Madonna helped building pop music as we know it in 2019 more so than any other artist has. Perhaps more than the Beatles, arguably even more than Michael Jackson. Despite there being some exceptions and predecessors, the idea of a female “popstar” being as big and omnipresent as her was something unheard of, all while pushing boundaries and catching people’s attention, something that both artists and labels would look up to and attempt to replicate.
She also made really good music on top of that, too. Madonna dared to go places where very few of her contemporaries would, taking sounds from both the underground and around the world — controversially — and putting them into the context of American pop. Constantly reinventing her sound and image, Madonna had no problem going from 80’s dance-pop diva with her first couple of albums, to downtempo goddess in the 90’s — especially with her classic Ray of Light — , and going from the controversial political criticism of American Life to the disco-house celebration of Confessions on a Dance Floor in one album cycle, all while scoring hits all across the globe.
Sadly things may have not gone as well since then, as for the past decade or so, Madonna has been trying to latch on to an audience that slowly started to lose interest in her — whether it is because of ageism, other pop stars taking up a lot of space or simply her music not being as good as it used to be. This culminated with the 2015 album Rebel Heart. While better than its predecessor MDNA, that record showed her losing control over her image and art, with most of it leaking prior to its release, and jumping on stylistic trends that were questionable even for her. It resulted in not only some of her most lackluster music to date, but also a disappointing commercial performance.
Madame X, her fourteenth proper album, is her actively attempting to escape that. “Madame X” is the name she was given by her dance teacher Martha Graham — indicative of this album being a more personal, self-reflective effort, with contributions from some old collaborators such as Mirwais and Diplo, or new ones like Starrah. “Madame X” is also the name of her alter ego, a secret agent that “travels around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom”, taking on roles ranging from housekeeper to head of state, from saint to prisoner.
Firstly, you can hear the influence from all over the world in this record. During the making of this album she lived in Lisbon with her family, and not only one can hear the influence from Portuguese fado, but also influenced by other sounds of the Afro-Lusophone diaspora like Brazil’s baile funk — covering Blaya’s “Faz gostoso” with Anitta — or Cape Verdean batuque. And most importantly, it does not necessarily appear to come from a place of appropriation or cultural tourism — but rather a genuine appreciation and knowledge of the genres. However, the execution sounds rather awkward as these styles are perhaps not translated too well onto a context of more traditional, Americanized pop, ending up as a sanitized, watered-down version of them.
She also flirts with reggaeton on two of the songs, lead single “Medellín” and “Bitch I’m Loca”, both featuring Maluma. While it is a fairly common field for the Colombian singer, Madonna doesn’t adapt all too well to the genre, making their (bilingual) interactions a bit clumsy, and ends up as merely another person in the ever-growing list of Anglophone singers trying to appeal to a Latin audience, ineffectively.
Another important aspect of Madame X is its topical political message — mentions of issues related to gun control — she samples a speech by Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Emma González on closing track “I Rise” —, references to Donald Trump’s presidency are all present on the album. But perhaps the most obvious statement is “Killers Who Are Partying”. Over a minimal instrumental, she talks about identifying with the poor, Africa, gay people, and basically those who are experiencing oppression.
Still though, a line like “I’ll be Islam, if Islam is hated / I’ll be Israel, if they’re incarcerated” , coming shortly after a controversial performance on Eurovision 2019, does not show much commitment… to anything. This is not the same Madonna who portrayed herself as Che Guevara in an album cover nor the same who did the original “American Life” video — easily among the most “radical” music videos a mainstream pop artist has ever done — but a Madonna that tweeted a badly animated video of Hillary Clinton dancing with her to “Girl Gone Wild”. Nothing about it is edgy nor will cause controversy in this political climate, just confirm the ideas that the safest of liberal audiences already have.
Despite its faults, though, this is Madonna’s strongest album in a long while. Aside from a few pandering songs and filler, it is her most ambitious project in a while, and some of its experiments do pay off. “God Control” is a 6-minute disco epic that, despite its perhaps preachy lyricism, brings together the club-friendly sound of Confessions with more artsy sonics. “I Don’t Search I Find” is a faithful and genuinely fun throwback to the “Vogue” sound, whereas once you get over how bad the combination of Madonna and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee sounds like on paper, “Crave” is a surprisingly enjoyable song. The Starrah co-written “Crazy” is also a highlight due to its heartfelt, genuine songwriting — without taking itself too seriously — and what is Madonna’s best vocal performance in the record.
Madame X feels like a transitional album, an album in which we see Madonna preparing for what’s next in her career. Being an established figure, a music legend with not many people on her level, she is always going to make something with a certain substance, whether people like it or not. She is also leaving behind the constant search for hits of her past couple of albums, instead focusing on delivering more concise artistic statements, closer to, say, Rosalía and FKA twigs than she would be to Ariana Grande or Dua Lipa. And it is a good fit for her, even if it doesn’t shine through on this album for multiple reasons, to see her evolve further so far into her career, as there are very few other people who would take the risk.