earned the Michigan dreamer her seat and, eventually, a crown. Whatever life’s done to Madonna lately – the kids are growing up; Madonna’s growing up – she and “Rebel Heart” are better for it.

Witnessing the 56-year-old in self-reflection mode, a la “Ray of Light” and “American Life,” is refreshing, and also, despite Madonna’s refusal to actually age, befitting. She holds your hand during the perseverance paean “Ghosttown,” a surging mid-tempo with a melancholic narrative reminiscent of “This Used to Be My Playground.” The world hurts, Madonna muses, but love heals. The song is a pillar of hope, a theme recycled during the uplifting “Hold Tight”; like a hug as she reluctantly sends her children out into this “mad world,” Mother Madonna is reassuring – “hold tight; everything’s gonna be all right” – over a sonic spill of rumbling drums and electronic fuzz. Harnessing an organic energy that’s been noticeably lacking from the fabricated Pharrell-produced pop confections of her most recent efforts, “Rebel Heart” gets into the groove by recapturing the rawness heard particularly on the under-appreciated “American Life.” “Body Shop” encapsulates that quality best, the sexy innuendo taking a backseat to the very modest, Indian-influenced folk vibe. Her voice wispy and mesmeric, Madonna sounds like she’s leading a yin yoga retreat.

Less effective are Madonna’s unabashed attempts at relevancy, when the sexual provocateur essentially parodies her own cone-wearing self on “Holy Water,” an exercise in excess. Have all the sex you want, Madonna. And by all means, make that pole your bitch. But album-audible moaning? Equating your bits to a Baptismal liquid? Love you, lady, but this just might be a good time to retire the fornication-fueled religious allegories.

The even weaker, slinky bedroom-bumper “S.E.X” doesn’t even bother with thinly veiled metaphors (at one point she randomly drops “raw meat” like an afterthought) as she promises to “take you to a place you will not forget,” but then she doesn’t. And poof. Gone.

Most memorable about “Rebel Heart” is Madonna as a messenger of love, unity and peace – “the sorcerer down in the deep,” as she puts it on the deluxe edition’s penultimate powerhouse “Messiah.” There’s an ease about Madonna during these moments of musing, where she looks inward and sends her light outward, and the crown, though briefly, comes off. The ego is disbanded. For once, whether we like it or not, the icon, the diva, the high priestess of pop – she’s real. “I can’t be a superhero right now / Even hearts made of steel can break down,” she laments on “Joan of Arc,” a surprisingly direct acknowledgement of facets that have, particularly as of late, evaded the star’s essence: sensitivity, candor and sincerity.

It all comes full circle with the title track “Rebel Heart,” the closer. A blast from the past, a fully content Madonna recounts the trail she blazed for herself – and, obviously, others – through fierce determination and, you know (and she knows), by being a “narcissist.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album is the nearly lifetime-long result of broken boundaries and bravado – and, for the first time in 10 years, it’s beating stronger than ever. Grade: B

Madonna’s 12 previous albums — “Like a Virgin,” “Bedtime Stories” and her relatively epic “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” to name a few — confirm her branding technique, each connecting a concrete idea with themes conveyed through the songs, more or less. The outlier, her forgettable last album, “MDNA,” was a coy reference to the drug MDMA (aka Molly or Ecstasy).

Her latest, “Rebel Heart,” is a far better album than “MDNA” — cleaner, crisper, less a flimsy attempt at drawing fickle youth ears and more a sturdy rhythmic platform to showcase some of the most striking tracks she’s made in 15 years (specifically, since “Music,” her last great album).

From the start, “Rebel Heart” spotlights a clarity of intention, one the artist conveys in notes that accompanied the release: “I knew I wanted to explore the duality of my personality which is renegade and romantic. And I wanted to write good songs … That’s it.”

Featuring production by artists including Avicii, Diplo, Kanye West and Sophie and guests including Chance the Rapper, Nicki Minaj and (in spoken form) Mike Tyson, it has completeness to it rather than the mishmash of could-be stabs at relevance that dots her lesser work.

Madonna cites as inspiration rebels such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and John Lennon, all of whom “changed the world. They took the road less traveled and they made all the difference. You can’t be a rebel and not be willing to take the consequences.” A vague reference to her recent backward tumble during the Brit Awards? If not, it should be.

Regardless, hers is a noble goal, even if the stakes in her brand of rebellion are hardly of apartheid proportions. Focus, though, drives tracks such as “Illuminati,” “Joan of Arc” and “Iconic” into that sweet spot between club frenzy and revelatory lyricism, the kind that can lift spirits to emotional heights.

They display a master of dance pop harnessing a mostly male team of contemporary beat producers and songwriters to merge word and rhythm. She explores ego-tastic peaks (“Bitch I’m Madonna,” “Iconic”); devotion (“Ghosttown”); the desire for salvation and the allure, and destructiveness, of drug-fueled revelry (“Devil Pray”); bodily fluids (“Holy Water”); and in the defiant, minor-key “HeartBreakCity,” snare-rolling confessions.

“Holy Water” is the weakest of the bunch. She raps during “Illuminati” — and doesn’t sound totally ridiculous, no small feat. That one, a Kanye West-co-produced shout-out to the all-seeing eye and the secretive group of would-be mystics, is one of the record’s highlights.

Granted, the struggles our heroine describes must be endured by conformists and rebels alike. Even bland office drones suffer heartbreak. Still, she’s not trying to fool anyone on “Rebel Heart.” She’s just being Madonna, an artist who has long prospered by matching her vision with track-makers and lyrical collaborators at their own creative peaks.

The original article continues below:

Madonna’s new album “Rebel Heart” has officially been released and reviews are pouring in.
Here you’ll find an overview. Enjoy!

Madonna Rebel Heart Review - Attitude

In December — as Madonna rushed out six songs from Rebel Heart after some truly ugly cyber-bullying — she told Billboard she had recorded so much material that she had considered doing a double album. And indeed, there are at least two albums struggling to come into being amid these 19 tracks.

Oppositions are the animating tension of Rebel Heart: Biting breakup songs like “Heartbreak City” rub up against some of the most absurdly lubricious sex songs of her absurdly lubricious career, like the Kanye West-co-produced “Holy Water,” where she compares her bodily fluids to the song’s title, then proclaims, “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” Declarations of invincibility like “Unapologetic Bitch” are undone by laments over the price of fame and the way that even hearts of steel can break. Her decades-long love affair with house continues alongside her decades-long love affair with singer-songwriter confessions. Religious devotion and earthly love are cross-wired in the Avicii-helmed power ballad “Messiah.” And songs with spare, inventive beats battle for dominance against expertly realized maximalist pop.

There’s one other tension of note: Her determination to outgrow the past and shed her skin (as she puts it on the title track) tangles with her own back catalog. Three different songs refer to old hits, with “Veni Vidi Vici” stringing together titles like a bad Oscar medley: “I opened up my heart, I learned the power of goodbye/I saw a ray of light, music saved my life.” If anyone is entitled to honor herself with her own drag show, it’s her. Still, these backward glances are odd, and perhaps tip the hand that Madonna albums are now launching pads for Madonna tours, where the old songs can come out and play (indeed, on March 2, she announced a 35-city global run).

Or maybe not. Madonna has never gotten the credit she deserves as a musician, or as an album artist. Her essential interests are unchanging — dancefloor ecstasy, European balladry, 1960s pop classicism — but her expression of them finds new articulations. Rebel Heart has 14 producers working in seven different teams and still it sounds exactly like a Madonna album. That includes oddball standouts like “Body Shop,” courtesy of beatmakers DJ Dahi (Drake, Kendrick Lamar) and Blood Diamonds (Grimes), which is propelled by a spare, sitar-like guitar figure.

One of the strangest things about Rebel Heart is how subtle it seems by current standards. These songs unfold slowly, building through foreplay-like intros before hooks are displayed over a shifting series of textures, as if the tracks were being remixed while you’re listening to them. In a short-attention-span world of hits that relentlessly spotlight mini-hook after mini-hook for club DJs to drop in a few bars at a time, they seem positively luxurious and downright intellectual.

There are times you hope for a little more dumb fun — enter Diplo, who turns up on five tracks with his air horn and Caribbean beats and would be welcome on more — and there’s at least one moody ballad too many. But then an aqueous bassline bubbles up and a surge of trance-y pulses sweeps you along to Madonnaland, where introspection and abandon engage in erotic acts of self-actualization. After 32 years, it’s still a great place to be.

Many pop acts, and most female pop artists, inextricably link themselves to youth. Stars exploit the beauty, rebelliousness and vogue of a fresh bloom, the connection with the obsessiveness of teen culture, to become icons.

The problem is people age. Even Madonna. Maybe especially Madonna, under the hot lights of three decades of scrutiny.

I wish Madonna didn’t carry the burden of being 56 in a world where Britney is ancient at 33, because Madge’s new album is her best this century. If we could forget how old she looks (she could barely pass for 45, gasp!) or how last month’s Grammy performance was less than awesome, we could focus on how great “Rebel Heart” is.

“Rebel Heart” rolls forward Madonna’s expanding, innovative approach of finding bridges between her classic ’80s and ’90s aesthetic and current sonic trends. Like 2012’s “MDNA,” a good record in itself, she continues her introspection on her 13th studio album, out Tuesday (to fit our maddening, modern age, there are two different deluxe editions with bonus tracks). But between the self-examination she doesn’t forget to have fun. Would Madonna ever forget fun?

Thwarting a leak, Madonna released six of the 14 tracks in December. “True Blue” fans got a hook and harmony reminiscent of old-school Top 40 in “Living for Love” — a joyful, fresh and nostalgia-inducing single to compare with her best. They also got choice album cuts that, with help from producers du jour Kanye West, Diplo, Avicii and Billboard, explored EDM tricks, lyrics obsessed with the divine (some things don’t change) and catchy choruses.

The other eight songs continue the delicious balance of Material Girl and modern Madge. “Iconic” begins with a sample of Mike Tyson ranting about his unparalleled skills before dropping down into a club-thumping beat with slippery, wicked verse from Chance the Rapper (who was born 10 years after Madonna debuted in ’83). Getting into her specialty, “Holy Water” blends sex with the sacred and includes a well-placed snippet of “Vogue.”

Not everything is great. Actually, not everything is good. This is a modern pop album, so there are songs that should be cut to make the music fit on two sides of vinyl — I nominate “HeartBreak­City,” “Inside Out” and “Wash All Over Me.”

Don’t expect another “Like a Prayer.” She’ll never equal that (nor will Katy Perry, Taylor Swift or Maroon 5). But ignore the eternal gossip around Madonna’s personal life, close your ears to suggestions she’s too old to be relevant, and embrace the mix of the exotic and familiar. Her still impressive blond ambition remains one of pop’s great voices.

Madonna’s 13th studio album, “Rebel Heart,” beats with romance and rebellion. At 19 tracks, it’s an overstuffed triptych through the iconic performer’s life, careening between uplifting dance tracks, like the percolating “Living for Love” — her 44th No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart — and corrosively bitter tunes such as the Avicii-produced “HeartBreakCity.”

Songs such as the largely acoustic “Devil Pray,” which will stylistically remind many of “Don’t Tell Me”; the achingly vulnerable “Joan of Arc”; and the deceptively double entendre-filled, lilting “Body Shop” course with vitality and showcase some of Madonna’s best singing in years.

While the majority of the material falls solidly in the positive, some of the tunes undoubtedly meant to sound fierce and liberating just feel tired, like the electro-clash braggadocio of “Bitch I’m Madonna,” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the tedious X-rated bump-and-grind of the Kanye West-produced “Holy Water.”

In perhaps her most complex album, Madonna seems determined to plant a flag for her 30-plus year career, even giving a crash course in Madonna-ology on the self-referential “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” featuring Nas, during which she playfully incorporate phrases and titles from past hits. At its best, “Rebel Heart” pulsates with a vibrancy that reveals both the sour and the sweet in Madonna’s extremely complicated life and leaves no doubt that she still has a lot more to share.

The omens for Madonna’s first album in three years have not been good. Not only was the Queen of Pop shaken when unfinished tracks were leaked online in December, but Radio 1 seems to have ruled that the 56-year-old’s music no longer appeals to its mainly teenage audience.

Then came the Material Girl’s wardrobe malfunction at last week’s Brits, when she tumbled inelegantly down steps on stage, because her extravagant matador’s cape had been tied too tight. We’ve all been there.

But, as she proved by finishing her performance of Living For Love despite this, the pop diva is a trouper. And her 13th studio album reiterates a capacity for rejuvenation.

Rebel Heart is Madonna’s best album since 2005’s Confessions On A Dancefloor, probably because she is at her most relaxed and natural.

Playing to her strengths while using modern tricks, it is an eclectic mix of dance, pop, reggae and balladry.

It is also an upgrade on 2008’s Hard Candy, where she struggled to keep pace with trends, and 2012’s cold, machine-tooled MDNA.
Looking at the long list of credits, you could be excused for thinking Rebel Heart was designed by committee. There are collaborations with Swedish producer Avicii, U.S. DJ Diplo, rappers Kanye West, Nas and Nicki Minaj — even a spoken-word cameo from Mike Tyson.

Despite the supporting cast, Madonna has produced a cohesive album enhanced by her respect for traditional pop songs.

Even dance-orientated numbers are built around tuneful guitars and pianos rather than crushing beats.

Famous for not giving away too much of herself, the singer also explores a surprisingly wide range of moods and emotions, from the crudely defiant to the quietly confessional. Her lyrics are uncomplicated, but there are revealing flashes of intimacy.

More arrogant, self-aggrandising themes are to the fore on Unapologetic B***h, a pop-reggae workout, and B***h, I’m Madonna, with Minaj. The bubbly, hypnotic Iconic is an electronic pop number.

As pop’s original rude girl, Madonna still presses the ‘outrage’ button, although now it veers more towards the silly than the shocking.

Body Shop relies on car-related innuendo involving engines and gaskets, while deluxe edition bonus track S.E.X. is similarly vulgar.

Madonna comes into her own on the more adventurous tracks. Referencing ecstasy and ‘weed’, folk-tinged Devil Pray initially sounds like a glorification of drugs, but is actually a warning of their dangers.

The strongest moments are those where Madonna shows vulnerability, such as tender love song Joan Of Arc. Along with Heartbreak City and Wash All Over Me, it has the most personal lyrics she has penned since 1998’s, soul-baring Mer Girl.

After spending nine months finishing Rebel Heart, the workaholic star is set to begin a huge world tour in August that arrives in the UK in December. As she sings on the title track: ‘I live my life like a masochist /Hear my father say “I told you so”’.

She might not be growing old gracefully, but Madonna is still doing things her way.

Madonna’s influence on modern pop culture is something that can never be taken away from her. For over 30 years the Bay City native has pushed the mainstream’s envelope, stamped down doors for female artists, and has weaved through musical styles more times than she has turned her nose up at hydrangeas. It’s an achievement that very few – if any – will match again, but it leaves Madonna with the dilemma of expectation. What can she do next? The answer, according to new album Rebel Heart, is to have a few attempts all on one disc.

Rebel Heart contains some truly great pop songs that can contend with Madonna’s best, but as an overall collection, it feels like the start of three separate projects lumped together. It starts with lead single ‘Living For Love’; a thumping, uplifting dance anthem which nods back to the ’90s, but confirms her relevancy as part of house music’s revival nonetheless.

It sits nicely alongside the glitchy electronics of ‘Iconic’, where a towering pre-chorus drops into stabs of ice-cold synths for a club-ready dash of trap-pop. But between these two numbers, it’s almost like there’s a mini sonic evolution of Madonna on this record.

Rebel Heart goes from the brilliant, dancehall groove of ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ and the scuzzy squiggles of ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ – both helmed by Diplo – to more reflective and sombre pop ballads such as ‘Ghosttown’ and ‘Hold Tight’. At this stage in her career, if Madonna doesn’t have ‘pop chameleon’ on her LinkedIn profile (and what a ‘resumé’ that would be), then Rebel Heart alone is enough to endorse that title.

‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ hears the Queen of Pop at her most fabulously ridiculous; popping corks, “kissing anybody that’s around us” and threatening to “blow up the house”, with PC Music’s Sophie keeping production ahead of the curve with a hyperpop emboss, and Nicki Minaj strolling in as her partner in crime. It’s a track that could possibly grate on first listen, but if you let it, its teeth are waiting to dig in.

‘Unapologetic Bitch’, on the other hand, takes full advantage of Diplo’s knack for a breezy, reggae-pop production. Despite appearing carefree on the surface, Madonna is overcoming a break-up in the only way we’d all expect her to; pause, reflect, forget. “It took a minute, but now I’m feeling strong/ It almost killed me, but I’m moving on,” she steely declares, never willing to let a man dent her armour, and rightly so.

Essentially, staying faithful to its title, Madonna’s heart is placed firmly at the centre of the album. ‘Ghosttown’ is prime example that the icon still has that straight-down-the-line pop clout when she wants to do it. It’s an affecting serenade to loyalty that will bury deep into the cranium, and one that shows the most potential when it comes to mainstream chart success. ‘Hold Tight’ nips at its heels with its marching beats and flourishes of pastel electronics. However, what is most encouraging on each track is the space Madonna’s voice is given to shine – something we’d like to hear more often.

Where Rebel Heart does stumble, though, is when Madonna is revisits two of her favourite themes: religion and sex. It’s most explicitly touched upon in the Kanye West-produced ‘Holy Water’, where orgasmic gasps form part of the chorus as Madonna demands “Kiss it better, kiss it better/ Don’t it taste like holy water?” It’s frustrating because the production is sharp and offers some of the most interesting moments on the album, but the overtly sexual lyrics (which includes “Yeezus loves my pussy best”) feel like forced shock value. Are they gasps of disgust, or are they gasps of pleasure? Of course, shocking the audience is Madonna’s business, but here it feels more crass than clever.

If anything, the most radical moment on Rebel Heart comes in the form of guitar-led ballad ‘Joan of Arc’. “I can’t be a superhero right now/ Even hearts made out of steel can break down,” Madonna admits, continuing to grapple with the pressures of fame and expectation 30 years into her career. It’s a reminder that behind the superstar – and when we say that, we mean the superstar – there’s a woman who is still very much a sensitive soul despite a hardened public persona. Madonna acknowledging her mortality, for some reason, feels wholly more intriguing than suggestive rhetoric that belongs with her work back in the ’90s.

So yes, Madonna’s 13th studio outing can feel like a confused bag sonically as she continues to experiment with a host of modern music’s finest. But ultimately, when she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve, Rebel Heart is some of her most captivating work in years.

KYLE ANDERSON It’s been sort of a rough 21st century for Madonna. After the stellar premillennial onetwo punch of Ray of Light and Music, it’s felt like she has been following rather than innovating. Rebel Heart is stuffed with top-level talent—Diplo, Avicii, Kanye—but at the end of the day, they’re not who we’re here for. Adam, what are your expectations of a Madonna album in 2015?

ADAM MARKOVITZ Even for those of us who remember her imperial phase (c. 1985–2001), she’s become a giant cultural question mark. Is Madonna a still-active pop star in a slow period? A nostalgia act who puts out new music? A living legend who won’t go gently into that good four-nights-a-week Vegas residency? Rebel has an electro-rap track called “Bitch I’m Madonna”—but I honestly don’t know what that means anymore. And by the sound of Rebel Heart, which has some nice melodies and thoughtful lyrics buried under a lot of badass posturing, Madonna doesn’t either. Her best albums always had a clear goal, whether it was dancing or shocking or chakra-ing. This time it feels like she just wants to prove she isn’t finished yet.

ANDERSON You’re not wrong. Both sonically and philosophically, the album is all over the place. The opener, lead single “Living for Love,” has a big sexy disco underbelly and just enough Diplo glitch to give it some edge. Then there’s the rocksteady dub “Unapologetic Bitch,” the post-Yeezus robo-grind “Illuminati,” the electro-campfire sing-along “Joan of Arc.” All that style whiplash can be vertigo-inducing. And yet despite the idea overload, I like way more here than I expected to. I would have assumed that a Mike Tyson rant, a barely intelligible Chance the Rapper verse, and seemingly six different hooks would make “Iconic” my most skipped track. Yet I kind of admire its chaos. Same goes for “Holy Water”: I should be completely over the idea of Madonna juxtaposing Christian imagery with frank sexuality, which she has been doing for three decades. Maybe it’s the bass gurgles that remind me of classic Massive Attack or the reference to “Vogue,” but she sells it for me. I can’t stand “Body Shop,” though—an extended car/sex metaphor that sounds as if she just discovered literary devices.

MARKOVITZ “S.E.X.” is pretty awful: “Oh my God/Soaking wet/Back and forth/Until we break the bed” is amateur-hour erotica from somebody who once released an album literally called Erotica. But I do like the weird touches. She name-checks Bieber and the Pope on “Illuminati” and then implies that her body fluids are a sacrament on “Holy Water.” “Body Shop” has the most natural vocals on the album; Madonna sounds like an actual human woman instead of Siri singing Fifty Shades of Grey on low batteries. The funny, creative, outrageous Madonna we’ve known is still in here somewhere. It just takes a lot of patience to find her.

ANDERSON I have faith that she’ll reveal herself with repeated listens. (Weirdly, for an album mostly designed to move people in a club, it’s actually a pretty fascinating headphone trip.) This may be damning it with faint praise, but this is Madonna’s best outing since 2000’s Music, and that earns Rebel Heart a solid B.

MARKOVITZ I love that she’s as frustrating and ambitious as ever—still difficult, complicated, and hard to pin down. But that’s how I’d describe this album, too. If Like a Virgin is her A game, and something rocky but rewarding like Bedtime Stories is B level, then this gets a C+.

BEST TRACKS:
“Living for Love”
“Ghosttown”

After 30 years in the industry, Madonna has made one thing clear: The title of her new album “Rebel Heart” is not an empty moniker.

The mind boggles when attempting to contextualize Madonna’s nerviness in the history of popular culture. She’s the 20th century’s George Sand, a feminist iconoclast whose stardom, philosophy, and career works all seem like cohesive elements of the same canvas. She’s been beatified, vilified, exalted, and dismissed, sometimes by the same people. Her greatest trick has been (seemingly) enjoying every step of her controversial journey and embracing the vacillating response to her act like a true celebrity descendent of Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, and Frida Kahlo.

To celebrate her new album “Rebel Heart,” let’s take a look back at Madonna’s most rebellious career moments to date. In a career filled with insane controversies, Madonna’s self-possession is enough to justify our love.

Madonna named her 13th studio album “Rebel Heart.” The title fits the Madge mold of past titles: adjectives, a noun or two, perhaps a preposition, combined to suggest a loose theme.

“Like a Virgin,” “Ray of Light,” “Hard Candy,” “Bedtime Stories” and her relatively epic “Confessions on a Dance Floor” confirm her long-player branding technique, each connecting a concrete idea with the themes conveyed through the songs, more or less. The outlier, her forgettable last album, “MDNA,” was a coy reference to the drug MDMA (a.k.a. molly or ecstasy). It sounded as spent as the Monday following an epic Saturday binge.

“Rebel Heart” is a far better album than “MDNA” — cleaner, crisper, more sober, less a flimsy attempt at drawing fickle youth ears and more a sturdy rhythmic platform to showcase some of the most striking tracks she’s made in 15 years (specifically, since “Music,” her last great album).

Featuring production by artists including Avicii, Diplo, Kanye West and Sophie and guests including Chance the Rapper, Nicki Minaj and (in spoken form) Mike Tyson, it has completeness to it rather than the mishmash of could-be stabs at relevance that dots her lesser work.
lRelated Madonna: ‘Caring about what people think is the death of all artists’

From the start, “Rebel Heart” spotlights a clarity of intention, one the artist conveys in notes that accompanied the release: “I knew I wanted to explore the duality of my personality which is renegade and romantic. And I wanted to write good songs…. That’s it.”

Madonna cites as inspiration rebels Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and John Lennon, all of whom “changed the world. They took the road less travelled and they made all the difference. You can’t be a rebel and not be willing to take the consequences.” A vague reference to her recent backward tumble during the Brit Awards? If not, it should be.

Regardless, hers is a noble goal, even if the stakes in her brand of rebellion are hardly of apartheid proportions. Focus, though, drives tracks such as “Illuminati,” “Joan of Arc” and “Iconic” into that sweet spot between club frenzy and revelatory lyricism, the kind that can lift spirits to emotional heights.

They display a master of dance pop harnessing a mostly male team of contemporary beat producers and songwriters to merge word and rhythm. She explores ego-tastic peaks (“Bitch I’m Madonna,” “Iconic”); devotion (“Ghosttown”); the desire for salvation and the allure, and destructiveness, of drug-fueled revelry (“Devil Pray”); bodily fluids (“Holy Water”); and in the defiant, minor-key “HeartBreakCity,” snare-rolling confessions.

She raps during “Illuminati” — and doesn’t sound totally ridiculous, no small feat. That one, a Kanye West-co-produced shout-out to the all-seeing eye and the secretive group of would-be mystics, is one of the record’s highlights.

Granted, the struggles Our Heroine describes must be endured by conformists and rebels alike. Even bland office drones suffer heartbreak. Still, she’s not trying to fool anyone on “Rebel Heart.” She’s just being Madonna, an artist who has long prospered by matching her vision with track-makers and lyrical collaborators at their own creative peaks. Over the decades she’s tapped talent such as Nile Rodgers, Shep Pettibone, Babyface, Mirwais, William Orbit and Stuart Price at key moments, bringing out the best in them while tweaking the tones for optimum Madonna nowness.

Those skills permeate “Rebel Heart,” but that’s not what makes this one so engaging. It’s in the structures, born, according to Madonna, after she opted not to build tracks with a computer in a studio, but “to sit down with various songwriters and write songs. I wanted to sing all the songs from top to bottom without any other people involved.”

Granted, there’s nothing rebellious about that per se. Most songs, brilliant and terrible alike, are similarly made. But “Rebel Heart” stands sturdily because those foundations have been fortified by producers and as such are thick and modern, with heavy bass, lots of tweaky snare and high-hats and a midrange action that snakes through songs like locomotives winding through mountainous tracks.

Madonna, in fact, describes in her notes the process of making “Rebel Heart” as being “like a train — people getting on and getting back on the train.”

That’s fine as a metaphor for the process and for the success of “Rebel Heart.” A better one comes in another reference within her note to listeners: “Like Michael Moore says, ‘You can’t stick your chin out and not expect to get punched.’”

Nor can you live your creative life in front of millions without giving yourself whiplash every once in a while. The difference between pop agitators like Madonna and her lesser offspring is one of determination. “Rebel Heart,” like its creator, pushes through the pain and, more often than not, lands solidly and with great grace on its feet.

Watching Madonna attempt to wrestle the 21st century into submission ahead of her new studio album, Rebel Heart, has been fascinating.

A refugee from music’s monocultural heyday, Madonna has tried to seem nimble and flexible rather than a MTV relic.

One stumble after another has dogged Her Madgesty, whether it’s her recent, painful tumble at the BRIT Awards or Heart’s Internet leak a full month ahead of its release.

In each instance, she’s forged ahead, but these missteps underscore how difficult a high profile publicity campaign is — no matter your stature — in the Internet age.

She even included a brief memo to journalists with Heart, her first studio album in three years, following 2012’s MDNA.

In it, the 56-year-old singer-songwriter shares her initial vision — “I knew I wanted to explore the duality of my personality which is renegade and romantic,” Madonna writes — as well as what seems like a disclaimer as defensive as it is paradoxically vulnerable.

“I have opinions,” she writes. “What else can you do if you’re an artist? I don’t know any other way except to offer up my heart, or ‘Come on, you wanna f— with me? Let’s go.’”

Such overbearing, pre-release micromanaging gives a whiff of preemptive damage control, mitigating the impact of a forgettable record (for my money, Madonna’s last high water mark was a decade ago, on 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor), so imagine the pleasant surprise: Heart manages to balance the tough and tender sides of Madge’s personality in entertaining fashion.

For a substantial stretch of Heart, from the gorgeous atmospherics of Ghosttown through to the gritty Joan of Arc, Madonna offers a side of herself she hasn’t exhibited since the transitional ‘90s. The human side of being an icon is fertile terrain, often left unexplored, because introspection doesn’t always mesh well with pop escapism.

And while Madonna has some fun with tabloid rumors — Illuminati, her much-touted collaboration with Kanye West, is bitingly funny, as well as pleasingly of-the-musical-moment — Heart takes hold when she drops her guard, and distances herself from guests like Nicki Minaj and Chance the Rapper, admitting the high cost of global superstardom.

“I don’t want to talk about it right now/Just hold me while I cry my eyes out,” she sings on Joan of Arc, a mid-tempo ballad providing sharp contrast with boastful tracks like the reggae-tinged, Diplo-produced Unapologetic B—.

What sneaks up on you as Rebel Heart unfolds — a little lengthy in its 55-minute version; absurdly over-long in its 75-minute “deluxe edition” format — is Madonna, for all the hiccups in the months prior to the album’s release, hit upon a realization as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th: being yourself, regardless of the consequences, will win out every time.

In other words, substance almost always trumps style, but for a rare few artists, one can enhance the other.

Having the chutzpah to pull it off, in this short-attention-span age, is Madonna’s true act of rebellion.

Three years after 2012’s EDM-driven ‘MDNA’ album, ‘Rebel Heart’ finds 56-year-old Madonna still trying to pass herself off as a teenager. It’s a disconnect that has become increasingly grating.

Rather than the return to ’80s underground New York promised by lead single ‘Living For Love’, this 13th album is a scattergun attempt to hit all the bases of modern pop. Instead of having one producer at the helm, as ‘MNDA’ did with William Orbit, Madonna hired the biggest chart-humping names she could find. Avicii co-writes three tracks: ‘HeartBreakCity’, ‘Devil Pray’ – reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s crazed 2013 dance tune ‘Aura’ – and the ballad ‘Wash All Over Me’. Kanye produces three: the classy, ‘Vogue’-referencing ‘Illuminati’, ‘Holy Water’ and ‘Wash All Over Me’. Diplo drives four: ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’, ‘Unapologetic Bitch’, ‘Living For Love’, ‘Hold Tight’. Drake associates Dahi and Michael ‘Blood’ Diamonds take two: ‘Devil Pray’ and ‘Body Shop’. Chance The Rapper (trendy) and Nicki Minaj (bankable) rap on ‘Iconic’ and ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ respectively.

Diplo fares best. The pulsating ‘Living For Love’ is exactly what this record should’ve been top-to-tail, while the digi-reggae of ’Unapologetic Bitch’ could’ve fallen off the back of a Major Lazer album. Diplo makes Madge sound fun, but as the candy-bass ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ – on which she sings, “We’re jumping in the pool and swimming with our clothes on/ I poured beer in my shoe and got my freak on” – shows, the gulf between her life and her music is now impossible to ignore.

The punchy ‘HeartBreakCity’ – a song Lorde would dismiss as too juvenile an interpretation of a break-up – illustrates that however on-point her musical instincts, this persona just isn’t believable any more. ‘Holy Water’ implores, “Kiss it better, kiss it better/ Make it better, make it wetter (Don’t it taste like holy water)”. Coitus in mid-life can of course still be a richly rewarding experience, but must we hear quite so many details? Twee ballad ’Body Shop’ hinges on a similarly tortuous lyrical conceit (“My transmission’s blown… You can keep it in overnight/You can do whatever you like”).

Ultimately, ‘Rebel Heart’ feels like a wasted opportunity. Trite self-empowerment anthem ‘Iconic’ informs us that there’s only two letters difference between Icon and I Can’t. Sadly, there are also two letters between class and ass.

Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th album, continues in her tradition of assembling a multi-million-dollar wrecking crew of artists and producers who’ve pricked her ears in the past couple of years: This time around, she’s recruited dubstep fraternity president Diplo, Swedish EDM superstar Avicii, Yeezus mastermind Mike Dean, and DJ Dahi, who (ya bish) Madonna tapped because she loved his work on Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees.” Oh, and don’t forget indie weirdo Blood Diamonds. And rising PC Music star Sophie. And Ariel Rechtshaid. And Nas. And Mike Tyson? After a while, Rebel Heart’s production credits starts to feel like “Too Many Cooks.” And, as you might imagine, the sprawling, 19-track album that this motley crew has created together is not exactly the most cohesive entry in Madonna’s catalogue.

The best of Rebel Heart’s upbeat songs here are the ones unafraid to go a little bonkers: The minimalist, strobe-lit Mike Dean production “Illuminati” — a cheeky “Vogue” update that switches out Dietrich and DiMaggio for Bieber and LeBron — is just goofy enough to work. Same goes for “Bitch I’m Madonna,” a glorious, stupid-in-the-best-way ode to ego that I can only describe as a giant sonic selfie. Diplo’s synthetic, neon beat boings around like Flubber, and Nicki Minaj — whom Madge clearly considers some kind of kindred spirit, since she also invited her to guest on two MDNA tracks — makes perfect sense in the song’s mugging, cartoonish world.

But “Bitch I’m Madonna” also reveals the main problem with Rebel Heart: The beats sound like they’re having more fun than Madonna. Often hampered by a dead-eyed, monotone delivery, the reliably charismatic superstar at the center of these songs feels strangely hollow, even defeated and fatigued. (The same went for her strangely listless performance of “Living for Love” at this year’s Grammys.) The most affecting songs are the ones that grapple with this feeling directly: the downcast ballad “Joan of Arc,” the muted come-on “Body Shop 75,” and the mid-tempo, down-but-not-out title track, which provides such a fitting finale that I wish it closed out the standard album rather than just the deluxe edition. Elsewhere, though, these songs seem bored by going through the Madonna motions to empower and/or shock. The self-referential “Veni Vidi Vici” (which, also selfielike, lists off her accomplishments in the form of Madonna song-title puns: “I stared writing songs / I kinda got into a groove”) but the song doesn’t feel valedictory at all — its hook, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” comes off, rather inexplicably, as a whimper rather than a roar. Even worse is the deeply unsexy “S.E.X.,” which culminates in a free-association rap: “Chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair.” Unintentionally funny, it sounds like something written to be played in Stefon’s new favorite club.

Last month, the BBC’s Radio 1 was at the center of a mild controversy when fans (and Madonna herself) accused the station of ageism for not adding Rebel Heart’s lead single “Living for Love” to its playlist. Madonna is now 56, which is four years older than Cher was in 1998 when she released “Believe” and became the oldest woman to top the Billboard singles chart. Ageism is real, pernicious, and almost always affects women more than men, but it’s a difficult claim to take at face value coming from a woman who’s spent half of her life — and an amount equivalent to a small country’s GDP — attempting to stop time in a way that so many of us mere mortals cannot. In her piece in the recent essay collection Madonna & Me, the writer Lisa Carver imagines herself posing a question to our timeless queen: “Will you have this to remember? That moment in bed when you acquiesced to the loss of your youth, and found, by surprise, something so much more graceful in its place.” The Madonna of Rebel Heart isn’t in touch with that grace just yet. She’s succeeded once again in the increasingly empty goal of sounding current, but by now this feels expected — even safe — coming from Madonna. The most rebellious heart is one that can show itself, and even its age, with #nofilter.

In the opening track to the criminally under-loved Bedtime Stories, Madonna sings, “Does your criticism have you caught up in what you cannot see?” The song is the graceful and sexy “Survival,” and the question seems directed at the pop star’s many critics, a defiant challenge posed as a tease. It was 1994, Madonna had her champions at that point, but it was only eleven years since her debut, and the rockist critical establishment still had plenty of scorn for the Material Girl. Cultural dominance was hardly a certainty. In “Survival,” Madonna offers a promise: “Well, if you give me respect, then you’ll know what to expect, a little up and down and all around.” Twenty years later, Madonna has earned plenty of respect and squandered her fair share as well. More than a few ups and downs, all around. We were forewarned.

Madonna has contemporaries but no equal. A string of mononymous divas – Whitney, Janet, Mariah, Britney — rose in her wake, and innumerable lesser talents, now forgotten, had their moments. Madge’s most obvious progeny, Lady Gaga, is charting a much more catholic course: those duets with Tony Bennett, that Rodgers and Hammerstein medley at the Oscars, the comfort with earnestness as provocation. Only Beyonce and Taylor Swift seem the least bit likely to match, someday, Madonna’s decades of cultural domination.

Impressive, right? Madonna certainly thinks so. Rebel Heart, her thirteenth studio album, pounds out the case for her legacy. Madonna used to have the hauteur of a sceptered monarch, queen for life. But her taunts have become strident, and her cultural currency is no longer backed by gold. Too many of the songs on Rebel Heart quote, sample, or invoke a career that can stand on its merits. The album’s “Bitch, I’m Madonna” sounds like a reminder: maybe she thinks we’d forgotten. In the mid-90s, no one needed to be told. Not so today. A disappointing string of releases — starting with American Life, and bottoming out with the disastrous duo Hard Candy and MDNA — have revealed Madonna as a luminary on the defensive. And her discomfort shows.

At its best, Rebel Heart has an ease, and a long absent softness, qualities sorely missed since her last masterwork Music. For every godawful moment, which come and go with a sad frequency on Rebel Heart, there are glimmers of virtuosity buried within the overworked mess. Or, to be more accurate, when taken in full (i.e., the 25 tracks found on the bloated “SuperDeluxe” edition) a solid comeback album is left behind after Madonna has chucked her disparate ideas and collaborations, willy nilly, at the wall. If she can no longer perform the role of a canny and thoughtful curator — once her greatest talent, now absent — the listener can, at least, excavate something to remember.

The album needs a scalpel’s touch. I’ll take the first stab.

My edit of Rebel Heart would open with the tender piano chords of “Wash All Over Me.” It’s a song filled with rolling drums, ethereal vocal overdubs, and some much needed self-doubt, and on the standard edition, it’s the album closer. Then I’d bring in “Rebel Heart,” the excellent title track that somehow isn’t even included in the standard edition, with its powerful declaration, “Hell yeah, this is me/ right where I’m supposed to be.” Next I’d place two real highlights: first, “Ghosttown,” a phenomenal post-apocalyptic love song, followed immediately by “Living for Love,” Madonna’s best single since “Hung Up.” The mid-tempo “Inside Out,” with its string-and-beat cool, would come next, a transition to Madonna in full ballad glory. The acoustic beauty of “Joan of Arc” and the naked honesty of “HeartBreakCity” give way to the equally soft, if goofy, “Body Shop.” No Madonna record would be complete without religious imagery. “Messiah” (also missing from the standard edition) and “Devil Pray” both capably check that box. And finally, we conclude with two worthy “SuperDeluxe” cuts: “Beautiful Scars,” a disco-lite throwback, and “Graffiti Heart,” a galloping love letter to creativity. And there it is: twelve tracks, 47 minutes. This would stand as a solid B+ Madonna LP, fitting snugly alongside her finest works.

But this album doesn’t exist.

If only someone had been there to say, “No, Madonna, bad idea,” to excise the dreck. Why, for example, are “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Illuminati,” and “Bitch, I’m Madonna” included on any iteration of Rebel Heart? Alas, they’re on the standard edition, and are, thus, canonical. That vile trio should promptly be marched into Mordor and tossed into the mouth of Mount Doom. Some not-so-terrific cuts have their own appeal, even if it isn’t musical: from a psychological standpoint, at least, “Iconic” and “Veni Vidi Vici” are fun, if desperate, clouds of narcissistic puffery. “Holy Water” and “S.E.X.” provide gasoline for Madonna’s ageist haters, but there’s something for everyone, or no one, here. On “Holy Water” we have to hear her sing, “Yeezus loves my pussy best” – like hearing your parents having sex, it’s embarrassing, gross, and all too hard to forget.

I uncovered an intensely personal, hugely enjoyable, and lovingly executed album from the wreckage of Rebel Heart’s too many versions and too many tracks. But that’s not my job. On the album’s title track, Madonna sings “Oh no, I want more/ That’s not what I’m looking for.” If only she’d given us less. That’s what I’m looking for.

Imagine a world where Madonna hates being photographed, where she considers quitting her career and admits to suffering haunting demands that she “act like the other girls.”

It’s the same world where pigs fly and figure skaters crowd the deepest recesses of hell.

Yet, somehow, that’s the world occupying significant parts of Madonna’s revelatory new album, “Rebel Heart.”

More credibly than any previous work, Madonna’s latest pulls back the curtain on her life, letting us see her hurt and yearning.

It also finds her licking her wounds over a breakup with a far less powerful boy toy — presumably the decades-her-junior dancer Brahim Zaibat, who she saw for three years, ending in 2013.

Maddy has said that she chose the album’s title to express two sides of her character: the defiant warrior and the aching lover.

While a decent portion of harder, bitchier odes do turn up, the album as a whole presents the softest, most sincere portrait of the star we’ve ever had. In the process, “Rebel Heart” coheres, offering a swift rebuke to whoever prematurely dribbled out its tracks in a dizzying variety of leaks.

It also marks a clear move away from Madonna’s last two works — “Hard Candy” and “MDNA.” Both soared on energetic pop, creating two of the most enjoyable, catchiest albums of her career. “Rebel Heart” goes for something more substantial and — dare I say? — mature.

Along the way, the long, 19-song album offers its share of groaners, missteps and songs more indebted to trendy production than solid craft. But its best moments boast some of the most finely structured pop melodies of Madonna’s 32-year career.

The slam-dunk opener, “Living for Love,” stands with her great gospel-soul songs of the past: “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself.” Of the ballads, “Ghosttown” rates with her best: “Live to Tell” and “Crazy for You.”

The way the producers recorded Madonna both bolsters the melodies and lends her depth. They’ve honeyed her voice: Madonna hasn’t sounded this rich since the sumptuous “Evita” soundtrack. In “Ghosttown,” her deep tone has some of the autumnal ache of Karen Carpenter.

All this isn’t to say Madonna doesn’t chirp, sneer and bray in places. In “Holy Water,” she’s in late-period Joan Crawford mode, putting down all comers with an unseemly pride. Then, in “Bitch I’m Madonna,” she nicks a slogan from someone far beneath her, referencing Ms. Spears’ old “It’s Britney, Bitch” line.

Madonna’s harder side finds a focus in “Unapologetic Bitch,” where she plays a spurned sugar mama. She revels in banishing an entitled young stud back to his impoverished past, a mirror, most likely, of the breakup with Zaibat.

The same scenario reels through two other songs: “HeartBreakCity” and “Living for Love,” though in the latter, the loss becomes a spur to celebrate a love that may yet come.

The music in “Living for Love” implicitly references the past, but in other passages Madonna invokes it directly. The lyrics to “Veni Vidi Vici” offer a virtual career retrospective. The title track brings an even broader life assessment — looking back at her attempts to fit in as a youth, as well as her years of acting out with provocative gestures for their own sake. Never before has Madonna copped to the latter motivation in a song. In the end, she accepts the consequences, and embraces the bravery, of her character fully enough to create her own answer to “My Way.”

The beauty of the song’s melody helps ease its self-involvement. As a lyricist, Madonna has always had trouble making her personal songs universal.

On the other hand, her persona has such cultural resonance at this point, it has become part of all pop fans. Her name is a metaphor for strength and endurance. That makes her potent enough to admit where she’s weak in “Joan Of Arc.” Here, she says that each critique drives her to private tears. In “Wash All Over Me,” she ponders either running from, or accepting the end of, her career.

It’s hard to imagine Madonna expressing things like this before, let alone making them ring true. That’s “Rebel Heart’s” peak feature: It presents a 56-year-old woman who, in the best possible sense, sounds her age.

Perhaps more so than that of any other pop artist, living or dead, Madonna’s career can be handily split into distinct eras, and further subdivided into periods or phases: her commercial peak in the ’80s, her provocateur years in the early ’90s, her electronic renaissance in the late ’90s and early aughts, and so on. It’s the evolution, or so-called reinventions, that these shifts represent that many wholly credit, erroneously, for the singer’s unprecedented longevity. But when the final history is written on one Madonna Louise Ciccone, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, it’s likely her career will be viewed in just two halves: the pair of decades leading up to and including 2003′s American Life, a 20-year big bang of ubiquitous, propulsive forward momentum that culminated in the deconstruction and rejection of the material world that created the biggest female pop star of all time; and the years that followed, which have found the queen uncertain about how to maintain her throne, often looking back rather than toward the future.

Case in point: Of her 13th studio album’s myriad pleasures are its numerous reminders of Madonnas past, from the ’90s-house throwback of lead single “Living for Love” to samples and lyrical nods to “Vogue,” “Justify My Love,” and Truth or Dare. Madonna’s fans are as varied as her countless visual and sonic diversions have been over the years, and there’s a little something for everyone here, including those pining for a return to the lush, spiritual introspection of Ray of Light (specifically, on the exquisite “Wash All Over Me” and the regal “Messiah”). Madonna has always been ironically self-referential, repeating formulas and quoting past hits, but in recent years those winks and nods have seemed more like tics, the side effect of an artist who’s simply said and done it all, and whose effective banishment from an increasingly ageist radio industry has led her to believe she needs to remind us that, bitch, she’s Madonna.

There are moments throughout Rebel Heart where Madonna carves out new, exhilarating territory for both herself and mainstream pop at large. “Devil Pray,” perhaps her best song in 15 years, reimagines the Animals as a folktronica band with witch-house tendencies, her ruminations on salvation and the existential pitfalls of sniffing glue riding an unexpected low-end groove. Armed with an Arp bass synth, some barking alarms, and copious amounts of Auto-Tune, co-producer Kanye West (who’s also name-checked in the lyrics) gives “Illuminati” the Yeezus treatment, lending Madge’s treatise on the age of enlightenment a portentous industrial edge; her rapped verses about the titular secret society are clean and tight enough to make you forget about “American Life.”

Though less inventive, other songs, too, find Madonna exploring new sounds or revisiting them in novel ways, like the Eastern-flavored “Body Shop,” a reminder of how agile both her vocals and lyrics can be; as extended metaphors for sex organs go, the track is the clever, more sophisticated cousin to 2008′s crass “Candy Shop.” Espousing the power of art in a practical sense as a vehicle for change and a symbol of freedom, “Graffiti Heart” is what Artpop aspired to be. Drawing on Madonna’s connection to pre-fame friends Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in order to authenticate the kind of inspirational anthem that only an artist who emerged from the rubble of Warhol and AIDS could, its personalized missive is far more effective than the more general platitudes of, say, “4 Minutes”: “Whattya got? Show me your Basquiat/He didn’t keep it all to himself/Even with Keith, out on the street he died/Fighting so you can do it as well.”

Rarely have stars as big as Madonna made themselves so accessible to both the media and public, and she’s often spoken of the challenges of sussing out the starfuckers from those worthy of her company. But she’s never addressed the subject as frankly as she does in “HeartBreakCity,” a piano ballad that builds to a inconsolable frenzy of chanted background vocals, martial drums, and, perhaps not coincidentally, a sample of “They Don’t Care About Us” by Michael Jackson, an icon who, unlike Madonna, succumbed to the traps of fame. Her survival is, no doubt, partly credited to the hardened exterior she’s erected over the years, transforming from the soft, vulnerable vixen of Bedtime Stories into the pop-music equivalent of Joan Crawford. Finally, “Inside Out,” which juxtaposes her sensual invitations and supple vocals with an industrial soundscape of ominous, sinuous bass and crackling hip-hop loops, gives us a glimpse of the unabashed romantic hidden beneath the maschinenmensch. She might as well be serenading herself when she begs, “Cynical smile, time to take off your mask.”

It’s these moments that render the album’s fumbles all the more frustrating. Like its predecessor, 2012′s MDNA, Rebel Heart is all over the map, not just musically, but lyrically and vocally. Madonna has always been a versatile artist, but also a surprisingly coherent one, adept at threading seemingly disparate styles together using lyrical themes or sonic continuity, and thus setting an incredibly high standard for both herself and pop music as a whole. She was wise to largely abandon Avicii’s chintzy (yet admittedly infectious) synth hooks in favor of more forward-minded production from the likes of DJ Dahi and Blood Diamonds, but the album would have benefited from more of those up-and-comers and less of established names like the overrated Diplo.

With so many producers with disparate modes at the helm, Rebel Heart feels overworked, the duality of its title muddied by the inclusion of garish party jams like the infuriatingly catchy but lyrically cringe-inducing “Bitch I’m Madonna” and sex songs like “Holy Water,” ostensibly lumped under the “rebel” banner using only the broadest of interpretations. The latter track is a welcome bit of percolating electronica, and she deserves props for effortlessly deploying the word “genuflect” in a pop song, but Madonna’s Catholic baiting feels like a reflex at this point. Despite her well-documented reputation, you could count her sexually provocative songs on one hand up to this point, so the fact that she nearly doubles that number here in one fell swoop suggests she’s either consciously taking the piss out of her Dita Parlo persona or making some kind of comment about women of a certain age unapologetically flexing their libidos. Which would be all well and good if the lyrics rose above Janet-grade (“Oh my God, you’re so hot, pull my hair, let me get on top,” she sings on the lazily titled romp “S.E.X.”).

The sheer number of songs on the album (19, not counting six more on the “super-deluxe” edition) practically guarantees these missteps; an apparent lack of internal editing would suggest a lack of vision. From “Hold Tight” to “Borrowed Time,” however, there’s a timely recurring theme of love triumphing even during the end times. A decade of disco-Madonna makes it easy to forget that she’s a skilled balladeer, and the post-apocalyptic “Ghosttown,” about the last two lovers on Earth, takes a generic, contemporary-pop template (think “Halo”) and stamps it with her singular style a la 1994′s Babyface-penned “Take a Bow.” Rebel Heart is too long, too unnecessarily fussed over, to join the ranks of Like a Prayer, Erotica, and Ray of Light, but tucked inside this lumbering mass of songs are 10 to 12 tracks that would, under any other circumstances, make for Madonna’s best album in at least a decade.

Its release has been plagued by controversy over piracy, the term “artistic rape”, claims of cultural appropriation and the vexing question of whether or not it’s all right to laugh at a 56-year-old woman falling on her arse midway through a dance routine. But the most immediately striking thing about Madonna’s 13th studio album is rather more prosaic: it’s extremely long. The deluxe version features 19 tracks and lasts for the best part of an hour and a half. The super-deluxe version adds a second disc, featuring another raft of songs and remixes – anyone planning to listen in full is advised to first ensure their will is up to date in case they die of old age before they get to the end.

Rebel Heart is that long because it is essentially two separate albums. One is wistful and thick with reflections on failed love affairs and intimations of self-doubt. Most shockingly, it occasionally touches on the hitherto-unmentionable notion that Madonna’s career might draw to a conclusion at some point: “In a world that’s changing, I’m a stranger in a strange land,” she sings over wafty electronics and a battery of percussion on the gorgeous Wash All Over Me, “if this is the end then let it come.” The other offers dirty talk and defiant I’m-still-here snarls set to EDM-inspired productions, frequently the handiwork of Diplo.

There’s obviously no reason why an album can’t contain both. But on Rebel Heart, the two don’t quite gel, perhaps because you get the sneaking feeling that the former might represent the music Madonna wants to make, while the latter is the music she feels obliged to make, in order to compete with whoever the big new female pop star is: listening to a track called S.E.X., you’re struck by the sense of a woman dutifully going through the motions.

Certainly, the first category contains almost all of Rebel Heart’s indispensable moments, and not just because they belong to the slim canon of Madonna songs on which the singer genuinely seems to be revealing her personal feelings and frailties: Ghosttown and Joan of Arc are cut from the same emotional cloth as Like a Prayer’s Promise to Try or Ray of Light’s Drowned World/Substitute for Love. As well as the most intriguing words, they’ve got the album’s best melodies. For all the expressions of insecurity, they boast an effortlessness and a confidence that contrasts sharply with the sweat and strain that’s audibly gone into what Miley Cyrus would call the bangerz. There’s an ease and unaffectedness about the title track – a stark depiction of the cost of fame, clear-eyed and devoid of self pity – that’s noticeably absent when Madonna starts carrying on like a rapper on Best Night, informing us that “it gon’ be like this – we gon’ be gangstas tonight” etc.

That said, the bangerz aren’t all bad, by any means. Kanye West’s co-productions carry the same thrillingly authentic twang of bug-eyed lunacy that graced Yeezus, not least Illuminati, a fizzing cacophony of fragmented vocal samples and synthesisers that don’t so much throb as pound. Body Shop is great, a sweet Cherish-like melody over what sounds like a kutam. And, if nothing else, you have to admire the sheer brass cojones of a woman who tells interviewers she never deliberately tries to be provocative – “I wasn’t sitting there in my laboratory of shit-stirring going, ‘This is gonna fuck with people’” – while promoting an album that contains a song on which Madonna compares her vaginal mucus to holy water, and suggests that Jesus might have enjoyed giving her cunnilingus: “On your knees and genuflect, Jesus loves my pussy best.”

Elsewhere, however, things go awry. Bitch I’m Madonna is a fantastic title in search of a song. In lieu of one, producer Diplo comes up with a kind of hybrid of EDM and happy hardcore and throws Nicki Minaj at her most hyperactive into the mix; the result genuinely sets your teeth on edge. There are moments when Madonna appears to be frantically chasing after other artists or trends. The hook of Inside Out is perilously close to that of Rihanna’s Diamonds, while Devil Pray – a bit of anti-drug sermonising that offers the deeply improbable image of Madonna indulging in solvent abuse – is a pretty transparent attempt by Avicii to come up with something along the lines of his hit Wake Me Up. Veni Vidi Vici, meanwhile, starts out a fascinating memoir of Madonna’s early days in New York, before disappointingly devolving into a plonking list of her hits: “I justified my love, I made you say a little prayer/ They had me crucified you know I had to take it there.” Mercifully, this grinds to a halt before it can start exploring the less celebrated areas of her oeuvre: “I did Evita too and also Hanky Panky/ And in Sex there was a photograph of me having a wanky.”

There’s something bracing about Madonna’s insistence that she belongs in exactly the same place she’s been for more than 30 years – at the forefront of mainstream pop, asserting her supremacy over anyone who dares challenge her – and something impressive about her steadfast refusal to do the kind of things every other artist four decades into their career does: no unplugged shows with the singer sitting demurely on a stool and emoting to an acoustic guitar; no deviation into the Great American Songbook; no album that cravenly attempts to recreate the sound of her best-loved early work. You can understand why she sees that kind of thing as a one-way ticket to the knacker’s yard, why she’d rather prove she can still talk dirtier or come up with more outrageous braggadocio than any young pretender. But at least half of Rebel Heart proves it’s not as stark a choice as that. She can come up with songs that are both mature and reflective and that function as fantastic pop music, and they’re all the more potent because they sound like they’re being made entirely on her own terms.

If any confirmation were required of Madonna’s sustained cultural relevance, it was surely provided by a mere wardrobe malfunction out-shining the combined micro-celebrity wattage of the entire Brit Awards line-up.

It’s fortunate, then, that this ironic triumph should be followed by confirmation of her musical relevance. Rebel Heart capitalises on the comeback charm of 2012’s MDNA, and in places repeats aspects of its success. Nicki Minaj reprises her role as Madge’s rapping henchgirl on the amusingly abrasive “Bitch I’m Madonna”; and Madonna again slips sly hints of hits such as “Vogue” into the arrangements, like straps binding the material to her legacy.

The most welcome reminders are those which recall the career-apex achievements of Like a Prayer, particularly “Devil Pray” and album closer “Wash All Over Me” – the latter mining a resistant melancholy while the former urges the adoption of a deeper spirituality not dependent on drugs. A less reverential employment of religious imagery, however, occurs in the controversy-courting cunnilingus anthem “Holy Water”, where she proclaims, “Bless yourself and genuflect/Jesus loves my p***y best.”

But if the lyrics mine familiar tropes of sex, dance, religion and celebrity, the music pushes out from her electropop template, with the brittle beats and wheezing dubstep electronic flourishes augmented by the kalimba groove of “Body Shop”, the choral responses of “Heartbreak City” and the Middle Eastern drone of “Best Night”.

The inventive Diplo is a frequent collaborator, with support from Avicii, Michael Diamond and Kanye, but what’s most impressive is Madonna’s singing, which for the most part eschews the excessive vocal treatments of R&B in favour of a simple clarity, which, on “Ghosttown” and “Joan of Arc”, recalls the purity of Karen Carpenter.

It’s a sonic nakedness that’s more revealing than any flirty flash of boob or buttock.

If you’re the superstitious sort, you might blame the mishaps surrounding Madonna’s 13th album – early leaks of songs that she contentiously likened to “artistic rape”, the subsequent sanctioned release of six tracks before Christmas, controversy about fan artwork – on plain bad luck. If you’re the cynical sort, you’d ascribe the kerfuffle to genius marketing. In any case, the indisputable pop icon is back with a tentative bang after 2012’s dodgy MDNA – an album with plenty of big names attached, but few memorable pop hits.

Madonna is never one to shun progress, and several songs on Rebel Heart see her use the “club banger” strategy first deployed on 2005’s Confessions on a Dancefloor, with help from producers including Aviici, Diplo and Kanye West. Living for Love and Illuminati both zig-zag untidily around Auto-Tune and heavy-handed electropop, while Unapologetic Bitch’s scattered reggae stomp is supplemented by synthesisers. Nor is she one to skirt egotism, as the Nicki Minaj-supplemented Bitch, I’m Madonna attests to; the titillating Hold Tight even goes as far as to reference her past life, with lines from Vogue.

There are plenty of old-school pop melodies to tip the balance. Joan of Arc and the zippy Hold Tight are standouts, while her damning indictment of a soured relationship, as heard on the comparatively austere Heartbreak City, offsets the plentiful lyrical trivialities.

There are several missteps: Mike Tyson’s spoken word turn on Iconic is tokenistic, while her checklist of “sins” on Devil Pray (“We can sniff glue, and we can do E, and we can drop acid”) seems provocative for the sake of it. Overall, though . . . is it safe to say it? All right, then: it’s good to have her back.

When it comes to Madonna, you just never know. The line between inspiration and cold calculation is blurred and her every move is studied and heavily discussed.

Was her stumble at last week’s Brit Awards a genuine blunder? Or an ingenious way to promote her 13th studio album Rebel Heart, with its theme of vulnerability?

Fortunately, in the final analysis, the music wins. Rebel Heart is a fine collection of sturdy pop tunes in which Madonna finally allows herself to look back and sometimes pilfer from her peak periods of the late 80s and early 2000s. Aside from a couple of clunkers, there is plenty for Madonna’s hard-core fan base, the casual listener and aspiring producers to enjoy here.

Living For Love
A great start. Rebel Heart kicks off with the first of many of Madonna’s self-referential musical moments. The ascending 90s-house keyboards and empowering lyrics recall the likes of Ray of Light and, to a certain extent, Vogue. Diplo, in the first of his several production contributions, anchors it in the present with a sweaty dance breakdown full of squelchy keyboards and deep bass drums.

Devil Pray
Madge enlists the seemingly specialised country-dance services of Swedish producer Avicii for this survivor’s tale. Thankfully this is nothing like her woeful 2003 cover of Don MacLean’s American Pie, but there is heavy reference to The Animals’ 1964 classic House of the Rising Sun.

Ghosttown
The biggest setback on Madonna’s previous album, MDNA, was its heavy-handed approach to innovation. In contrast, Ghosttown is a gorgeous yet streamlined power ballad with a huge, winning chorus. Sure, this could have easily been sung by Katy Perry or Rihanna, but Madonna, fortunately, trusts her pop instincts with this one.

Unapologetic B***h
Where Madonna genuinely grieved on her last two albums over the end of her marriage to the British film director Guy Ritchie, her latest ex, Brahim Zaibat, doesn’t receive that courtesy on Rebel Heart. Over a peppy reggae track, Madonna gives him a smackdown. Producer Diplo channels his former work with the mercurial Sri Lankan artist and former Madonna collaborator M.I.A. by adding a smattering of air horns and military drum beats.

Illuminati
When the demo version of the track was released this year, it rang alarm bells. While Madonna’s voice has never been her strongest asset, she was paired with some staid dance synths and cheesy acoustic guitars. Thankfully, Kanye West rescued it by throwing out the lameness and added the dark and claustrophobic sounds of his seminal 2013 album Yeezus.

B***h, I’m Madonna (featuring Nicki Minaj)
Another production triumph that is nearly derailed by some awful, ego-swelling lyrics. Diplo and the British beat-maker Sophie conjure up a deliciously slithering beat that is a bona fide dance-floor filler. Minaj also rises to the task and delivers another blisteringly bonkers rap.

Hold Tight
Discussions of Rebel Heart being too long are legitimate. Hold Tight is the first of a few tracks that should have been cut. Its atmospheric keyboards are sleep-inducing, with Madonna mumbling something about holding on and being strong.

Joan of Arc
A Madonna track harping on about the unforgiving media was always going to sound a bit rich. The anaemic production here doesn’t help as she laments: “Each time they write a hateful word/Dragging my soul into the dirt, I wanna die”. Yeah, I am sure Madonna’s verbal-bullying victim Lady Gaga would agree.

Iconic (featuring Mike Tyson and Chance The Rapper)
Rebel Heart’s mini slump is arrested: anyone thinking the former heavyweight boxing champion Tyson has embarked on a music career will be disappointed – his contribution is merely a sample proclaiming his greatness over loud applause, before the beat drops on this motivational dance anthem.

HeartBreakCity
Long before Lana Del Ray, Madonna was demonstrating the underrated power of emotional detachment. In this pensive, piano-led ballad, Madonna refuses to collapse in a teary mess, yet acknowledges she is emotionally in the weeds.

Body Shop
There is a hodgepodge of sounds here, with warm synths, plucked banjos and hollow drums as Madge metaphorically riffs on the open roads and repairing her heart. It’s uninspiring but probably a great commercial jingle if you can afford it.

Holy Water
Another throwback and the most scandalous Madonna track this decade. The brooding bass-filled verse gives way to a poptastic chorus that uses hedonistic sound effects harking back to her 1990 Justify My Love. It is safe to say the lyrical content deserves the parental advisory sticker.

Inside Out
A sonically desolate track as Madonna’s reverb-drenched vocals float over some stalking synths supplied by producer Mike Dean. The chilliness here suits the lyrics as Madge demands her lover be emotionally bare: “Every scar that you try to hide/ All the dark corners of your mind/ Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine”.

Wash All Over Me
The regal final track (of the standard version) is another addition to Madonna’s underrated collection of ballads. This century has been unkind to Madonna, who has had her share of heartbreak. Over a baroque piano, she surveys her present condition but vows to keep on moving: “Gonna watch the sun going down/I’m not gonna run from all this sadness”.

Madonna’s new record, “Rebel Heart,” is the full version of the album that was partly leaked in work-tape form last December. It’s a résumé of power and influence: a flex-rospective. In songs like “Veni Vidi Vici” she’s essentially reminding you who she is. (Literally so, in the case of “Bitch I’m Madonna.”)

“It’s funny how reactive, how defensive this album is,” says Jon Pareles in this week’s Popcast. “All these songs are saying, ‘Look at what I’ve done.’ It’s saying, ‘I’m still here’ — and the thing is, she is still here. Years after most dance-floor dollies have had their one hit and are playing on cruise ships, she’s playing arenas.”

The record does a few other things: It uses sex an arena of pleasure and challenge, just as she was doing in her mid-30s; it reminds you that her ballad voice was one of the ubiquitous pleasures in American pop 25 years ago. It goes into EDM, trap and reggae, pulling on the songwriting and production contributions of Avicii, Diplo and Kanye West. And from its title on it has, as Mr. Pareles explains, not a thematic unity but a duality.

Ah Madonna. Despite that rare moment of vulnerability when she fell down the stairs at the Brit Awards last week, these days she mostly seems like an indestructible creation.

An ageless star who could keep dancing and singing and churning out records forever – whether anyone is still listening or not.

But despite that veneer, Madonna has grown older – and so have her fans – so to keep pretending she’s the same artist she was 20 years ago, or to keep trying to sound like she’s still in her 20s doesn’t really work.

And that confusion about her identity and who she is as a musician in 2015, means instead of presenting an empowering statement, Rebel Heart is a bit of a mess.

Ah Madonna. Despite that rare moment of vulnerability when she fell down the stairs at the Brit Awards last week, these days she mostly seems like an indestructible creation.

An ageless star who could keep dancing and singing and churning out records forever – whether anyone is still listening or not.

But despite that veneer, Madonna has grown older – and so have her fans – so to keep pretending she’s the same artist she was 20 years ago, or to keep trying to sound like she’s still in her 20s doesn’t really work.

And that confusion about her identity and who she is as a musician in 2015, means instead of presenting an empowering statement, Rebel Heart is a bit of a mess.

Watch the music video for Living For Love by Madonna:

It doesn’t really sound like the Madonna of old, it doesn’t sound like Madonna reinvented, it mostly sounds like a whole bunch of other people writing music for someone much younger, with Madonna contributing some pretty thin, overly-processed guest vocals.

It’s over-produced to an uncomfortable extreme, and is such a hodge-podge of ideas that just about every track sounds gimmicky.

There is some half decent pop songwriting underneath all the extraneous faff. Living For Love is a great single, and makes some sense with its uplifting, heartfelt, Madonna-like pop strength.

And Ghosttown feels like it could’ve been a decent 80s-tinged hit, but the chorus buries her vocals in a lot of fuzz, and it loses momentum.

Unapologetic Bitch is an interesting electro-reggae cut co-written with Diplo, but Madge’s voice sounds out of place, and overly thin in the context of the track. And that’s just the first of many moments where her identity as a musician seems lost.

Illuminati sounds like a trying-too-hard version of Lady Gaga meets MIA, and Iconic could definitely be accused of trying to emulate the success of Katy Perry’s Dark Horse. It’s not an awful track, but it doesn’t really feel fresh, nor does it feel classic.

Bitch I’m Madonna featuring Nicki Minaj is just awful though, while Joan of Arc feels awfully pedestrian, and there’s so little substance to Hold Tight, it seems wrong to call it a song.

HeartBreakCity is one of the few remaining tracks here that sounds like something Madonna should be releasing at this point in her career – it sounds invested, it sounds dramatic, and it sounds true to her past artistry.

The rest of it, sadly, just sounds confused.

The internet is a funny place – so full of porn and hate, but so often as obsessed with propriety as a Victorian maiden aunt. Recently, it decided that women of 56 can’t fall over; online wags reminding them that walking up stairs in capes is solely the preserve of youth.

The ageism unleashed by Capegate makes you warm to much of Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th album. The unseemly segments, where Madonna baits and gyrates, can be a hoot. When she acts her age, it is lacklustre and over-enunciated; lived-and-loved stuff trotted out in overblown ballads.

Ever since Evita (and some might argue, Kabbalah), Madonna has too often hankered after a librettist’s voice, in which scansion, character motivation and imagery development take precedence over the giddy rush of pop. Wash All Over Me, the last song on Rebel Heart, is a wordy and portentous digital wallow that finds rave producer Avicii playing Andrew Lloyd Webber to her Tim Rice. Another electronic ballad not ill-suited to the stage, Ghosttown, finds a pair of lovers in extremis, without a shred of originality to hang on to. Do we really need Madonna – MDNA, as was – warning us of the dangerous illusion of drug use, as she does on Devil Pray? Probably not, although everyone should inhale this digital country-turned-Goan-rave romp at least once, just to say they have.

Millennials will cringe, but Madonna just makes a far better basqued polemicist than she does a wise elder stateswoman. The indecorous segments of Rebel Heart locate her sense of wickedness high in the mix. Rebel Heart’s key collaboration with Kanye West finds two of pop’s biggest egomaniacs starring in a wiggly club banger that doubles as a takedown of the internet’s most nutzoid meme – The Illuminati, a secret society that allegedly runs the world with the help of triangles in pop videos.

As a rough guide, songs with the word “bitch” in the title bode well. Bitch I’m Madonna is a party anthem produced by Diplo, in which the sound of an enraged acrylic wasp and a fierce rap by Nicki Minaj bring Madonna’s grandstanding up to date. Even better is Unapologetic Bitch, in which Diplo lays Madonna down over some dancehall. Santigold was doing similar things in ’08, but the method remains sound.

Then there’s sex, Madonna’s sine qua non. One particularly silly track compares Madonna’s vaginal fluids to holy water, maintaining the long-term narrative of Catholic-poking that runs through Madonna’s libidinous oeuvre. “Bless yourself and genuflect!” she commands on Holy Water, accompanied by ecstatic gasps and lubricious R&B; the rap is lifted from Vogue, one of Madonna’s many totemic hits.

But another sex tune – Body Shop – might be the most appealing song Madonna has been associated with in some time. It’s the only time on Rebel Heart that Madonna attempts something genuinely offbeat with two of the album’s relatively junior production partners: Blood Diamonds (Grimes) and Dahi (Kendrick Lamar).

Here is a sweet-natured dalliance where Madonna’s vocal flutters and flirts as the tune sways gently towards the Indian subcontinent, all plucked strings, handclaps and gently shlumping beats. It’s so unexpectedly nuanced, you don’t even mind the extended car-mending metaphor.

One of the more colourful explanations for Madonna’s near garrotting by her own cape at the Brit Awards last week puts the blame on a cabal of all-powerful figures intent on ruling the world through a combination of blood sacrifice and song-and-dance routines.

Halfway through Rebel Heart, her 13th album, comes Illuminati, a robot-voiced listing of all the people — or shape-shifting lizards, according to David Icke — who are said to belong to this sinister order. Jay-Z, Beyoncé, even that poor lost man-child Justin Bieber get a mention in a catchy disco tune that pokes fun at conspiracy theorists’ fondness for mythologising famous people.

Those same theorists are now suggesting that the Illuminati took revenge on Madge by subjecting her to a terrible punishment at the Brits: tying her cape on too tight.

In fact, Madonna’s accident showed her to be not only human after all, but also possessed of a strength of character that has seen her through four decades of outrageous fortune. She knew how to fly backwards without breaking her neck, she bounced up in seconds and got on with the show and, rather than sack her mortified dancers, she took them out for dinner.

All this won public approval, which she needed badly after melodramatically describing the leak of Rebel Heart in December as “artistic rape and terrorism”. Madonna’s fall became the story of the Brits, but it was her reaction to it that casts her album in such a benign glow.

It’s not perfect. Like so many recent albums by major pop stars, it’s too long. Why do we need a standard and a deluxe edition? Would an author offer an extended version of their new novel for a few quid more? It takes away from the idea of an album as a complete work.

Madonna has drafted in all manner of modish producers, including Kanye West, resulting in a modern pop equivalent of a bring-and-buy sale. And the lyrical rudeness can be less sexy, more downright gynaecological. When she sings “kiss it better, make it wetter” onHoly Water, you don’t know where to look. Yet at her best Madonna remains head and shoulders above everyone else in pop.

There’s a price to pay for reinventing yourself as a postmodern figure of worldwide fame and controversy and Madonna weighs it up onJoan of Arc, a ballad that is as smart as it is heartfelt. “Each time they take a photograph I lose a part I can’t get back,” she sings. “Each time they write a hateful word, dragging my soul into the dirt, I want to die.”

The agonies of fame and fortune is not a subject we non-rich, non-famous people traditionally have much sympathy for, but Madonna throws a light on to her reality by being honest and it draws the listener towards her.

Heartbreak City is another cri de coeur, a piano ballad on which she tries to make sense of the end of a relationship. There’s more than a tinge of bitterness to the words about an ex-boyfriend (or husband? Watch out, Guy Ritchie) who hitched a ride on Madonna’s coat-tails.

“You got just what you came for, a bit of fame and fortune, and now I’m no longer needed,” she sings, adding: “And then you had the nerve to say that we could still be friends.” It’s reassuring to know the most disingenuous pay-off in the history of relationships is used not just on teenagers getting chucked for the first time, but on multimillionaire queens of pop too.

The hi-octane pop songs here recall the hook-laden glories of Madonna’s Eighties heyday. Living For Love and Devil Pray have tinges of the irreligious gospel that made her 1988 classic Like a Prayer so irresistible, and the aforementioned Illuminati recallsVogue, her 1990 paean to posing in nightclubs, while also serving as a reminder that a fun, throwaway tune can be clever too.

Things fall apart on Iconic, on which Madonna comes across less like a cultural icon and more like a motivational speaker reading out platitudes of empowerment, but for the most part the album jumps happily between revelation and disco escapism.

Frustratingly, some of the best songs are on the deluxe edition only. Madonna has a Julius Caesar moment on Veni Vidi Vici, giving us a quick run-through of her myriad achievements before deflating her own pomposity by adding, “I exposed my naked arse and I did it with a smile”.

The (deluxe) album ends with the title track, a combination of country rock and electronic pop. “I’ve spent time as a narcissist . . . trying to be provocative,” sings Madonna before telling herself, “Never look back. It’s a waste of time.” It sums up the message of this flawed but vibrant album: still in the game, still pushing forward, now in a position to reflect on all that has happened with sagacity.

The last decade of Madonna’s career is a testament to the power of thin lines: an inch of slippage, and even the most venerated and groundbreaking artists can tumble from pop’s vanguard to a zone somewhere in the back, fighting to catch up. After the commercial and critical debacle that was 2003’s American Life, she temporarily stepped out of the pop arms race, traveling backwards in time to revisit her days as a Lower East Side disco queen with Confessions on a Dance Floor. As a result, she regained some momentum. But when she attempted to rejoin the present with the chunky, rhythmically dense Hard Candy and cold, shiny EDM of MDNA, she received criticism that was disproportionate to the quality of the product. Rather than being celebrated for working hard to stay contemporary after nearly three decades of work, she was called desperate and calculating, assertions that often stunk of sexism. (Try to find examples of similar criticisms being leveled at Giorgio Moroder, or Nile Rodgers, or Paul McCartney.)

It was a reaction that disregarded the fact that she was simply doing what she’d done for every album she’d ever released: cherry-picking collaborators with the relevance and skill to match her songwriting and nose for trends, and attempting to forge a sort of synergy. But the narrative had been set, and handfuls of good songs — like Hard Candy’s “She’s Not Me,” a funky, strobe-lit romp that beat Daft Punk to the nü-Chic punch — were doomed to languish in relative obscurity. For a moment, it seemed like Rebel Heart, her 13th studio album, was going to be submarined for similarly non-musical reasons. When a huge batch of demos and sketches leaked at the end of 2014, she went nuts in response, comparing the leaks to “artistic rape” and “terrorism.” Given all the turmoil, it’s impressive — and a little surprising — that the final product is her most consistent album in a decade, and one that renders any hypothetical “bid for continued relevance” moot by remaining proudly scattershot. It’s an album that places more emphasis on Madonna the person than Madonna the sonic visionary, and it benefits as a result.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s completely eschewed the bleeding edge. About half of Rebel Heart lands somewhere between “contemporary” and “innovative,” with songs that evoke the frenetic uncanny valley pop of PC Music, Kanye West’s serrated and menacing Yeezus and Avicii’s country-EDM fusion. (West and Avicii both appear on the album via writing and production credits; Diplo, enigmatic UK producer Sophie, and indie darling Ariel Rechtshaid are also among the small army of collaborators.) Single “Bitch I’m Madonna” manages to somehow pull from all three, and the result is a glorious mess, a whirlwind of unexpected texture and silly sound. But staying ahead of the curve isn’t the album’s ultimate goal, and there are just as many songs that land with surprising delicacy: simple folk guitars, churchy piano melodies, and arrangements that recall the soft, intimate sweep of 1994’s underrated Bedtime Stories. The album presents two faces, neither of which are designed to stand alone: the #1 Baddest Bitch out for sex and blood (“the Rebel”) and the vulnerable veteran reflecting on love, life, and difficult choices (“the Heart”). And while the songs in the former group are great fun, because nobody can poke fun at Madonna like Madonna — the repeated snarl of “Bitch, get off my pole” on the lurid “Holy Water” is funnier than every Twitter joke about her tumble at the BRIT Awards put together — the latter ones are the true stunners.

They’re rich in the same reckoning with faith, sacrilege, and love that have marked Madonna’s work for three decades, but there’s a new and palpable fatigue to the writing and performance. Her voice sounds great, light and a little worn around the edges; it bears the weight of a full love, of love won and lost, real pain and real joy. On highlights like the gentle “Joan of Arc” and weightless fantasy “Body Shop,” she sounds a little like a mother tucking into an old story at the kitchen table, running through the decisions she’s made and the paths she could’ve taken: her years of purposeful provocation, the isolation that stems from defiance, the fight to accept imperfections within yourself. There are albums where it’s been difficult to remember that Madonna is a real person and not just a figurehead, a concept, a lightning rod. That’s not the case with Rebel Heart: it has surprising gravity, and doubles as a portrait of a lion approaching the winter of a career without precedent. It’s the realest, and the best, Madonna has sounded in quite some time.

Two events have blighted the release of Madonna’s thirteenth album. One, obviously, was her spectacular tumble at The Brits, but another was the online leak in December of 13 demos earmarked for the record. So in a perverse way, it’s fitting that ‘Rebel Heart’ feels like a Madonna album for the internet era. Available in editions with 14, 19 or 25 tracks, it’s a disparate, drawn-out collection that’s begging to be condensed into shorter playlists.

No matter which version you buy, you’ll find Madonna alternating between showing off, getting off and taking stock. On ‘Holy Water’ – a brilliantly ridiculous hymn to cunnilingus – she manages all three on the same song, dropping a reference to her classic hit ‘Vogue’ and boasting that either Jesus or Yeezus ‘loves my pussy best’. Her voice is so heavily distorted that it’s left to us to decide whether she’s taunting the Vatican or Kim Kardashian.

Some of the sassy stuff is excellent, especially the catchy, trap-tinged ‘Iconic’ and defiant dancehall of ‘Unapologetic Bitch’, on which Madonna tells a selfish ex-boyfriend: ‘I’m poppin’ bottles that you can’t even afford.’ The house-flavoured lead single ‘Living for Love’ is also a highlight, its resilient lyrics gaining additional pathos following last night’s already legendary mishap. ‘Lifted me up and watched me stumble,’ Madonna sings. ‘I’m gonna carry on.’

But ‘Rebel Heart’s very best moments come when Madonna gets reflective. She shows her vulnerable side on ‘Joan of Arc’, a sublime electro-folk ballad, while the affecting title track finds her confronting her past as a ‘narcissist’ over some wistful acoustic guitar chords.

It all adds up to a sprawling and varied selection box that’s definitely worth cherry-picking from. ‘Rebel Heart’ may lack cohesion, but she’s definitely not down for the count: this contains some of the best music Madonna’s made in a decade.

When Madonna sings on the title track of her latest album, Rebel Heart (***1/2 out of four; out March 10), that she has “outgrown my past and I’ve shed my skin,” she is both protesting too much and engaging in understatement.

Our most durable pop star has indeed reinvented elements of her look and sound repeatedly over the past 30 years, but Madonna has retained the same essence: that of a woman who champions and demands love, in every sense of that loaded word. No single artist has been more crucial in shaping our modern view of celebrities as people who need people — and attention.

As that view has metastasized into an expectation that artists share ever more of their personal and creative lives, fame’s double-edged sword has grown a bit sharper. Madonna felt it last December, when two batches of early recordings from the Heart sessions — essentially, an album in progress — were leaked online. Her immediate response was to quickly polish remixes of the first bunch, and make them available to those who pre-ordered the album.

Rebel Heart includes those six songs and 13 more, and they present Madonna at her most determined and spiritually unplugged. The sound — crafted with such hip-hop, pop and EDM names as Kanye West, Toby Gad, Avicii and Diplo — is not so much raw as purposefully lean and piercingly direct, as are the lyrics, which mine emotions from righteous anger and pain to resolute joy.

Ghosttown mixes a disarmingly earnest sweetness with a stark, chilly arrangement, while on Heartbreak City, Madonna lashes out at a former lover over a shuffling hip-hop groove. The defiant exuberance of first single Living For Love gives way to the deceptively gentle, powerfully infectious Body Shop, with its tinkering rhythms and sly innuendo.

There are more graphic references to sex, and two song titles include a mild an expletive. A disciple, Nicki Minaj, pops up on the frisky B—ch I’m Madonna, in which the titular star chants, “You’re gonna love this. … You can’t touch this.” Madonna could be parodying followers — some of whom have absorbed her through Minaj and other younger stars — who have been inspired by her confidence and marketing savvy but are often less intuitive about things like desire and pain, be it their own or others’.

Madonna asserts both her enduring indomitability and her vulnerability, even getting self-referential a few times. On Veni Vidi Vici, she charts the past via song titles — “I saw a Ray of Light/Music saved my life” — then passes the mic to Nas, who recalls his own rise, rather more flamboyantly.

Nas raps playfully at the end, “Madonna on the track/Nas in the back.” But each is a survivor, and Rebel Heart celebrates that increasingly rare bird with a bittersweet vengeance.

Download: HeartBreak City, Body Shop, Veni Vidi Vici, Ghosttown.

Back away from the throne, girls.

The 56-year-old Queen of Pop valiantly defends her crown against any would-be successors via a regal 13th studio album.

Backed by a battalion of boldface-name collaborators (Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, even Mike Tyson), Madonna lords over the dance floor with an elaborate array of electronic and hip-hop grooves.

Prime-picks: the transfixing, Yeezy-produced “Illuminati” and “S.E.X.,” as well as five Diplo jewels, highlighted by the house-gospel rave “Living for Love.”

The Material Girl also expresses real Ray of Light vulnerability, imploring “Just hold me while I cry my eyes out,” in the mellifluous “Joan of Arc.”

Alas, there are chinks in her armor. The 19-song set could use some trimming, as one too many throwaways — take the tepid “Inside Out” or “Messiah” — flail in the wake of the superior ballad “Ghosttown.”

On “Veni Vidi Vici,” an autobiographical rouser featuring Nas, she proclaims, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Almost, m’lady. (Interscope)

Only Madonna could turn an album that leaked three months before its release date into an event. Rebel Heart, her 13th studio album, is mired in the controversy of that leak, as well as her somewhat absurd declarations of famous Americans as “rebel hearts.” But the album is exactly the return Madonna needed as an artist.

Madonna, of course, is one of the most recognizable stars in popular culture. As a 1980s pop starlet, she made her fame off palpable synths, a heated sexual presence, and drama that followed her around the world. She is the queen of pop, and as such, she’s always been much more than her music — a dancer, an idol, a headline.

Rebel Heart reminds listeners that every ounce of her fame grew from her ability to produce hit after hit after hit:

Madonna is pretty prolific for a pop star. Since her rise to fame, she hasn’t gone more than three years without a new album. Instead of taking breaks or snagging a Vegas residency, she’s been in the studio and on the road consistently for 30 years, which is a pretty amazing feat. It’s unsurprising, then, that some of those 13 studio albums really weren’t great.

Madonna’s heyday, as evidenced by a couple of amazing collections, was somewhere from her 1984 release of Like a Virgin to the 1990 production of the Immaculate Collection, which is to date one of the best albums of her career. During that time period, she was an international superstar who performed on a bed once, and always oozed sex. Madonna for half a decade was the only name in pop music that really mattered, and she completely changed the game. Before her, most mega solo acts were men. After her, they’ve almost all been women.

Madonna’s second heyday was a short, two-album period from 1998 to 2000, when she released both Ray of Light and Music. Since then, she had one good album, 2005′s Confessions on a Dance Floor, followed by a decade of albums that were decent but not memorable. On Rebel Heart, Madonna has made an album that couldn’t possibly be categorized as a desperate attempt to stay relevant — as her last EDM-inspired album MDNA was — because it’s an album about Madonna the person instead of Madonna the idol. That personal touch is what makes Rebel Heart a good album and an enjoyable listen top to bottom, even when it gets caught up in itself.

At 56 years old and 12 albums into what has been a star-studded career, Madonna is no longer a young pop star trying to find her place in a messy musical industry. She doesn’t need to experiment with new synths and try to adjust her vocal style. Her sound is distinctive, and, really, the synths and pop beats that made her a superstar in the ’80s have never gone out of style.

There was no need for her to pretend to be younger or fresher, but she did. On her two most recent albums, 2008′s Hard Candy and 2012′s MDNA, Madonna didn’t sound like an important voice in pop music — she sounded like everyone else. Her beats were similar to Kesha, Gaga and Katy Perry. In that mimicry, she lost herself.

But on Rebel Heart, despite its absurd number of collaborators, such as Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Diplo, and Avicii, Madonna returns to familiarity — songs about love and religion laden with heavy synthesizers and great dance beats. It’s not a perfect album, but at least it sounds like her.

Take a song like, “Holy Water,” which features a militaristic clapping pattern and alien synth spreads. It’s a leap for Madonna, but not a huge one. The rhythm of her lyrics is no different from what we heard on Celebration. Thematically, it takes the heretical, religious commentary and sexualizes it until it’s almost unrecognizable. If that’s not Madonna, nothing is. And with a callback to “Vogue” in the bridge, she reminds her audience that though she’s older and more mature, she’s still the queen of pop.

Madonna really has, “outgrown my past and I’ve shed my skin,” as she sings in the album’s title track. Growth is painful and difficult, and Rebel Heart is the result of a decade of growing pains to become this artist — one with confidence and sex appeal, but also a very distinct sound.

Madonna was viral before the internet existed. When she flung herself across a red velvet bed on stages all over the US in the early ’90s, word of her behavior propagated endlessly. Her failure has always been a lack of discretion for where the line is. It’s what made her famous, but it’s also what gets her into trouble.

“Iconic,” Rebel Heart’s ninth track, is the musical equivalent of Madonna losing sight of that line. It’s one of the weakest songs on the album. It’s too overtly sexual to work, and too musical to showcase Madonna’s ability to dance. It flops on the album and has too much of a club rhythm to do well live, either. When Chance the Rapper joins in later in the song, it seems like Madonna has completely lost control. Like some of Madonna’s past albums, the track just can’t decide what it wants to be. There are other songs, too, that have this problem, notably “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Illuminati.”

What’s great about Rebel Heart is that it doesn’t shy away from those failures. Madonna knows she’s overtly sexual. She knows she’s lusty and at times ludicrous. In the wake of her Brit Awards performance during which a cape failed to untie and the 56-year-old performer was flung off five steps, ageism ran rampant. What Madonna does on Rebel Heart is remind listeners she is fully aware of how old she is by being honest about her sexuality and unabashed in her overblown claims.

On this album, Madonna gives you two ways to view her: as an “Unapologetic Bitch” or as someone “Living for Love.” It’s that second side, the one that makes this an album about reflecting on the loves and mistakes of life, that sets her up to succeed in the future. She’s not the sex-goddess, untouchable idol of 1992′s Erotica anymore. She’s a person. And that’s a Madonna with plenty of room to experiment over the next decade of her career.

If the internet is our modern religion, then Madonna is its Old Testament God — the booming, all-powerful, and unapologetically prickly creator of the overshare. You know that whole stance of artful, defiant narcissism that’s now practiced daily by anybody with a social media profile? Madonna basically invented that. In the early ’80s, before she was actually famous, she’d traipse around the Lower East Side in tattered lace and jelly bracelets, insisting to anyone who’d listen that someday she’d be bigger than Jesus. She believed the dream enough for it to come true. In retrospect, her particular kind of personal-branding pluck seems distinctly millennial, cut through with that now-familiar combination of round-the-clock business savvy and genuine, honest-to-God self-love. The first time we see her onscreen in Desperately Seeking Susan, she’s lying on her back, frowning seductively at the Polaroid camera she’s holding above her — taking a selfie, decades before we had the word for it.

Madge has never been one to kick back and let her colossal cultural influence speak for itself — even though she pretty much invented the game of modern pop stardom, she’s not ready to unfold a chair on the sidelines just yet. Over the past decade, though, this relentless drive to stay fresh, agile, and young has proven more of a curse than a blessing. Madonna’s last great album, 2005’s glistening, neo-disco reverie Confessions on a Dance Floor, had an air of effortlessness about it, but most of the music she’s made since then feels unpalatably try-hard in comparison. Though Madonna’s always been savvy when it comes to picking collaborators and producers, her last two albums felt a little behind the curve: She made her requisite (and lukewarm) Timbaland-and-Neptunes album Hard Candy in 2008, and later tried to ride the rolling EDM wave with the similarly subpar MDNA, a brittle, faceless, post-Britney album on which she sounded like she’d finally completed her long transformation from human to cyborg (but with none of the fun that could have implied). These albums were, ostensibly, in conversation with what was happening on pop radio, but right beneath the surface they crackled with a palpable anxiety that someday Madonna would wake to find her bottled supply of Fountain of Youth replaced with plain old Evian.

Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th album, continues in her tradition of assembling a multi-million-dollar wrecking crew of artists and producers who’ve pricked her ears in the past couple of years: This time around, she’s recruited dubstep fraternity president Diplo, Swedish EDM superstar Avicii, Yeezus mastermind Mike Dean, and DJ Dahi, who (ya bish) Madonna tapped because she loved his work on Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees.” Oh, and don’t forget indie weirdo Blood Diamonds. And rising PC Music star Sophie. And Ariel Rechtshaid. And Nas. And Mike Tyson? After a while, Rebel Heart’s production credits starts to feel like “Too Many Cooks.” And, as you might imagine, the sprawling, 19-track album that this motley crew has created together is not exactly the most cohesive entry in Madonna’s catalogue.

The best of Rebel Heart’s upbeat songs here are the ones unafraid to go a little bonkers: The minimalist, strobe-lit Mike Dean production “Illuminati” — a cheeky “Vogue” update that switches out Dietrich and DiMaggio for Bieber and LeBron — is just goofy enough to work. Same goes for “Bitch I’m Madonna,” a glorious, stupid-in-the-best-way ode to ego that I can only describe as a giant sonic selfie. Diplo’s synthetic, neon beat boings around like Flubber, and Nicki Minaj — whom Madge clearly considers some kind of kindred spirit, since she also invited her to guest on two MDNA tracks — makes perfect sense in the song’s mugging, cartoonish world.

But “Bitch I’m Madonna” also reveals the main problem with Rebel Heart: The beats sound like they’re having more fun than Madonna. Often hampered by a dead-eyed, monotone delivery, the reliably charismatic superstar at the center of these songs feels strangely hollow, even defeated and fatigued. (The same went for her strangely listless performance of “Living for Love” at this year’s Grammys.) The most affecting songs are the ones that grapple with this feeling directly: the downcast ballad “Joan of Arc,” the muted come-on “Body Shop 75,” and the mid-tempo, down-but-not-out title track, which provides such a fitting finale that I wish it closed out the standard album rather than just the deluxe edition. Elsewhere, though, these songs seem bored by going through the Madonna motions to empower and/or shock. The self-referential “Veni Vidi Vici” (which, also selfielike, lists off her accomplishments in the form of Madonna song-title puns: “I stared writing songs / I kinda got into a groove”) but the song doesn’t feel valedictory at all — its hook, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” comes off, rather inexplicably, as a whimper rather than a roar. Even worse is the deeply unsexy “S.E.X.,” which culminates in a free-association rap: “Chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair.” Unintentionally funny, it sounds like something written to be played in Stefon’s new favorite club.

Last month, the BBC’s Radio 1 was at the center of a mild controversy when fans (and Madonna herself) accused the station of ageism for not adding Rebel Heart’s lead single “Living for Love” to its playlist. Madonna is now 56, which is four years older than Cher was in 1998 when she released “Believe” and became the oldest woman to top the Billboard singles chart. Ageism is real, pernicious, and almost always affects women more than men, but it’s a difficult claim to take at face value coming from a woman who’s spent half of her life — and an amount equivalent to a small country’s GDP — attempting to stop time in a way that so many of us mere mortals cannot. In her piece in the recent essay collection Madonna & Me, the writer Lisa Carver imagines herself posing a question to our timeless queen: “Will you have this to remember? That moment in bed when you acquiesced to the loss of your youth, and found, by surprise, something so much more graceful in its place.” The Madonna of Rebel Heart isn’t in touch with that grace just yet. She’s succeeded once again in the increasingly empty goal of sounding current, but by now this feels expected — even safe — coming from Madonna. The most rebellious heart is one that can show itself, and even its age, with #nofilter.

comments powered by Disqus