It’s been a long, hard road for Rebel Heart. A mid-December leak of thirteen early demos sent Madonna and UMG into panic mode and resulted in the early release of six tracks including lead single “Living For Love.” Her subsequent comments on the leak as “artistic rape” and “a form of terrorism” were received none too kindly in light of the then-recent Sydney hostage crisis. The worst part, however, was that none of those events were the worst part.
Madonna’s crap luck hit its zenith last month at the Brit Awards during a performance of “Living for Love.” No need to rehash the dirty details; her painful onstage fall was everywhere instantly, wracking up 13 million loops on Vine. Its viral nature smacks of a complex voyeurism given her superstar status, but we’ll save that for another day.
Enough about things besides the music. Rebel Heart opens with “Living for Love,” which is everything a Madonna album opener can and should be. She sticks to her proven formula – female empowerment à la “Express Yourself,” irresistible beat à la “Hung Up,” classic diva in red lipstick attitude over whatever genre is most popular at the moment (see: EDM, specifically house and dubstep) – and it works.
There is plenty more to love after track one. Producer Avicii’s fingerprints are all over the acoustic strums of the marvelous “Devil Pray.” “Beautiful Scars” is a sugary sweet Europop throwback, while tunefully vulnerable “Joan of Arc” proves rebel hearts break too. Nicki Minaj’s killer verse on “Bitch I’m Madonna” makes you wonder if the song should actually be titled “Bitch I’m Nicki.” “Holy Water” is fearless in spite of its flaws, and the sex-as-religion lyrics (this is Madonna, after all) make “Like A Virgin” sound wholesome by comparison. Who knew that was even possible?
Unfortunately, a fair portion of Rebel Heart can only be responded to with “Really?” Madonna spends the Kanye West-produced “Illuminati” name-dropping all the celebrities not enrolled in the New World Order, as though that will suddenly convince YouTube commenters to stop claiming Katy Perry is a puppet. First rule of the Internet: don’t feed the trolls. Madonna addendum: don’t feed the trolls with a forgettable song.
More duds: “Iconic” offers a spelling lesson in the chorus (“I can / Icon / Two letters apart”). Try not to laugh. “S.E.X.” is basically The Talk, Madonna’s kink edition. It’s uncomfortable, but at least she makes you dance as she makes it weird.
Rebel Heart may not erase the undesirable circumstances preceding its release, but it does make a case in favor of the decent and unmistakably Madonna music coming first. Its legacy will no doubt involve the leak and the subsequent rush-release, though neither of these detract from the work itself. Many of the best albums ever are steeped in uncertain or unconventional circumstances – In Rainbows, The Beatles, and Rumours come to mind. Rebel Heart will most likely not achieve that level of immortality, but the album proves more interesting (or perhaps just ironic, given its theme of triumphing over setbacks) within the context of its own struggles.