For many years, Madonna avoided the Internet like gluten. But in December, the Internet decided to stop waiting for Madonna, and everything went wrong: Her music was stolen and leaked; her hasty, emotional responses on Instagram used terms like “rape” and “terrorism,” provoking (you guessed it) Internet outrage. Her swift solution was to put six songs online immediately, with a promise that 13 more would follow in March. But some of those 13 new songs have turned what might have been a modern-day pop treasure into a diamond struggling to escape the rough.
Rebel Heart is a long, passionate, self-referential meditation on losing love and finding purpose in chilling times. It’s also a chance for the Queen of Pop to floss a bit and reflect on how she painstakingly carved a path others have happily twerked down in the years since her 1983 debut. The über-fit 56-year-old star gleefully enunciates “bitch” on the refreshing, reggae-tinged “Unapologetic Bitch” and the frenetic, Nicki Minaj-assisted “Bitch I’m Madonna,” both featuring Diplo’s ear-tingling airhorn blasts. She quotes herself on three songs, calling back to iconic passages from “Vogue” and “Justify My Love” before whisper-rapping about her past hits in “Veni Vidi Vici.”
The album opens with another kind of flashback — the classic-sounding house jam “Living for Love,” a buoyant song about moving on after a breakup. The stellar “HeartBreakCity,” meanwhile, is a dramatic plunge into post-relationship hell. The singer grappled with her divorce from Guy Ritchie on her past two albums, but now that she’s back on the market, there are new fools to smack down.
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Her co-pilots this time aren’t the electro mavens who assisted on 2012’s glossy MDNA nor the pop titans who lent a hand on 2008’s dancier Hard Candy — they’re trendier talents like Blood Diamonds and established hitmakers like Kanye West. Sometimes these collaborations gel perfectly, like on “Illuminati,” West’s grimy take on the Internet’s favorite conspiracy theory, and “Devil Pray,” where Avicii helps Madonna revive the strums-and-beats vibe of 2000’s Music. And Minaj’s verse on “Bitch I’m Madonna” is pure fire.
Unfortunately, cameos from Nas, Chance the Rapper and Mike Tyson don’t elevate their respective songs. And Madonna lets her own appetite for over-the-top sex songs run wild on a handful of cringy tracks like “Holy Water” (an ode to oral sex featuring the unfortunate line “Yeezus loves my pussy best”) and “S.E.X.,” which spells out an unconventional list of bedroom aids including “chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair.”
The album is at its strongest when Madonna shoves everyone to the side and just tells it to us straight. So it’s fitting that she wraps up the deluxe edition with the title track, recalling how she went from weird kid to narcissist to spiritual thinker over Avicii’s bright, orchestrated production. Deep down, Madonna does have a rebel heart — and you can’t fault her for reminding us that pop music is all the better for it.