Like Prince, she has always been obsessed with both earthly pleasures and spiritual transcendence. But rarely have these two themes collided in such a head-on manner as they do on the six 'Rebel Heart' tracks she recently released after unfinished versions of some album tracks leaked; since then, 14 more unauthorized songs have surfaced on the Internet.
So what’s on Madonna’s mind? Just about everything. On 'Devil Pray,' a song about trying to overcome addiction, she sings 'Take my sins and wash them away/Teach me how to pray.' Yet 'Bitch I’m Madonna,' which features a guest rap from Nicki Minaj, is one of the most simplistic party anthems she’s ever done: 'We’ll be drinking, ain’t nobody gonna stop us/And well be kissing everyone that’s around us.'
'Unapologetic Bitch' is an angry breakup song, while 'Living for Love' is a gospel-inflected anthem about the healing power of love, and 'Ghosttown' is about retreating from the harshness of the world with your lover.
Granted, Madonna, 56, has never been particularly interested in thematic coherence on her albums. But these tracks are really all over the place. 'The reason I wanted to call the record ‘Rebel Heart’ was because I felt like it explored two very distinct sides of my personality,' Madonna told Billboard.com. 'The rebellious, renegade side of me, and the romantic side of me. In my mind, it was almost like I wanted to do a two-record set.'
'The music leads me - so I get lost in the sound of the music, and that creates a kind of emotional palate,' she elaborated to RollingStone.com. 'I found as I would look back at my songs and witness what I had written, I was coming from two very distinct places. I was observing, ‘Oh, these are two very strong sides of me that I need to express.’ '
Not including Madonna, who co-wrote and co-produced each song, 14 co-writers and 10 co-producers are credited on these six tracks. Alicia Keys co-wrote and played piano on 'Living for Love,' and Kanye West co-produced 'Illuminati.' Diplo - whose co-produced M.I.A.’s 'Paper Planes' as well as hits by Usher, Chris Brown and Alex Clare - is the dominant collaborator, with four co-writing and three co-producing credits.
Each song lives in a stylistic world of its own. 'Living for Love' is the most ecstatic dance number, 'Devil Pray' is moody mid-tempo semi-acoustic pop, and 'Ghosttown' is an atmospheric, warmly crooned ballad. 'Unapologetic Bitch' is ska-rap, and on the chilly 'Illuminati,' Madonna’s voice is processed to the point where it doesn’t really sound human. 'Bitch I’m Madonna' has a swirling, futuristic sound, and Madonna sings here with a childish sing-song quality, punctuated by angry outbursts.
And yet, despite their differences, these tracks have one thing in common: With their strong hooks, they all have the potential to be successful singles. And that kind of consistency hasn’t really been a hallmark of Madonna’s most recent albums.
Madonna may have been forced into releasing these songs, and she’s not happy about it, having called it 'a form of terrorism' and 'artistic rape.' But it’s going to work to her advantage, since these six tracks create a very good first impression of the 'Rebel Heart' album.