Sunday, March 25, 2012

The "MDNA" of Pop Returns: Madonna's Latest

The reception of Madonna's 13th long player MDNA will depend on the type of Madonna fan that's listening: "the drone" whom will salivate over anything she releases, "the ironic one" that is "knowing" of Madonna's (supposed) "thrift" qualities, and "the discerning." The last fan tends to understand what the core of Madonna's artistic premise is. Here is a woman who piloted her career by precipitating (or tastefully acclimating) to trends without sacrificing her personal muse. Walking the line of creativity and commercialism isn't easy, but Madonna did it for a lengthy period. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) promised an entertaining level of veteran security and for awhile all seemed to right. Hard Candy appeared in 2008 and things weren't the same afterwards. Madonna was pandering, she'd lost her confidence, her awareness of self and subsequent greatness. Hard Candy's need to please, to conform, had proven every critic that had lambasted Madonna as a pop music icon correct. To make it worse, the album's need to bow hadn't even given it the sales streak it desired.

With MDNA, Madonna seems to acknowledge, for the first time, that she may have made a mistake musically. With the depth of desolation defining the popular music landscape, Madonna can neither lead or follow in 2012, so instead MDNA is both a defensive and offensive album.

A cross section of the talent working alongside Ms. Ciccone on MDNA include (but are not limited to): Benny Benassi, William Orbit, Martin Solveig, Klas Ã…hlund, The Demolition Crew, Free School, Jimmy Harry, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A. Orbit has the most history with Madonna, he assisted on 1998's Ray of Light and singles "Beautiful Stranger" and "American Pie." Benassi has been making rounds for sometime in the popular music spheres with works for Kelis ("Brave") and Chris Brown ("Beautiful People"). Jimmy Harry has collaborated in pop with a range of women: RuPaul, Lisa Loeb, P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Vitamin C, and Kylie Minogue.

Somewhere between abandon and introspection, MDNA spins its sonic tales. The disturbing, if slightly self-serving "Gang Bang" is dark, smoldering, and abrasive. "Gang Bang" brings to mind the dim dimensions of Erotica (1992) and for the discerning, ironic, and the drone, this will elicit cheers. The lyrical content of "Gang Bang," concerns of a jilted lover, informs the bulk of MDNA.

Frustration (credited to her divorce from Guy Ritchie perhaps?) can be heard throughout songs such as "I'm a Sinner," "I Fucked Up," and "I Don't Give A..." (featuring Nicki Minaj). As a lyricist, Madonna has had upward mobility with each project. Here, two of the three mentioned cuts find their respective words collapsing under the weight of the idea.

With a pass issued to the sapid "I'm a Sinner," it's a shame that Madonna's former ability to deal with heavier ideas was lost on MDNA. Had she tapped into the fearlessness that characterized American Life (2003), these songs would have stung instead of chafed.  There are reasons to cheer. Lead single "Give Me All Your Luvin'" is amazing, a reappraisal highlights its needling new wave guitar spunk. The spunk of "Luvin'" is a much better musical catch than the mindless synth surge of the second single "Girl Gone Wild". Features from Minaj and M.I.A., while placed just so, don't add anything to "Luvin'," Madonna herself could have carried the track. When did Madonna require a feature, two times over, to lead off her own record? (A rhetorical statement.) Pleasant oddities "B-Day Song" (featuring M.I.A.), "Best Friend," and "I'm Addicted" melodically curve, skip not stomp, and magnetize. They make a case that Madonna is not quite ready to go into that good night as her detractors surmise.

"Masterpiece," the Golden Globe winning theme from Madonna's directorial debut film W.E., is an aromatic ballad throwback. Songs like these act as proof that Madonna is as compelling on refined pop emotions as much as she is at dance music moods. "Love Spent" and "Falling Free" further Madonna's ballad bank, an element (excusing Hard Candy's "Miles Away") missing from her work of late. "Falling Free," a clean number brings the focus back to the richness Madonna's voice has accrued through the years.

As a whole, MDNA is Madonna reaching back to the peaks of Confessions (see the thick pop-funk of "Turn Up the Radio"), but in other areas Madonna is perfunctory. To be fair, sameness is a hallmark of an icon because even in the changing sands of pop, people want reliability. For Madonna, the stakes are high because instead of sticking to her guns, she (briefly) relinquished her art. Never let them see you sweat is a mantra embraced in the last six years by her contemporaries. Gloria Estefan (90 Millas 2007 & Miss Little Havana 2011), Cyndi Lauper (Bring Ya to the Brink 2008 & Memphis Blues 2010), and Kylie Minogue (X 2007 & Aphrodite 2010) have been enjoying their age without being limited by it.

"Give Me All Your Luvin'" featuring Nicki Minaj & M.I.A.
Directed By: MegaForce

If Madonna can get comfortable in her skin again, the better sides of MDNA's energy will encompass her next record. Even at half strength, Madonna reigns as the Queen of Pop. Three stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: The edition of MDNA reviewed was the two-disc deluxe version. See for current information on Madonna.-QH]


Rhythmic said...

i couldnt agree more with this post, i think this album has the best of what madonna can offer...right now...ofcourse theres a bump here and there but for the most part shes back on track with a vengeance

Anonymous said...

One of the elements I appreciate the most about your blog, Q, is you taking the long view. You get kudos for holding artists "responsible" for care of their catalog. I'm more inclined to MDNA as you say it's, overall, closer to Confessions than Hard Candy. As a Madge fan, I do accept, however, some of the guilt for her apparent self-doubt: if we didn't run salivating en masse everytime a new trend surfaced, maybe our greats wouldn't be so easily pressured into putting out mediocre offerrings just to keep their name afloat. 3 of 5 ain't bad @ all.

Jeremy J.

SWartStudio said...

Yes! You've commented on everything I could have hoped to say about Madonna then and now. Great piece!

Moanerplicity said...

Ummm.. IMHO, she seems to be repeating herself, stylistically, musically, & yes visually. H Not hearing much GROWTH there. Even her latest video reminds one of a retread of Vogue.

I'm not hating... just simply stating.

Madonna, Madge, Sweetie-baby, Iconic One... hath the well runneth dry?