The Queen? No, Call Me Madame
by Mark Cunningham
Sitting down to review a new Madonna record is no easy task.
When it comes to the woman who practically wrote the first beginners guide to being a modern-day pop star, it’s difficult to disconnect the album from the versatile 35-year back-catalogue of its iconic creator and experience it in its own entity.
How do you critique the Queen of Pop, with fourteen studio albums under her belt, and an unmatched career defined by reinvention, longevity and resilience?
Her latest incarnation, ‘Madame X’, although entirely bizarre and self-indulgent, is much more than just a newly-sculpted alter-ego with an eye-patch thrown in for good measure.
Madame X eludes to a mysterious and versatile identity that is both student and teacher, an artist that is vulnerable yet determined, distressed about the state of the world yet hopeful for the future. As it turns out, we’ve been listening and dancing to Madame X this whole time, we just hadn’t been formally introduced to her, until now.
Over the course of this 15-track record, Madame X takes us on an eclectic journey of her world view, meandering through different musical cultures influenced by the artists she met in Lisbon, the cultural melting-pot which she now calls home. Her worldly vision exposes us to new sounds which have, till now, managed to escape absorption from mainstream pop music. Fusing Portuguese fado and Brazilian funk carioca with the backdrop of Latin pop and trap, Madame X makes a bold promise of delivering an epic vision of the future of pop music. Through daring political statements and collaborations with a myriad of performers on a global scale, Madonna proves to us that at sixty-years old she is just as inspired to make music now as she was in 1982.
The lead single Medellin, 2019’s raunchy answer to La Isla Bonita, is a refreshing album opener which seductively instructs us to cha cha cha while showing off Madonna’s level 10 Portuguese on Duolingo.
Although it has fans divided, it undeniably compels you to dance alongside liberated Madame X and Maluma as they serenade one another around a reggaeton-dance beat, and it feels good.
Dark Ballet is undeniably, the most bizarre thing she has ever done, and personifies the sheer weirdness the album often clings to. After a string of rambling enigmatic statements about the state of the world, the low-tempo melts in to an unfamiliar world where Alice in Wonderland meets The Nutcracker, only this time Alice really did eat those mushrooms. It gets weird. Madame makes some rather ambiguous, often incoherent reflections and mentions something about a storm that is “beginning to howl”, then leaves you feeling as though you were rudely awakened from a nap and told some bad news. Experimental? Theatrical? Sure. Is it enjoyable? Unfortunately, no.
God Control sets the scene for an energetically-charged dystopian revolution set in a not-too-distant future to the backdrop of an early-90s electronic discotheque, reminiscent of Deeper and deeper from her 1992 record Erotica, with a haunting church choir thrown in just in case you had forgotten that Madonna was raised Catholic.
It is a long, epic mash-up of sounds that amount to an eclectic woke-pop call for us to change our ways.
The various overlapping vocal styles here elevate this addictive synth-disco bop in to a frantic call for gun reform as Madonna eccentrically whispers, mumbles and screams to provocative lyrics such as “a new democracy, god and pornography”, because intertwining politics, religion and sexuality has become a staple of her repertoire that apparently we’re not finished with yet. The cringeworthy rap containing the line “Each new birthday gives me hope, that’s why I don’t smoke that dope” harks back to 2003’s notorious “I’m drinking a soy latte, I get a double shot-y” rap on American Life, and although literally no one asked for a repeat of that awkward moment in her career, Madonna reminds us that her biggest muse is herself.
I Don’t Search I Find is the album’s peak as Madonna brings us back to familiar territory with a house-disco-trance track that sounds like if Erotica, Ray of Light, and Confessions on a dancefloor had a baby. The restless lyrics are transcendent as Madonna takes us to a liberated, awakened universe from the future where love is in abundance. This is one of those magical moments where everything falls into place, a testament to Madonna and long-time producer Mirwais’ 20 year-long working relationship, and their artistic vision of what modern dance music ought to be. Madonna, if you’re reading this, here is your tour opener.
Crave is a beautiful track that tells a story of Madame X’s vulnerability to American rapper Swae Lee’s charms. Unlike the rest of the album, it follows a more traditional formula of a 3-minute pop song, an appreciated moment of refuge in the middle of a manic and spiralling record.
With the exception of Maluma’s second appearance on Bitch I’m Loca, a trashy flirtatious trap-pop album filler with an unnecessary reference to 2015’s Bitch I’m Madonna, the journey around the Portuguese-speaking cultures lends the album its strongest creative edge, achieving the seemingly impossible of incorporating fado, favela funk and reggaeton in to a pop record.
The most enjoyable of these moments being the Brazilian-dance juggernaut Faz Gostoso which is the album’s breath of exotic Latin sensuality and rhythm.
Batuka is perhaps the most interesting departure from mainstream pop as Madame X takes us to the Cape Verde islands for a militant, drum-thumping ritual that utilises the Batuque style of call and response, featuring The Batukadeiras Orchestra from Lisbon. A heavily vocoded Madame X riles us up to “taste our freedom”, demanding we “get that old man, put him in a jail”, with no one left wondering who she’s talking about.
Future (feat Quavo) contains yet another self-reference to 2000’s Don’t tell me, although the heavy vocoder and reggaeton beat could not be further away from the folky, cowboy-guitar loop Madonna released nearly 20 years ago. This is by no means a bad track, but rather ironically, it seems unlikely that we’ll still be listening to it in the future.
Extreme Occident is an eerie part-ballad, part-tribal séance where Madonna insists over and over how “life is a circle”, not her most sophisticated of epiphanies but certainly a most unusual and progressive production that deserves some credit. Killers who are partying is another wonderfully produced slow-tempo trap-fado which could easily replace the theme song to Narcos.
Madonna plays up her white-woman victimhood on this track and in true virtue-signalling fashion, rather uncomfortably unaware of her own privilege, identifies herself with numerous oppressed minority groups.
The line “I’ll be Israel, if they’re incarcerated” is confusing for an artist who has built a career fighting for freedom and standing up for the oppressed. But then, suspicions of Madonna being a Zionist are not surprising after her controversial choice to perform at Eurovision in Tel Aviv, despite the Palestinian-led international boycott of the event for Israeli war crimes. For an album that spends a lot of time telling us to “wake up” and that world peace is possible, this statement falls flat on its face. Madonna can and should do better.
Amidst the outlandish hyper-production and celestial narratives, the vulnerable accordion-assisted Crazy strips it back and drops us back to earth momentarily, in a similar fashion to Come Alive, a cute and warming gospel-pop track which features an empowering optimism that is absent from much of the record.
Looking For Mercy is the album’s remorseful crescendo as the summation of the album’s hysteria reaches a pivotal moment, where Madame X searches for forgiveness and empathy in a cold and doomed world. Wisely placed as the penultimate track, some of the album’s earlier ramblings and opaque reflections on the world resonate more strongly here, as a beaten down and vulnerable Madonna sings that she is searching for “Somebody to teach me to love, somebody to help me rise above. I need to survive, I’m looking for mercy”.
I Rise closes the album on the most low-key production of the album, with rather predictable lyrics about overcoming adversity and hate, leaving us on a hopeful note and wishing for a brighter tomorrow, or at least for this long turbulent album to finish.
The sheer amount of raw musical production packed into these 64 minutes is both stimulating and exhausting, but this is not a background record to put on while you make your weeknight dinner or pop to the shops, it requires concentration. If you let it, Madame X will take you to all corners of the Portuguese diaspora and lure you in with an array of unconventional sounds that that simply haven’t been pioneered in the pop world until now.
With everything to give and nothing left to prove, Madame X makes a drastic departure from the trend-chasing, formulaic, radio friendly attempts to score a hit that have plagued much of her last three album. In deconstructing the traditional pop record with global musical and cultural influences throughout, it heroically paves its own ground and boldly demands its place in her extensive discography.
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