‘MDNA’ lacks the message of classic Madonna albums, but the Material Girl can still lay down a beat
3 out of 5 stars
Thirty years ago, the world was introduced to a scrappy singer in shabby-chic clothes, but there’s not much about pop music Madonna hasn’t conquered since then. At 53, she’s the undisputed queen of pop — which she reminds anyone who may have forgotten with her 12th studio album, MDNA.
Since Hard Candy, her mid-life crisis project that belly-flopped four years ago, the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna have generated more buzz than the Material Girl. Not only does she have to reclaim her place on the iPods of fans who have moved on to <insert any pop princess name here> — that is, to be seen as a pop force to still be reckoned with — Madonna has to compete with Madonna. On MDNA, she continually references herself, name-dropping her own catalogue so much here that she seems to have thrown in the towel rather than finding more creative lyrics; maybe she’s just being narcissistic. She has shared so much of herself before — singing about motherhood, politics, religion — that the empty message of this album is disconcerting. Being single again, she’s embracing her cougar status and can’t stop referring to herself as a girl.
Still, the album claims a hefty collection of radio-ready hits, dancefloor beats and a couple of confessionals, allowing MDNA to accomplish what it wants to: Show us that Madonna is still in her groove.
Striking quick with an opening prayer on “Girl Gone Wild,” she takes us back to Like A Prayer’s “Act of Contrition” before launching into the strong track. The beat drops hard and Madge hits the right dance notes we so crave from her. The energy is exciting and reassures us that she’s back on her game.
From that high, she goes darker than ever with “Gang Bang,” a murder ballad on steroids, but just try to turn your ears away. She expertly navigates her way around the distinct hatred radiating from the lyrics. This is where
Madonna-the-singer becomes Madonna-the-actress, playing an ultra-violent character (our Madge could never be a killer, even when she asserts Drive, bitch / Now die, bitch).
The album shifts into hitmaker, Like A Virgin mode with the troika “I’m Addicted,” “Turn Up the Radio” and “Give Me All Your Luvin.’” The beats go gigantic and lush, but the lyrics fade into a less intellectual side, save for theOprah-esque uplifting “Radio.” The hits are there, but in trying to compete with the younger crop of pop acolytes she must come down to their level. These are tunes that could have easily been interchanged with Katy Perry or Ke$ha on the mike. That doesn’t take away from their listenable qualities, but we expect more from the ol’ gal. Pop music thrives on innovation and change, and more often than not, Madonna relies on dumbing down to be cool.
That formula does work wonders for the drum-heavy valentine “Superstar.” Incorporating a silly chant of “ooh la la” is a slight misstep, but the sweetness of it fits right up there with “Cherish” and “Angel.” The song is steeped in pop culture, referencing John Travolta and Michael Jordan (echoing “Vogue”) but whimsical couplets like You can have the keys to my car / I’ll play you a song on my guitar are kind of adorable.
In the album’s deluxe edition, it’s on the second disc where Madonna triumphs. (She also loses, but I’ll get to that in a sec.) The glory in the accompanying tracks is the confessional tone on both “I Fucked Up” and “Best
Friend.” Lamenting her divorce from director Guy Ritchie, Madge puts the blame on herself. The song is sad as she explores her mistakes out loud (I’m so ashamed / You’re in so much pain/ I blamed you when things didn’t go my way), but it never wallows. With its urban beat and a dramatic buildup, she instead gets into an emotionally striking groove. We haven’t seen Madonna this fragile since Prayer’s “Promise to Try.”
“Best Friend” stays on topic with lyrics like Every man that walks through my door / Will be compared to you forever more. The dizzying sound effects and her straightforward delivery don’t give it the emotional weight of
“Fucked,” but it’s still a fascinating insight as it unfolds.
The second disc opens with “Beautiful Killer,” a strong tune with slick grooves that I don’t know why is relegated to bonus CD status. In a strange way, it’s the serious flipside to “Beautiful Stranger.” The disc rounds out with
LMFAO’s remix of “Give Me All Your Luvin.’” And then there’s “B-Day Song.” Whoowee. Where did this dreck come from? By far her worst moment on the album, it’s also embarrassing. The oh yeah, it’s my birthday sounds like it was made up by kids to sing while jumping rope and is far beneath her talents.
In “Some Girls,” she dares compare herself to others with I’m not like all the rest / Some girls are second best / put your loving to the test, but who would ever think she is. She’s Madonna, dammit. But she’s also more woman than girl.
While Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.’s performance are fine in “Luvin,’” Minaj goes stronger in “I Don’t Give A.” Madonna raps a bit, but Nicki, even in sycophantic worship (There’s only one queen / And that’s Madonna / BITCH!) makes an outstanding presence in the overall forgettable track. M.I.A. is virtually invisible in “B-Day Song” but she should be grateful for that.
The club sounds get a rest with her two ballads “Falling Free” and the Golden Globe-winning “Masterpiece” from W.E. (the film she directed and released earlier this year). Both are fine tracks, but pale in comparison to her past ballad work.
MDNA has spirit. Even with flawed tracks and lyrical shortcuts, she shows renewed determination. Madonna gave a flat, uninspired showing her last time out, but here, she appears in complete command. The album has its dynamic moments and while she may always have to deal with the harsh lions of radio, critics and social media, Madonna does mark a return to expressing herself again as only she can do.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 30, 2012.