Album review: Madonna, “Madame X”
Simply put: “Madame X” is… fine. At this point, that feels tantamount to glowing praise after suffering through a trio of erratic releases from Madonna in recent years that often felt like aggressive and awkward grasps for relevance and edginess in a crowded musical landscape. We can’t relive the past, and we certainly can’t expect Madonna to either, but “Hard Candy,” “MDNA” and “Rebel Heart” all failed to capture the magic and artistic cohesion that made “Confessions on a Dance Floor” her last truly noteworthy release. If that sounds harsh, it is, but even Madonna herself seems to have been frustrated with the album creation process for years, so it’s not wholly without warrant.
The problem is that Madonna has done it all; she has pushed buttons and boundaries her entire career, and at this point, we’ve doomed ourselves to disappointment no matter what she does. She’s damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t, and it’s all our fault.
Luckily she knows this — and she doesn’t give a shit. Fuck your expectations. After four years away, it seems that Madonna is reestablishing her voice as an artist in some ways— and forsaking anyone’s notions of how to be a Pop Star in 2019. Often dark and self aware, and at times interspersed with jarring changes in tone, “Madame X” is, perhaps, exactly what you might expect from someone who has spent nearly 40 years constantly evolving, experimenting, and living out loud as a musician.
The music on “Madame X” is clearly inspired by Madonna’s world travels, and it works more often than not. In the buzz leading up to its release, there were worries that it would be one big practice in cultural appropriation, a critique that certainly wouldn’t be new to Madonna. “Batuka” especially, with its beat and chanting chorus, is just a little too obvious, and M’s highly AutoTuned vocals are a puzzling companion to the otherwise earthy track. Then she switches gears, and “Killers Who Are Partying” makes Madonna’s case (or is it Madame X singing here?) for toying with worldliness and ever-changing personas in the name of allyship and standing up for persecuted peoples. The track opens, quite literally, with the words “I will be gay, if the gay are burned/I’ll be Africa, if Africa is shut down.” This is Madonna at her most obvious, spelling it out for anyone questioning who she is or why she does what she does. Yet this is also, somehow, one of the more confusing parts of “Madame X” as Madonna continues to pretend that she’s Latina, dipping into Spanish lyrics herself more than once and recruiting Maluma, the world’s hottest Latin star at the moment, on two tracks, “Medellín” and “Bitch I’m Loca.” Sure, her time in Lisbon, Portugal, played a large role in inspiring “Madame X,” but she’s been dabbling in latin music for decades. Then again — if she’s been doing it for decades, what’s the point in questioning it now? We might as well lean into it as much as Madge has.
The last few tracks of the album ditch attitude and exploration for some more traditional self-reflection, and we see hints of the woman who has put her life on display for us for four decades. “I Don’t Search I Find” sounds like it could have belonged on “Confessions on a Dancefloor” or “Ray of Light,” and “Looking for Mercy” sees Madonna pleading for someone to teach her how to love, and I can’t help but wish the rest of the album featured more of the same. Still, Madonna does not exist solely to fulfill our need for love songs and easy-to-digest pop songs, as this album proves over and over again.
All in all, “Madame X” is a sprawling, meandering meditation on what it means to be Madonna in 2019, and it defies definition just as much as the artist herself. What else would you expect?