Album Review: Madonna’s ‘Madame X’

Despite some lyrical missteps, she's passionate and satisfyingly unconcerned with mass consumption on her best album since “Confessions on a Dance Floor.”

Here’s a little-known pop-diva fact: Madonna used to have nightmares about Whitney Houston. In a 1995 “Primetime Live” interview, she described a dream she had in which she learned that her greatest ’80s chart rival’s then-latest single, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” had replaced hers, “You’ll See,” at No. 1. Meanwhile, in another room, her music teacher was humming Houston’s hit. Cue cold sweat. (Dreams don’t always come true: In real life, “You’ll See” never made it past No. 6.)

If Madonna is still watching the charts like a hawk, even in her sleep, she’s clearly no longer obsessed with ruling them. In a 36-year recording career that has found the 60-year-old walking more tightropes than the average A-list pop superstar, Madonna has delivered her most uncompromising musical statement yet with her 14th album, “Madame X.”

The rebel heart she claimed to have in the title of this album’s 2015 predecessor is beating more loudly and passionately than ever before. Freed from the need to be number one with a bullet, Madonna finally has released an entire album that lives up to her reputation as one of pop’s greatest risk-takers.

The first single, “Medellín,” is a deceptively lovely opening statement that only hints at the fire raging just ahead. The comparisons that have been made to an earlier Madonna single, “La Isla Bonita,” aren’t far off, but “Medellín,” named for Colombia’s second-largest city, has sharper edges, and its Latin swirl is more jagged. Colombian reggaeton rapper Maluma adds sexual tension to the mix, and when Madonna sings “Ven conmigo, let’s take a trip,” she sounds as inviting as she did cooing about the tropical island breeze in 1987.

After that, true weirdness sets in. “Dark Ballet” and “God Control” are ambitious and sprawling, the closest Madonna may ever come to her own “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Dark Ballet” goes from piano ballad to electro-gospel dirge with a left-field interpolation of “The Nutcracker Suite: Dance of the Reed Flutes” that feels like Tchaikovsky on mushrooms. It’s a pretty daring musical move to make only two songs in.

And then, re-enter Madonna, political rabble-rouser, the woman we first caught a glimpse of on 2003’s “American Life.” Although she never name-drops on “God Control,” which veers from mournful to hopeful to defiant in the space of its six minutes and 30 seconds, the song is emblazoned with the spirit of anti-Trump. “This is a wake-up call,” she sings under a shimmering strobelight groove, not long after admitting, “I think I understand why people get a gun.” Not that she’s really about to join the right-to-bear-arms troops; as she later raps, “The only gun is in my brain.”

“God Control” sets the primary doom-and-gloomy, politicized lyrical mood of “Madame X.” Her head may be locked and loaded, but that doesn’t mean she’s about to give Michelle Obama a run for her eloquence. Lyrically, Madonna’s political manifestos are no more sophisticated than they were 16 years ago. Her activism may be in the right place, but jejune clichés like “Open your mind” (on “Future”), “Life is a circle” (on “Extreme Occident”) and “Died a thousand times” (on “Rise”) go low when she should be aiming higher.

“Killers Who Are Partying” epitomizes Madonna’s trouble with words. “I know what I am, and I know what I’m not,” she sings, as if all too aware that she’ll be excoriated and nailed to the cross for swerving way outside of her lane with lyrics like “I will be gay, if the gay are burned / I will be Africa, if Africa is shut down / I will be poor, if the poor are humiliated.”

In her defense, it would be a somewhat unfair crucifixion. Madonna wasn’t always a rich, white woman. She came from nothing and triumphed, against all odds, in an industry ruled by predatory alpha males. Just because she now lives in the penthouse doesn’t mean she doesn’t remember what it felt like to be the girl from the gutter, or that she can’t express empathy and solidarity without pity.

Thankfully, the Midas touch of her old collaborator Mirwais still sparkes. He shares “Madame X” production credits with Mike Dean, Diplo, Billboard, Jason Evigan and Jeff Bhasker, and they’ve crafted solid state-of-the-art backdrops for Madonna’s musings. The electro gurgles, worldbeat flourishes and Madonna’s still-effective vocal presence (occasionally courtesy of AutoTune) make these 15 songs sing.

“Madame X” is best, though, not when it goes all CNN on us but when it plays primarily like a musical travelogue, taking us to magical mystical places so fascinating that we might not even notice the stormclouds overhead. The electronic cha-cha swing of “Medellín” sounds like it was sun-kissed on the Cartagena coast before taking the love train south. “Batuka,” one of the album’s highlights, kicks off with Burundi-ish drumming and settles into a tribal rhythm that beats like Paul Simon’s “Graceland” relocated from Africa to South America.

The lyrical conceit of “Killers Who Are Partying” might have stopped it dead in its tracks if it weren’t for the fado flourishes that flutter over it like a ribbon of darkness. No one will ever mistake Madonna for fado legend Amalia Rodrigues, but if she were singing in Portuguese, “Killers” wouldn’t sound so out of place on a Madredeus album. She’s been spending a lot of time in Lisbon, and the Portuguse influence is all over “Madame X.”

She and Brazilian pop superstar Anitta perform “Faz Gostoso” mostly in Anitta’s native tongue, and the reggaeton jam is the best of the album’s five vocal mash-ups. Anitta offers a far more interesting female counterpoint to Madonna than her previous distaff collaborators Britney Spears (on “Me Against the Music”) and Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. (on “Give Me All Your Luvin’”).

Despite frequent forays into foreign languages (Spanish and Portuguese), “Madame X” isn’t all musical exoticism. The white-girl hip-hop of “Crave” wouldn’t sound out of place on Ariana Grande’s latest album, and if it weren’t for the line “I’ll bend my knees for you, like a prayer” (one of several musical nods to the 30-year-old smash), “Crazy” could be a lost J.Lo ballad, which is not a good thing.

“Like a Prayer” is the strongest musical antecedent here, but “Madame X” is packed with meta-Madonna moments. In addition to the lyrical “Prayer” nod on “Crazy,” “God Control” and “Batuka” feature backing choirs right out of the “Prayer” outro, while “Future” quotes “Don’t Tell Me” from 2000’s “Music.” “Extreme Occident” moves the self-referencing inward, chronicling Madonna’s journey from “the far right … to the far left” and “from the Midwest … to the Far East.” It’s a tad clunky, but then the singer’s trajectory has been, too.

Not surprisingly, when introspective Madonna gives in to the dance diva within, “Madame X” is a smoother ride. If pop radio were more hospitable to galloping robo-pop techno punctuated by mariachi horns and sung by women over 50, “Come Alive” might be an anthem of the summer. And for those who miss her confessions on a dance floor, “I Don’t Search, I Find” is pure ’90s disco bliss, the album’s only non-stop party.

But you likely won’t hear any of this playing on a radio near you. That’s what makes “Madame X” Madonna’s best album since “Confessions on a Dance Floor.” She’s confessing again, but this time, she’s not interested in editing herself for mass consumption. “Bitch I’m Loca” she announces on the album’s second Maluma duet (not to be confused with “Bitch I’m Madonna” from “Rebel Heart”). She’s not kidding, and her crazy is an incredible sound.

“Madame X”
Interscope Records

Album Review: Madonna's 'Madame X'

More Music

  • Whoopi Goldberg addresses the crowd while

    Inside World Pride's Opening Ceremony: An LGBTQ Celebration With a Tinge of Politics

    World Pride officially kicked off on Wednesday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. About 8,000 people packed into the arena for a three-hour show that began with Cyndi Lauper singing her hit “True Colors.” The performance ended with a gaggle of dancing drag queens who pranced alongside Lauper as she turned the train of [...]

  • Greyson Chance -Gabby Barrett Alejandro Aranda

    Greyson Chance, 'Idol' Alums Gabby Barrett and Alejandro Aranda Sign Major Label Deals

    Two “American Idol” alumni — Gabby Barrett and Alejandro Aranda — as well as viral star Greyson Chance all announced new major label recording contracts this week. Barrett, who finished in third place of the first season of the rebooted ABC version of “Idol,” has joined the roster of Warner Music Nashville. The singer had [...]

  • BTS World

    BTS World Mobile Game From K-Pop Group Rockets to No. 1 Spot on App Charts Worldwide

    BTS, the biggest K-pop group in the world, now has the biggest app in the world. “BTS World,” a mobile simulation game that lets fans virtually become the South Korean pop stars’ manager, quickly rose to the top of Apple’s App Store charts in multiple countries just hours after its release on Wednesday, June 26. [...]

  • Disney Pandora World Of Avatar, Lake

    The Piano Guys Play 'Avatar' Theme in Disney World (Watch)

    The YouTube sensation The Piano Guys have taken a trip to the world of Pandora for a performance of the theme to “Avatar.” Shot in the bioluminescent floating forest in Disney World, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson and pianist Jon Schmidt put their spin on the score to James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster. The video immerses the [...]

  • usa, california, palm springs, windmills san

    Agua Caliente, Oak View Group Partner to Build New Arena in Palm Springs

    A new sports and entertainment arena is coming to downtown Palm Springs. Today it was announced that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and Oak View Group (OVG) will partner to build a new state-of-the-art sports and live entertainment venue. Live Nation Entertainment also boards as a strategic partner. The venue’s capacity will seat at [...]

  • MadonnaThe Costume Institute Benefit celebrating the

    Madonna Revives Nightmarish Imagery of Orlando Nightclub Massacre in New Music Video

    Any thoughts that Madonna’s provocative streak might be taking a time-out in 2019 were put to a halt with her release Wednesday of a new music video for her song “God Control,” which portrays a bloody massacre in a nightclub and is peppered with slogans advocating for gun control. Filmed by director Jonas Åkerlund largely in [...]

  • Miley Cyrus

    Miley Cyrus Teases 'Charlie's Angels' Collaboration with Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey

    Three of the biggest female pop stars have joined forces in a new song for the Elizabeth Banks-directed reboot of “Charlie’s Angels.” In a tweet posted Wednesday, Miley Cyrus hinted at a collaboration between herself, Lana Del Rey, and Ariana Grande in the forthcoming film. Alongside a 14-second teaser, originally posted by Sony Pictures, the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content