Madonna has always been pop’s reigning chameleon, with each album (and movie) in her body of work representing a specific epoch in her MTV-era reign over the genre. But on “Madame X,” her 14th studio album, she makes her multifaceted nature explicit, linking the title character’s many guises (secret agent, dancer, equestrian, nun, et cetera) to the hooky album’s overall concept.
“Madame X,” released on Friday, begins with Madonna whispering the cha-cha beat, the opening to first single “Medellín.” That song, when it debuted in April, was notable not only for its incorporation of Latin pop but for its relatively chilled-out vibe; Madonna, her voice digitally tweaked yet still bearing wistfulness, sang of feeling like a teenager once again, reveling in her naivete and, ultimately, feeling as if she’d freed herself from the shackles of constant scrutiny. Given that Madonna has been the pop-music equivalent of Don DeLillo’s most photographed barn in America almost since her crash-landing into MTV nearly four decades ago, feeling free of expectations — whether they’re to collaborate with the American pop chart’s current big names, as she did on her previous three albums’ lead singles, or to age “gracefully,” whatever that might mean to the person saying it — is a liberation with great consequence.
And, truthfully, Madonna’s recent work has been at its best when she’s allowed herself to get a little weird; take the kaleidoscope-dream aura of her “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” tie-in song “Beautiful Stranger,” the gnarled synths on her James Bond theme “Die Another Day,” or even the giddy soy latte-shouting rap on her 2003 single “American Life.” A good chunk of “Madame X” has Madonna collaborating with Mirwais Ahmadzaï, the producer-slash-muse who worked with her on the latter two songs, and their creative spark provides some of the album’s most compelling moments. “Dark Ballet,” another Ahmadzaï collaboration and the song that follows “Medellín,” is a chilly indictment of the world where Madonna is channeling Joan of Arc while also taking on 2019; its back half, which hinges on a synth-sparkle rework of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Flutes,” hints at ominous things to come, imploring the cognoscenti wearing clothing by the cult streetwear brand Supreme to wake up, before returning to its refrain of “it’s a beautiful life.”
It is, to be sure, a lot. But it’s also nice to hear Madonna taking the lead in charting out pop’s possibilities after a few albums where she worked with collaborators who were almost too close to the current zeitgeist (Timbaland and Pharrell on 2008’s “Hard Candy”; Diplo and the late Avicii on her last album, 2015’s “Rebel Heart”). Latin beats and influences from her adopted homeland of Portugal abound. She does dip into the current zeitgeist of trap — on “Crave,” a collaboration with Swae Lee of the brotherly hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd, but she bends it to her will, adding acoustic guitars and a wounded vocal performance to the genre’s insistent snares. But for the most part, “Madame X” lets Madonna run wild, whether it’s between the disco and the anti-gun protest on “God Control” or around the manic atmosphere of “Faz Gostoso,” a reworked version of the Brazilian-Portuguese singer Blaya’s hit. “Come Alive” is a steely protest song that opens up into a gorgeous chorale, its titular plea tweaked to sound like it’s resonating throughout the world.
Madonna may be pop’s pinnacle of shape-shifting, but she’s never stopped believing that pop songs can change the world. While it chafes against pop-musical expectations and outright defies them at times, “Madame X” does embrace that planet-altering ideal lyrically as well as musically, making it Madonna’s most compelling album in years.