It's a surprisingly honest, if musically uneven, album from the Queen of Pop.
No one was asking for a Madonna murder ballad, but there one is, a mere two tracks into her 12th album. Five and half minutes long, riding menacing bass pulse worthy of Nine Inch Nails, speckled with clanking percussion and gunfire, "Gang Bang" gives us the Queen of Pop in revenge mode, fantasizing about shooting a lover in the head and then voyaging to hell to shoot him again. The beat dies, a wubwubing dubstep thunderstorm erupts, the cops arrive, and Madonna just gets more pissed. "If you're going to act like a bitch," she cackles—there's another gunshot—"then you're going to die like a bitch."
Well, then. So much for the "World Peace" message she left us with at the end of her Super-Bowl halftime performance this year. Then again, it was never the right message for Madonna, pop music's most excellent conflict-causer for three decades now. When she reemerged into the spotlight at the beginning of 2012, she was in full provocateur mode, sniffing that Lady Gaga's music was a mere "reductive" knockoff of her own material, tossing antifeminist insults at Ricky Gervais during the Golden Globes, and releasing a track list replete with click bait titles like "Girl Gone Wild" and, well, "Gang Bang." She was reminding people not only that she was back, not only of her staggering rap sheet of hits, and not only that she started this whole game that Gaga, Rihanna, Perry, Ke$ha, Britney et. al. have been making so much money playing. She was reminding that more than any of those new-nice upstarts, Madonna's edge is that she has edge.
MDNA, out today, is a strange, asymmetrical, halfway successful album. Its strength is in how it shows Madonna—she of cartoonishly meticulous self-presentation: toned arms, put-on accent, and vanity film projects—as shitty, worn out, and human as anyone. In pop now, this is almost radical. Gaga trades her humanity for symbol-rich otherness, Perry and Spear affect just enough character to be memorable, and Ke$ha inflates her own personality to achieve her drunken Superwoman shtick. Perhaps not quite intuitively, Rihanna stands as the most Madonna-esque for the way she scares parents and trades on her supposed personal life for attention, but stunts like pairing with Chris Brown are just that: stunts. Meanwhile, "Gang Bang" camp and track titles aside, MDNA features little self-conscious provocation, which is the second-most surprising thing about it. The first? That it makes the argument for Madonna as the most honest dance-pop diva we have.
The music is huge, and some of it good. The factory-ordered club fizz of "Girl Gone Wild," though, opens things inauspiciously, making it appear as if MDNA will be entirely about chasing last year's chart trends. But then the Material Girl goes actually wild in her dancefloor aspirations with a one-two followup: the aforementioned robotic revenge tale "Gang Bang," and the spider-web synths and cascading choruses of "I'm Addicted," which takes the love-as-drug cliche and embodies the icky rush that the cliche suggests. It's not till the eighth track, though, that MDNA delivers its biggest jaw-dropper. Producer Martin Solveig opens "I Don't Give A" with some chintzy '80s FM funk guitaring, and then Madonna starts rapping: "Wake up, ex wife, this is your life." It's a narration of the her daily routine in the wake of her 2008 divorce with Guy Ritchie—the way she hustles about with her kids, meets with managers, forgets to say her prayers, and can't escape recurring guilt about her failed marriage. It's a fun, fun song that also, in its specificity, feels true. Rarely do pop stars as high gloss as this one so convincingly reveal their inner lives to be a mess.
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Elsewhere, Madonna and her producers move away from the dancefloor and into football-game bleachers ("Give Me All Your Luvin'," "B-Day Song"), gaggy ballad territory ("Masterpiece," "Falling Free"), and warm, mid-tempo electro pop ("Turn Up the Radio," "Love Spent"). But appearing throughout are coulda/shouldas about what happened with Ritchie. Even when she turns psycho, as on "Gang Bang," she spends less time slinging vindictive kiss-offs and self-empowering slogans than she does questioning her own culpability.
Maybe this is why the lead single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'," has failed on the charts: It's peppy, but, lately, Madonna isn't. The song's speaking-and-spelling cheerleader choruses feel put-on and fakey. Ditto for "B-Day Song," a bonus track featuring M.I.A. that might just be ironic in its sunniness: "I'm a happy girl" Madonna insists over and over. But with an album title like MDNA—a nod to club drugs and to the idea that here we have Madonna at her Madonna-est—even the dumbly smiling radio grabs feel like noble failures. Guilt's been with Madonna since before her "Like a Prayer" days, and so has the idea of pop music as escape from it. "World peace" was indeed the wrong slogan for her. The kind of serenity she's really after is personal.