Liner Notes: The Duplicity Of Madonna & Her 'Rebel Heart'

Depending on who you ask, her notorious uninhibited and uncensored behavior is either inspirational or detrimental. The raw materials made of legends or the caffeinated confections of narcissistic bigots and thirsty stunt queens. Pick any poison, pick the red or blue pill, but these conflations, this notorious sword fight between Madonna's persona on wax vs. how she riffs off the cuff when the spotlight is turned on is what has made her such a fascination and, at times, abhorrent public deity for over 30+ years.

Her controversies, no doubt, have attempted to outweigh the soundtrack that she has provided for a impressionable generation. This was the intent as so stated in her 1990's Truth Or Dare documentary, She wanted to "push as many people's buttons" as she could, and she's succeeded in that vein. Yet, she's always had more parts to her sum than what most people want to admit.

Rebel Heart embodies these conflicting facets. On one end she is "rebel" rousing, hands akimbo, boasting about being the Baddest Bitch in town, the ultimate unapologetic vixen ready to kiss the little boy toys and make them cry. On the other, she sheds this skin and curls into a warm vulnerability, reflecting on these frayed edges, attempting to get to the "heart" of the matter. This is nothing new for devoted listeners as most of Madonna's catalog can be sliced down the middle with these deflections, but it took till album #14 for Madonna for her to fully roll out this notion in album title and theme alone. Still, this conflict hampers how it should be listened to, because these two halves are competing with each other, a compromise is never met.

Granted, this is what makes Rebel Heart an interesting set, and a noted gem in her pop queen crown, but nobody is listening, or rather they've gotten tired of listening as she extends her narrative at being completely music's most uninhabited chameleon once more.

Let's stop avoiding the obvious --- Madonna has been in 'identity crisis' mode, for some time. There was little applause for her last efforts as the crunch of 2008's Hard Candy broke teeth at her gall to recruit Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell as producing soothsayers, and 2012's MDNA while culling some stellar ideas ("Love Spent" and "Falling Free") still proved feeble upon returning listens. With its trappy hip-hop beats and acoustic strums, Rebel Heart does attempt to figure out how to rim around her being an elderstatesman in Pop, while still trying to remain the impacting self she's always been. The duel is an evident one, and one that Madonna draws all swords on.

With Diplo, Avicii and Kanye West as some of the prolific names on the production roster, Madonna grinds gears to revisit sound themes from her past as intro single, "Living For Love" throws back and hooks onto its '90s-House fervor, edging into the iconic zones of some of her best dance anthems such as "Express Yourself", "Vogue", and the less-lauded, "Rescue Me". It's a stellar pop single that straddles her past and present with electric precision, marking a peerless turn to form. Other digital get-down, the euphoric dance of "Hold Tight" also provide Madonna room to get into the groove, but still "Living For Love" is comfort food for those who prefer Madge when she's confessing on the dancefloor.

Though she doesn't extend a balmy soul apology note like Bedtime Stories did, she does turn the mirror back on herself, flexing bittersweet tomes that ring with honesty and integrity as she laments about how the media treats her on the stalwart, "Joan Of Arc" and is beautifully fragile and romantic on the sweeping "Ghosttown", and they are easily the best lyrical moments she's done in years. So much so that I'll even forgive her for her doing a zany tango with Terrence Howard as she cops Stevie Nicks' witchy-poo look in the dystopian-flavored visual for the latter.

Religious imagery still abounds as Madonna grapples like the ex-Catholic she is, and sometimes she's crass like on "Holy Water" (it's baffling that it took her 20+ years to describe pussy juice as such...) and other times she falls in line with the spiritual awakenings of the Ray Of Light-era, heard on "Wash All Over Me" and "Inside Out". Highlight, the cunning "Devil Pray" goes into a trance of electronic folk as it rattles off narcotic consumption as it bewitches into a Gothic spin that feels inspired, not trivial. But it's jarring when the title track (a bonus cut on the extended version) beams down and bats its eyelashes, but I must remember Madonna is a sly one, her sweetness is always so fleeting even if it was there resting in the fringes all along.

At times Madonna does preen a bit too long the mirror as she takes too many duckface Instagram selfies when she frolics into the Nicki Minaj-assisted, flagrant foul of "Bitch, I'm Madonna" (as if we didn't know...) or guzzles down a low fat No Doubt rock steady snack on the fun, but vapid, "Unapologetic Bitch". The odd inclusion of Mike Tyson, with Chance The Rapper in an uninspiring flow diverts from the actual message Madonna is spreading on "Iconic" which doesn't boast so haughtily, and seems almost poignant, but once again it's crushed by terrible production, proving the track unnecessary. As much as I love a good arrogant jam to chew and spit out, Madonna's reaffirming anthems are usually always better for her, than they are for me.

Even at times of lackluster and distraction, Madonna still has that knack for grabbing pop music by the lapels, making love to it and then throwing it out on its ass when it's not doing what she wants it to do. She attempts to olive branch her way into the future, as the Eastern-flavored "Body Shop" proves that when Madonna wades in laughable sexual innuendo's, the song's beauty is still able to peek through as it sounds playful and coy, frothing in sudsy guitars and coming off less coarse than the Willy Wonka boat ride of horrors that "Candy Shop" was.

She surprisingly gets the balance right when it comes to spiking her pop with trap-hip-hop on the comical, "Illuminati", as Kanye West gives her the Yeezus treatment complete with bells, whistles, and a flow that scoffs now at the foppish "American Life" rap. When Madonna can poke fun at herself she always comes out the winner.

What most won't tell you is that there is a good album in Rebel Heart. There are moments where she actually comes back to form, stops chasing her youth and really comes through with honestly crafted material that branches her out, but once again, Madonna herself just stands in the way of all that this album could and does embody. That's her usual problem. She's often playing the manic ambulance chasing lawyer, the car salesman foaming at the mouth for you to buy!buy!buy! no matter the lemon put out in front of you, persuading with flashy gimmicks and confusing you on if you should fully invest or back the fuck away from it.

The Rebel Heart era positions itself in a similar scenario of what happened with the carnal roll-out of Madonna's 1992 sexual opus, Erotica. The damage the titillating coffee table tome that featured Madonna in curious poses with Vanilla Ice and Isabella Rossellini did to that album was abysmal, and really wasn't anybody's fault but Madonna once again cramming too much into the little bag that is her ego. Rebel Heart in all of its 14 tracks (25 if you get the deluxe version; 30+ if you got the colossal leaked demo version) talks a better game than what is rolling off of Madonna's tongue and reflecting off the sequins of her mesh Moschino shorts at current.

Lest we forget, some of Rebel Heart's clunky reception was not of Madonna's control.

Rebel Heart was meant to be two separate projects, "the rebel" and "the heart" explored in 2-disc glory, yet someone had to ruin the fun by unfairly unveiling a music project before its ripening. This a disrespect no doubt to a musician who (contrary to popular belief) takes the molding and shaping of her albums with serious intent. No Madonna album had ever been a Choose Your Own Adventure affair before. Only Madonna can make a Madonna album. But now the damage was done as three "official" versions of Rebel Heart continue to float around, with the rest being re-sequenced and re-fashioned by fans who didn't get the complete album they were vying for. Not surprisingly this intrusion sent Madonna reeling, and to make the best out of a messy situation, she nicely gifted fans with a preview of the album's first six songs before the calendar dates rolled up over 2014.

Then again Madonna's piss-poor choices at promotion for Rebel Heart also turned-off whatever momentum and relevance this album could have in the interim.

After years of tone-deaf comments and stunts, people wanted her to fail, and were gleeful to do it. They guffawed when she took an embarrassing tumble at the BRIT Awards. They rolled their eyes when she signed the Declaration of Arrogance to join The Cult of TIDAL and in one of the most self-serving PR stunts in music history. They gagged when she played the succubus and "drained the life" out of DrakeWho could blame them, really? Madonna made herself an easy target, played right into the media's narrative of marking her a Granny Smith of Pop as she attempted to befriend all the young children of pop, to make sure her relevancy stuck. '90s era Madonna would never --- she was too busy trying to take up all the oxygen in the room and we can't have any other divas breathe remember?

While some fans see it as Madonna stupendously trolling a new generation, others like me, see it as her wearing out that unapologetic card to tatters as she fleshed out the promotion with migraine inducing comments equating ageism to racism, while being disrespectful to peace leaders like Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa by photoshopping 'rebel heart' bondage art over their faces. 

It's not that Madonna should be docile or mute --- that has never been her style --- and to harp on her eccentricities has me going against the feminist code of allowing women the agency to not give zero fucks, yet, this fight to keep age at bay, this showy 'I'm-not-a-regular-mom' wink is because Madonna really doesn't have to break a sweat to be the coolest mama in pop. Women in music, especially pop music, are rarely granted the luxury to retain relevancy for long. Old cool coots like David Bowie and Paul McCartney don't get the heat, and as long in tooth as Jay Z looks running next to Beyonce, we still manage to revere him at the end of the day. The double standards is what makes me side with Madonna every single time, even when she's a walking and talking headdesk.gif.

Madonna is known for being the Queen of Re-Invention, someone who has dabbed at the sticky liquid of pop culture and soaked it all up, twisting and ringing it out into her own brew. At times her re-invention comes at a price to others (her constant appropriation of Black culture is most glaring), and in current years she's been courting the trends over creating them on her own, this is my issue --- not her age, but her staleness and lack of not being able to just be, to not know that she is enough.

For that, Rebel Heart is best enjoyed when you ignore the frills, step over the media messiness, and take the gimmicks with boulders of salt as you unfold the still glimmering facets of Madonna, one layer at a time.

Rebel Heart is available for purchase and download via iTunes, and available for streaming via Spotify
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