The thing with Madonna is you can’t compare any of her releases. With each of her album cycles, she reinvents herself. Another time, another place. Another sound, another story.
So when the Queen of Pop, 60, unveiled her latest alter ego, an eyepatch-wearing, self-described “secret agent” she dubbed Madame X, fans didn’t even bat an eye. The woman who gave us “Everybody,” “Vogue” and “Hung Up” was suddenly so far in the past that she became an enigma.
To kick off her wonderfully weird 14th studio album, also titled Madame X (out now), Madonna chants in a whisper-like tone: “One, two, cha cha cha.” The track, named “Medellín” after the Colombian city where featured artist Maluma hails from, finds the pop veteran trading sensual, Spanglish verses with the Latin superstar. “Slow down, papi,” she begs at one point. The single’s breezy and summery vibe almost makes it feel like a subdued sequel to 1987‘s “La Isla Bonita” — that is, until you remember the old Madge is practically dead and gone by now (and probably hanging out with the old Taylor somewhere).
The album only gets stranger from there. “Dark Ballet” starts off simple, with just a piano and Madonna’s Auto-Tuned voice. From there, it builds into a dark, glitchy number centered around a sample of The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes” and a monologue about naïveté.
Up next, “God Control” finds the lady of the hour sing-rapping, “People think that I’m insane / The only gun is in my brain / Each new birth, it gives me hope / That’s why I don’t smoke that dope.” After the initial “huh?”, it becomes clear as day that the disco-inflected, politically driven, six-and-a-half-minute tune is the real pièce de résistance here. It is Madonna’s most daring and epic effort since 2012’s “Gang Bang.”
Like many of the pop star’s most recent albums, namely 2012’s MDNA and 2015’s Rebel Heart, Madame X has some filler. The Quavo-assisted “Future” and the monotonous deluxe edition cut “Extreme Occident” are forgettable, and the way Madonna tries to align herself with marginalized people on “Killers Who Are Partying” is a tad awkward given she is a global megastar and has been for quite some time.
But she means well, and fortunately, the album’s highlights are aplenty. “Batuka” is a banger (literally) from the beginning with a steady drumbeat, backed by a call-and-response featuring women from the islands of Cabo Verde. “Crave” with Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd and “Crazy” have potential to be stadium sing-alongs should they make it onto Madonna’s live setlists, and the playful “Bitch I’m Loca,” another Maluma collaboration, is a strong contender for the song of the summer. And who could forget “I Don’t Search I Find,” one of the fiercest ‘90s dance songs she has made since, well, the ‘90s?
In all, Madame X is a mysterious, albeit occasionally jarring, musical statement unlike anything Madonna has ever done before. And, plain and simple, that’s why she remains the biggest risk-taker in the industry 36 years later.