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Since her last truly notable album, 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madonna’s records have suffered an uncharacteristic degree of uncertainty. Musical trends have been chased rather than assimilated. She has tried to project both vulnerability and indomitability. The best-selling female performer in pop history has lost her old aura of invincibility and come to seem fallible.
Against this backdrop, Madame X strikes a defiant note. “I’ve got the right to choose my own life,” she announces. While it is hard to imagine anyone depriving one of the wealthiest women in US music of that right, at least she exercises it boldly on her 14th album. Although it has a scattershot quality, the scattering is done with a devil-may-care bravado.
There is a prominent Latin influence to the music, partly derived from the singer relocating to Lisbon so her son, David, could pursue a football career. Several songs find her singing in Portuguese, and there is the occasional hint of fado amid the contemporary pop production. “Batuka” ditches chart music entirely in favour of a traditional style from the Cape Verde Islands, a former Portuguese colony, in which Madonna and a choir warn of “a storm ahead” over an insistent percussive groove.
Other Latin-influenced songs coincide with current pop trends, genres such as reggaetón having crossed over into non-Spanish-speaking markets in recent years. “Medellín” and “Bitch I’m Loca” pair her with Colombian singer Maluma: both achieve an entertaining union between her and his musical worlds. There is a well-worked dancehall flavour to “Future”, in which she is joined by Quavo, a member of rap group Migos, while a duet with another US rapper, Swae Lee, has a sweetly understated feel.
The album’s main producer is Mirwais Ahmadzaï, who contributed to Confessions on a Dance Floor and co-produced 2000’s Music and 2003’s American Life. He helms the house-music track “I Don’t Search I Find”, a throwback to the days when Madonna’s musical choices followed a clearer, more certain path. “Dark Ballet”, which Mirwais has also produced, shows how far she has strayed from that path.
The song illustrates the confusing concept behind Madame X, whose title, according to Madonna, refers to a multi-dimensional alter ego: “Madame X is a secret agent. Travelling around the world. Changing identities. Fighting for freedom,” and so on. In “Dark Ballet”, this chameleonic character sketch translates into eccentric musical segues between classical piano and Kraftwerk-style electronic pop, with Madonna singing about how “I can dress like a boy, I can dress like a girl”. No, me neither.
Trying to be something to everyone has been Madonna’s Achilles heel over the past decade. During the odder moments of Madame X, she actively flaunts that heel, as with the universalising phrases uttered in “Killers Who Are Partying” (“I will be poor if the poor are humiliated . . . I will be Islam if Islam is hated”). These tracks bring a disjointed feel to the album, but also an unfettered and expansive sensibility. That is the “X” factor that elevates it above its immediate predecessors.
‘Madame X’ is released on June 14 on Live Nation/Interscope/Maverick
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