A flare for theatrics has always been Madonna’s calling card. And her 14th studio album since 1983 is no exception. On Madame X, Madonna reinvents herself once again, adding another dramatic layer to her public persona as she builds upon the pop empire she ushered in almost four decades ago.
And as the songs on Madame X stumble along here in various styles (pop, rap, even reggae), we’re once again confronted with a jarring blend of sex, drugs and nastiness contrasted with some surprisingly moments of hope.
More than half of Madame X’s tracks discuss or mention the subject of hope. On “Future” (which features rapper Quavo, a member of Migos), Madonna sings about the brokenhearted finding hope in something beyond themselves: “Hear the broken/Come give hope/Come give life.” She later speaks directly to those who may struggle with suicidal thoughts, saying, “Everyone has a spark/Your future is bright/Don’t turn out the lights.” And “Batuka” encourages strugglers to depend upon each other: “We will stand together.”
A similar sentiment is echoed on the track “Looking for Mercy.” Madonna introspectively states, “I’m looking for, looking for, looking for mercy.” That, of course, begs the question, what did she do to need mercy? The Objectionable Content section will help answer that question.
“God Control” has some problems, as we’ll see. But here, Madonna laments a culture that she sees spinning out of control and taking innocent lives down with it: “Blood of innocence, spread everywhere/They say that we need love/But we need more than this.” Elsewhere, she exhorts, “We need to wake up.” Madonna’s righteous indignation at the societal problems she sees is a healthy one, even if some of her responses aren’t.
In “Dark Ballet,” Madonna twists through vaguely romantic lines such as, “It’s a beautiful life/But I’m not concerned/It’s a beautiful dream/But a dream is earned.” Then she adds, “I will not renounce my faith in the sweet Lord.” That said, a few moments later …
… she sings, “God is on my side, and I’ll be his bride,” the latest expression of the kinds of warped religious ideas that have plagued the Material Girl throughout her career.
More than half of album opener “Medellin” is in Spanish. But problematic references to illicit substances and promiscuous activity are evident in the song and its risqué video, the latter of which features overflowing drinks and a scantily clad, whip-wielding Madonna. Here, she sings, “I felt so naked and alive (Show me)/For once I didn’t have to hide myself (Dice).”
On “God Control,” Madonna’s frustration with societal ills has resulted in deep cynicism “When they talk reforms, it makes me laugh/They pretend to help, it makes me laugh.” The song’s title also serves as a mocking, tongue-in-cheek allusion to the issue of gun control. More cynicism fills these lines: “Everybody knows the d–n truth/Our nation lied, we’ve lost respect.” The chorus intones opaquely, “We’ve lost God control.” Elsewhere, the Almighty gets oddly paired with porn as Madonna cryptically claims we need “A new democracy/God and pornography.”
The rambling “Killers Who Are Partying” reveals Madonna’s concern for a myriad of current social issues. But she also seeks to identify with a number of diverse groups (gays, Muslims, Native Americans) that could easily interpret her references to them as being very insensitive as Madonna appropriates them all for her rhetorical purposes here.
“Crave” (featuring Swae Lee) is probably Madame X’s most “Madonna-sounding” song. And so is its suggestive content: “Cause you’re the one I crave/And my cravings get dangerous.” Swae Lee adds, “You’re down to ride/Ride me like a wave/I gave you a sensation.”
“B–ch I’m Loca” undulates back and forth between English and Spanish with explicit lines such as “I like to be on top, ver como te excitas.” It ends with the extremely vulgar couplet: “Where do you want me to put this?/Um, you can put it inside.”
“I Don’t Search I Find” recounts how Madonna has been searching for meaning her whole life, only to realize all is vanity: “We live between life and death/Waiting to move on/And in the end/We accept it/We shake hands with our fate.”
“Extreme Occident” insists that “life is a circle, life is a circle” highlighting some reincarnation undertones. Across the album, there are also multiple uses of “d-mn,” “b–ch,” and “h-ll.”
At this point in her career, Madonna’s musical approach resembles a fast-food drive-thru more than a five-star dine-in restaurant. Madame X pulls together samples from a variety of backgrounds, hoping that one track might offer the new Madonna side you’ve been waiting for.
Over the past four decades, Madonna has had to learn how to morph into a niche artist, one who appropriates various musical trends du jour (as she again does here). Ironically, though, Madame X once again paints a picture of an artist whose core ideas and values don’t change a bit, even if her stylistic trappings do. Ultimately, though perhaps understandingly, the album draws too heavily on the spoils of Madonna’s past, failing to blaze a new trail for the Queen of Pop.
In an interview with Today’s Harry Smith, Madonna wore an eye patch that has become a fashion staple of her latest persona: Madame X. Speaking of Madame X, she said, “She sleeps with one eye open, travels through the day with one eye shut. She’s actually been wounded, so she’s covering up.”
But, there’s no covering up the convoluted, at times incoherent, jumble of dysfunctional love, explicit sexual content, and grasping at the straws of hope we find on Madame X.