Madonna was in Africa in late November, visiting schools built by her Raising Malawi nonprofit, when the first leak hit the Web: 40 seconds of "Rebel Heart," a defiant, dance-y track she had recently been working on. Three weeks later, the leak became a flood. Madonna was back in New York on December 17th, when fans started alerting her via Instagram that 13 demos recorded for her unfinished 13th album, also called Rebel Heart, had been illegally posted online and were spreading like wildfire.
It was an unprecedented leak: Nearly a full album's worth of work arrived four months before its planned April release date. "She was devastated," the singer's longtime manager Guy Oseary says.
Madonna's response was swift and dramatic: She decided she would complete six tracks and get them up for sale on iTunes as soon as possible. The songs leaked on a Tuesday; they needed to be online by Friday if fans were going to buy them before 2015. "The deadline for getting this music out was a 50-yard dash," Madonna says. Some in her camp urged her to not rush out the songs, but she insisted. "Starting Wednesday, it was like, 'You've got to get this music out – I can't take it,' " adds Oseary. "What could we do? You've got to just battle through it."
With most of Apple about to go on holiday break, the challenge wasn't simply mixing and mastering the tracks to Madonna's satisfaction, but getting them loaded into the iTunes store, which can be a laborious process. (Oseary, who also manages U2, worked closely with Apple on the surprise release of U2's Songs of Innocence last September.)
Madonna and her team worked for nearly 72 straight hours to make it happen, getting key help from Interscope's Steve Berman and iTunes' Robert Kondrk. She didn't learn until 11:30 p.m. Friday that the finished songs were indeed going to reach fans before the new year. But the payoff was immediate: The songs, which Madonna called "an early Christmas gift," shot to the top of the music service's charts in 42 countries. "The fans are extremely loyal," she says, "and I'm really supergrateful for that." (The full 19-track album now has a March 9th release date.) "Every time a country would tweet about getting it, it put a smile on my face, because it meant it was working," Oseary says of the iTunes rollout.
No one in Madonna's camp will say who was responsible for the leaks, but Oseary says security has been tightened. "We figured out the holes," he says. "Clearly, we have experience now in what to do and what not to do in the future." (On December 23rd, however, several days after we spoke, 14 additional demos leaked online.)
Madonna started work on the follow-up to 2012's Number One MDNA early last year. From the start, she was focused on one thing in particular: making the songs stand on their own. Throughout the sessions, Madonna would ask herself if she could perform each track stripped down, alone with an acoustic guitar. "This is all part of my Armageddon thinking right now," she says. "The world is changing and what does it all come down to at the end of the day? It comes down to the songs."
The first step was finding the right collaborators. For years, she used to work with only one producer on her albums, but that hasn't been the case since 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor. For Rebel Heart, she again worked with an array of stars, including Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper and Nas, often posting photos of the sessions on Instagram. "Writing music, you have to be vulnerable," she says. "It's almost like writing your diary in front of somebody and reading it out loud. Some people made me feel comfortable and I felt connected to them, and other people seemed very strange to me."
Minaj, who turns out a ferocious rap on "Bitch I'm Madonna," was again one of her most in-sync creative partners, having also appeared on MDNA. "Whenever we work together, she sits with me and listens to the song and says, 'Tell me what this song is about to you,' " Madonna says. "She's very methodical in her thinking. It's a back-and-forth until she gets it right."
Madonna says she found herself drawn to Diplo, who worked on a handful of tracks, thanks to their shared love of globe-trotting and "absorbing and seeing the beauty in other cultures." Several up-and-coming producers made key contributions as well, like Blood Diamonds and DJ Dahi, who worked on the ominous "Devil Pray."
The biggest guest was one of the last to arrive to the party: Kanye West came in near the end of the sessions to provide the grimy production for "Illuminati," a track that plays with one of the Internet's favorite conspiracy theories. "People often accuse me of being a member of the Illuminati, but the thing is, I know who the real Illuminati are and I know where that word comes from," Madonna says. (Her definition: scientists, artists and philosophers who flourished during the Age of Enlightenment.) She says West loved the song so much, he actually jumped up and down on the mixing board: "We were worried he was going to hit his head on the ceiling."
Her first sessions with two groups of songwriters from Avicii's camp wound up guiding her to two distinct thematic paths: songs about letting her heart steer the way and tracks about her stubbornly rebellious spirit. "I never consciously think, 'I want to write a song about this subject' – music leads me to where I want to go emotionally," Madonna says. "One team had a more upbeat approach to songwriting, sonically speaking, and the other team chose darker chords."
While MDNA was widely considered Madonna's "breakup album" (she had divorced British director Guy Ritchie in 2008), she dives headfirst back into personal territory on Rebel Heart, writing about triumph after heartbreak on "Living for Love," a buoyant throwback house track produced by Diplo.
"Lots of people sing about being in love and being happy, or they write about having a broken heart and being inconsolable," Madonna says. "But nobody writes about having a broken heart and being hopeful and triumphant afterward. That was my challenge. I didn't want to be a victim."