Madonna’s Madame X is a prime example of an A-list artist who knows she can do what the heck she wants – and boy, she does.
Her 14th studio album could just play it safe with the sort of infectious music that has taken dance floors by storm since the 1980s. It doesn’t, though this was implied by the first single, a duet with Colombian reggaeton singer and songwriter Maluma. “Medellín” came blasting out with so-fashionable Latin pop. The track pretty much defies you to keep still. You think Luis Fonsi had the market nailed? On the album,, we find Madonna, again with Maluma, doing a Latino workout on “Bitch I’m Loca.” Songs like this are straightforward enough.
Madame X is not Madonna playing it safe after four years away. Instead, she takes risks, some of which pay off brilliantly. While it may baffle some and not be so commercially-friendly as some predecessors, Madonna has been here before. Hands up, those who remember American Life in 2003 which mixed the mainstream, even her Bond theme “Die Another Day,” with daring concepts that were perplexing to some and misunderstood by others.
Straight after the “Medellín” opener, Madonna kicks into her “strange days” mode with the next two tracks.
First, “Dark Ballet” has a six-minute video with images of Joan of Arc. The lyric is incendiary too: “people tell me to shut my mouth, that I might get burned.”
Then “God Control” is also six minutes, starting with a languid rap and then breaking into choral backing, strings and lyrics such as “This is your wake-up call/ I’m like your nightmare/ I’m here to start your day… People think that I’m insane/ The only gun is in my brain/ Each new birth, it gives me hope/ That’s why I don’t smoke that dope.”
Madonna feels free to add some serious political comment with “Killers Who Are Partying.”
We perhaps had inklings that this was going to be a challenging Madonna album, from the time she announced that the Madame X persona was its cornerstone concept. For those who don’t know, Madonna has explained that “Madame X” was a nickname given to her by her dance teacher Martha Graham, who told the 19-year-old Madonna Louise Ciccone: “Every day, you come to school, and I don’t recognize you.” Madonna says that it gives her the chance to be a chameleon: anybody from a mother to a head of state, saint, nun or whore. These are roles she has played for years of course, and Madame X is being inevitably compared with Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce persona.
Madonna, at 60, is definitely not stuck in a rut and is always interesting even with the flaws. Anyone who expects her to be making another Like A Virgin is both misguided and outdated. This is not a classic album to sit alongside Like A Prayer or Ray Of Light, may not win her many new fans and may not set the charts alight, but that’s not what this is about.
At its best Madame X has some moments that rate with her finest, such as the mid-pace, catchy Spanish-guitar tinged “Crave.” She croons “you’re the one I crave, and my cravings get dangerous.” Long may she remain a dangerous lady.