Album Review: Madonna’s ‘Madame X’ Pushes The Boundaries Of Pop
Madame X is a radical body of work, but perhaps not in the way Madonna intended. She rails against injustice and oppression with the fervor of a preacher, imbuing the album with a righteousness that is palpable. As brave and commendable as that is, the Queen of Pop’s musical missives lack nuance. Rather, it’s her complete defiance of genre that makes Madame X genuinely groundbreaking.
From the promo video that announced the era, we know that Madame X is, among other things, a nun and an equestrian. She can also add sane scientist to her resume. The pop icon concocts a collection of songs that blend reggaeton, dancehall, pop, hip-hop, afrobeat and fado — all without losing sight of her mission. As the living legend knows better than most, music makes the people come together. And she’s determined to forge unity and resistance, one pop-hybrid at a time.
In some ways, Madame X can be divided into two parts. In one column, there are the wildly experimental, often politically-charged anthems produced by Mirwais. In the other, we’re treated to more accessible pop offerings largely crafted by Mike Dean and Billboard. They are both equally compelling, but the former has proven to be more polarizing. Which, I suspect, would please Madonna no end. After all, her track record with Mirwais is as eclectic as it is immaculate. Together, they have created everything from radio hits to electro-pop oddities like “Impressive Instant” and “X-Static Process.”
The collaborators obviously share a passion for stretching the boundaries of pop, and that trend continues on Madame X. Take the album’s lead single. “Medellín,” a dreamy duet with Maluma, was met with mild confusion upon release. (Few expected Madonna to return with a five-minute, bilingual bop about a Colombian city). Amusingly, it turns out to be one of the record’s most accessible cuts. The track’s quirks are offset by a plethora of hooks and an unabashed romanticism that is disarming.
A more daring, equally successful experiment is “God Control.” An instant fan favorite, this might be the only song in existence that addresses gun control and youth unemployment over disco beats. It’s sprawling and perhaps unnecessarily baroque, but it burns with ambitious and anger. And still manages to be pop. A quality that “Dark Ballet” is lacking. Instead, the oddball anthem offers a little Tchaikovsky, heavily-distorted vocals and a scathing sermon on the state of humanity. It’s a little heavy-handed, but nonetheless mesmerizing.
Less successful are cuts like “I Don’t Search I Find” and “Extreme Occident,” which don’t propel Madonna’s moral agenda forward, or work as straightforward pop songs. They do, however, offer a degree of self-reflection, and tell you more about the enduring hitmaker’s relationship with Father Time than that bogus New York Times profile. The same can not be said for “Killers Who Are Partying,” which finds our heroine exclaiming platitudes over an admittedly lovely, fado-inspired arrangement. The intention is as admirable as the execution is ham-fisted.
Mirwais and Madonna truly excel, however, when they are showcasing another aspect of Madame X. Namely, that she is a student and world traveller. “Batuka” is a plea for change that (successfully) combines a choir, African instruments and a Portuguese drum collective. It’s dynamic and utterly compelling. That description also applies to bonus tracks “Ciao Bella” and “Funana.” The former finds Madonna at her most playful and fun, while the latter is a rush of pure energy. There are a couple of frivolous, world music-inspired bops on Madame X. Unfortunately, they are hidden on Disc 2 of the deluxe edition.
The rest of the album is less experimental, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Crave” stood out as the best buzz track from Madame X and it still ranks as the only cut that really caters for radio. The production, courtesy of Mike Dean and Billboard, is on-trend and Swae Lee adds a hip-hop sensibility that makes it accessible to an even wider audience. The producers work similar magic on “Faz Gostoso” featuring Anitta. It’s actually a cover of a 2017 hit by BLAYA, but there’s nothing dated about this explosion of dance beats and sexy lyrics.
Another highlight is “Come Alive.” Co-written by Starrah (one of seven songs she contributed to the album), the hip-hop-tinged bop boasts one the most instant choruses on Madame X. The involvement of Jeff Bhasker (Beyonce’s 4) is strongly felt on the lush, horns-filled production. He also had a hand in the excellent “Looking For Mercy.” It’s not a coincidence that Madonna introduced Rebel Heart with a song called “Living For Love.” This is a bookend of sorts. Instead of the outward search for companionship, the hitmaker is now focussed on her relationship with God. Wisdom is in short supply in pop music, but this is brimming with it.
While there’s an urban sheen to many of the songs not produced by Mirwais, world music is still very much front and center. Take the Latin-pop fusion that is “Crazy.” In another artist’s hands this would be surefire radio fodder, but Madame X makes it a culture-bridging banger. And then, there’s the hilarious “Bitch I’m Loca,” which is best described as a (low-brow) sequel to “Medellín.” I also recommend hunting down “Back That Up To The Beat.” It’s yet another gem tucked away on Disc 2 that mashes everything from euro-dance to ’90s R&B. Pharrell really stepped outside his comfort zone on this one.
Again, this half of Madame X falters ever so slightly when it becomes political. Album-closer “I Rise” is well-intentioned, but it didn’t need a children’s choir to bludgeon the point home. “Future,” a dancehall-lite collaboration with Quavo, is no less subtle in its messaging or execution. The latter also highlight’s Madonna’s heavy use of autotune, which begins to feel a little overdone as the record enters the home stretch. It should be noted that while the Queen of Pop addresses the bigger picture like never before on Madame X, she also looks inward.
In many ways, Madame X is Madonna’s most personal album to date. She’s speaking her truth, while revealing more of herself than ever. It might not be the collection of bangers you want, but it’s what we, as a society, need. The fact that she can stoke the flames of rebellion in a way that is original, vulnerable and inclusive (in the truest sense of the word) is a pop miracle. But, then again, Madonna has been rewriting the rule book since 1982. And she isn’t going to stop any time soon.