The Week In Pop

Madame X Is The Best Madonna Album In A Long Time

“Hey young people – you’re getting older every second. It’s what we do. One day someone will tell you to stop and you’ll be all like ‘fuck you’ just like Madonna.” That was former Savage Garden frontman Darren Hayes on Twitter the night of the Billboard Music Awards. Madonna and Colombian reggaeton star Maluma had just performed “Medellín,” the lead single from her new album, Madame X. In keeping with the project’s premise about a secret agent who travels around the world changing identities “fighting for freedom” and “bringing light to dark places,” the duet partners danced and sang amidst a trippy hologram display featuring multiple iterations of Madonna doing the cha-cha.

This was the sort of awards-show spectacle Madonna helped to invent — not as memorable as her iconic VMAs moments stripping out of a wedding dress and kissing Britney Spears, but entertaining and elaborate and cheeky in her signature fashion. She established many such templates during a good solid quarter-century of blazing trails and making hits. She almost singlehandedly carved out the modern pop-star archetype, endlessly reinventing herself and becoming a transformative figure in the sexual revolution. Before Britney and Katy and Taylor — and long before “nasty women” became a catchphrase in a presidential race that deteriorated into show business — there was Madonna, loud and proud and gleefully blasphemous.

She’s an undisputed legend who these days is just as often a punchline, largely thanks to her refusal to “retire with dignity.” That chorus of jeers picked up again the night of the Billboard Awards. Hayes had apparently encountered the usual chatter that accompanies Madonna’s every public action these days, the calls to hang it up and the jokes that imply as much, so he responded with an appeal for sympathy by way of the golden rule. Although his own moment in the spotlight was brief compared to Madonna’s peerless run, he surely knows what it’s like to be laughed at for having the nerve to continue your career when the zeitgeist moves on.

In the defense of Madonna’s critics, her output in the past decade-plus has not been on par with the treasure trove of classics that made her a legend. Her 2005 club opus Confessions On A Dancefloor, which yielded the monster jam “Hung Up,” is widely regarded as her last great creative offering. Since then an artist who often helped trends bubble up from the underground has instead chased after sounds that already blew up. With 2008’s Hard Candy she leaned on the Neptunes and Timbaland just as they were hitting a post-imperial slump; the Justin Timberlake duet “4 Minutes” made it to #3 anyhow. In 2011 she attempted to ride the EDM wave on MDNA with less than satisfactory results, but it at least generated the #10 hit “Give Me All Your Luvin'” with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.

Her descent hit its nadir with 2015’s Rebel Heart. The album leaked in demo form before it was even announced, and Madonna spent its entire rollout like a sports team frantically playing from behind. The material wasn’t much help. Opener “Living For Love,” which she cowrote and produced with Diplo and Ariel Rechtshaid, was top-tier dancefloor Madonna, and the defiant “Unapologetic Bitch” was a better Santigold song than Santigold has released in years. But there was also a goofy party track that name-checked a dozen celebs accused of being in the Illuminati and one that paired up Chance The Rapper with Mike Tyson. Not only was Rebel Heart her first album with no top 10 singles, it would have been her first with none on the Hot 100 at all if not for the #84-peaking “Bitch I’m Madonna,” another Minaj collab that was emblematic of the album’s hot mess vibe.

She’s given us plenty of reason to believe she’s past her prime, but Madonna falling off is not an excuse to cackle about how old she is, especially when her male counterparts in creative decline get to be perceived as elder statesmen instead of washed-up grandpas. So there was a ring of truth when she recently told British Vogue, “People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m not pretty enough, I don’t sing well enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m not married enough, and now it’s that I’m not young enough. So they just keep trying to find a hook to hang their beef about me being alive on. Now I’m fighting ageism, now I’m being punished for turning 60.”

The simple fact is popular music has traditionally been a young person’s game, so it’s remarkable for anyone to remain active in the field at Madonna’s age, doubly so for a woman to do so in a culture that allows men to age much more gracefully. I don’t blame her for being touchy about the subject, and yet voyaging boldly into sixty-something pop stardom has become a lifelong pioneer’s latest means of innovation. The context is worth reckoning with; the tricky part is doing so respectably.

So here goes nothing: Madame X strikes a balance between accessible and experimental that would be impressive at any age but feels especially momentous coming this late in Madonna’s career. The album acclimates to current trends more naturally than she has managed in years while still feeling like its own thing. It dares to be weird in ways that feel like genuine expression and not just attention-grabbing stunts. Madonna has always taken inspiration from David Bowie, and although Madame X is not a Blackstar-level masterpiece, I see similarities in the way it merges personal heaviness with a sort of artistic fearlessness. It’s not going to silence the scoffers, but it may well reward those who engage in good faith.

Although nothing on the tracklist matches the sheer pleasure of her greatest hits, Madame X contains a few achingly pretty pop songs, especially the Swae Lee duet “Crave,” a misty ballad that makes Madonna emoting over trap drum programming sound like the most natural thing in the world. It also includes some awfully bizarre left turns, like the Daft Punk Renaissance fair that breaks out in the middle of “Dark Ballet,” where Madonna inquires, “Can’t you hear outside of your Supreme hoodie, the wind that’s beginning to howl?” It’s extra, but only in the way Madonna has always been extra. In terms of concept and aesthetic and quality, it mostly hangs together well.

As the story goes, Madonna was living in Portugal with her kids and feeling quite lonely when she happened upon a jam session that inspired Madame X. She went on to incorporate an eclectic range of styles into the album ranging from dominant hip-hop, dance, and Latin trap sounds to Portuguese fado and Cape Verdean batuque. The collection of tunes she ended up with is heavily rhythmic yet atmospheric, like a half-remembered dream about a multicultural street party. The overall sound adheres to that easy listening daze that performs well on streaming services, but Madame X sometimes breaks its own spell intentionally with weird detours like “God Control,” which could be an Avalanches song with its soaring disco breakdown, a vocoder, a choir, and Madonna’s whispered commands to “wake up.” She occasionally veers into other languages, and like Beyoncé on the “Mi Gente” remix, she pulls it off.

At times Madonna seems to be riffing on her own legacy, be it the “Vogue”-reminiscent string section on “I Don’t Search I Find” or a line from “Crazy” that goes, “I bend my legs for you like a prayer/ My god, look at me now.” On “Medellín,” she plainly frames the album as a chance to break free from her past: “I took a pill and had a dream/ I went back to my 17 year/ Allowed myself to be naive/ To be someone I’ve never been.” On the other hand, on the clumsy but moving message song “Killers Who Are Partying,” after a series of promises to become one with the oppressed, she leaves us with this: “I know what I am (God knows what I am) / And I know what I’m not (And he knows what I’m not) / Do you know who you are? / Will we know when to stop?”

Those are loaded lyrics with potential interpretations extending well beyond Madonna’s own personal narrative. Still, they say a lot about where she finds herself right now. On Madame X she is no longer lunging like she has in recent years. OK, any pop album with a Quavo guest verse in 2019 is lunging a little bit. But for the first time in a long time, she seems at home in her own music. Is a Latin hip-hop folk-dance dreamscape with avant-garde interludes what anybody wants from Madonna right now? Probably not, but that’s what I like about it. It’s the album she wanted to make. She knows what she is and what she’s not. Will she know when to stop? That’s for her to decide.

CREDIT: John Shearer

CHART WATCH

Thomas Rhett tops the Billboard 200 albums chart this week with 76,000 equivalent album units and 45,000 in sales for Center Point Road. Per Billboard, it’s his second #1 album following 2017’s Life Changes. It’s also the first country album to top the chart in 2019. (The last was Kane Brown’s Experiment last November.) Billie Eilish, DJ Khaled, and Khaled are at #2, #3, and #4 respectively.

Debuting at #5 is the new Miley Cyrus EP She Is Coming via 36,000 units/12,000 sales. After Tyler, The Creator at #6 comes Elton John’s greatest hits collection Diamonds at #7. The 2017 release is seeing a resurgence of interest due to the release of the fantastical biopic/musical Rocketman. Rounding out the top 10 are DaBaby, the Aladdin soundtrack, and Ariana Grande.

On the Hot 100, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ viral mega-hit “Old Town Road” is #1 for a 10th straight week. Per Billboard, it’s one of only 38 songs to spend at least 10 weeks atop the chart, the first since Drake’s “In My Feelings” last summer, and the first time an artist’s done it with their first charting single since Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.”

“Old Town Road” is part of a stagnant top five, also including Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” at #2, Khalid’s “Talk” at #3, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” at #4, and Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” at #5. Post Malone’s two deathless hits “Wow.” and “Sunflower” with Swae Lee are now at #6 and #7 respectively. DaBaby’s “Suge” reaches a new #8 peak, and the top 10 winds up with Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing With A Stranger” at #9 and Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho” at #10. Just outside the top 10, Katy Perry’s “Never Really Over” enters at #15, and Cardi B’s “Press” debuts at #16.

POP FIVE

Pharrell Williams – “Letter To My Godfather”
I’m sure this comes from a good place, but dropping a line like “I’m sorry if this is a bore” more than four minutes into a song like this one is really something.

Kim Petras – “Personal Hell”
The new Kim Petras project Clarity is going to bang, you guys.

Avicii – “Hold The Line” (Feat. A R I Z O N A)
How insanely bittersweet to hear this chorus on a posthumous Avicii song: “We don’t get to die young/ Trouble keeping our head sometimes/ We just have to push on/ We don’t get to give up this life/ All the breath in your lungs/ Is stronger than the tears in your eyes/ It’s do or die, but we’re alive/ And while we’re here, hold the line.”

DJ Snake, J. Balvin, & Tyga – “Loco Contigo”
A fun song improved exponentially by its video but hindered significantly by a Tyga verse that sucks all the air out.

Kiiara – “Open My Mouth”
The vocal effect on the chorus drives me nuts.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • In one of many examples of his less-than-sterling judgment, Drake appears on a new Chris Brown single. [The Fader]
  • Katy Perry and Taylor Swift appeared to officially call a truce with this plate of cookies. [NBC]
  • Justin Bieber said he wanted to fight Tom Cruise, then said he was kidding. [TMZ]
  • Bieber also tweeted that “more music is coming.” [Twitter]
  • Lance Bass says following their successful Coachella appearance with Ariana Grande, *NSYNC will be considering more reunion opportunities (presumably sans Justin Timberlake). [People]
  • Ariana Grande apologized to LGBTQ fans after homophobic protestors set up outside her Atlanta concert. [USA Today]
  • Grande also donated $250k in proceeds from that Atlanta show to Planned Parenthood. [The Daily Beast]
  • Céline Dion paused her final Las Vegas show so an audience member could go pee. [Jezebel]
  • Britney Spears accused paparazzi of photoshopping her photos: “Is the news really real? It’s a conspiracy theory that I’m actually interested in.” [USA Today]
  • For UK’s Capital FM Halsey sang “Without Me” while doing impressions of Ariana Grande, Cardi B, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Lady Gaga. [YouTube]
  • Kanye West and Pusha-T have been sued over an unauthorized George Jackson sample on DAYTONA. [Times Daily]
  • Jonas Brothers, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots did “Sucker” on classroom instruments. [YouTube]
  • Meghan Trainor’s new song with Kaskade, “Without You,” is out tomorrow. [Instagram]
  • Dua Lipa denied photoshopping her lips in baby pictures, telling haters “you guys are on crack.” [Instagram]
  • Selena Gomez on what Bill Murray whispered in her ear in that viral Cannes photo: “He was just saying dumb things, like he would just lean in and be like, ‘You look great tonight.’ And then he’d look back seriously and be like, ‘Where are you from?’ And I would just sit there, and I’m trying to be poised. It was fine.” [CNN]
  • Gomez ate spicy wings with Jimmy Fallon. [YouTube]
  • Gomez also says her new album is “finally done.” [Idolator]
  • Maggie Rogers did “Burning” on Ellen. [Ellen]
  • Playboi Carti has no plans to make music with his girlfriend Iggy Azalea. [The Fader]
  • Madonna once tried to book Rosalía to play her birthday party. [Los 40]
  • Maluma, Pitbull, Daddy Yankee, Natti Natasha, and Romeo Santos will perform at Univision’s Premios Juventud awards show. [ET]
  • Jessie Reyes and 6LACK did “Imported” on Colbert. [YouTube]
  • Donald Trump stans a work/life balance queen. [Twitter]

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