Modern Madonna makes an interesting pop star, if only for the reason that she’s in a unique situation: in a time other performers are called “veterans” if their first single was released in the 90’s, her debut album came out in 1983. At this point, it doesn’t feel like she has to compete with other pop stars, but with herself; she has to prove that she still has that essential pop It that keeps her relevant.
There’s no real other rationale than a search for validation that could justify a first single like “Give Me All Your Luvin'”, a piece of pop fluff so mechanically sugary that whatever Disney starlet that’s trying to break out at the moment would pass it up. Second single and album opener “Girl Gone Wild” doesn’t fair much better, trading Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.’s sorta-interesting cameos for a song that’s a little sturdier, but no more memorable. Madonna’s stayed in the game so long by being smart, and so far, we haven’t seen that in her MDNA singles.
But, over the course of the album, she does take a smart, albeit, safe route. MDNA is essentially Madonna Goes Clubbing, especially for its first half. She blends her normal pop sound with club synths, drum beats, and a little bit of dubstep. It pays off best early in the one-two of “Gang Bang” and “I’m Addicted”. The former is the record’s weirdest track by far (and gets out of the way early at track number 2): Madge mutters and snarls her way through the first three and a half minutes of revenge fantasy before song goes all out on a dubstep breakdown. But that’s not even the weirdest part of the song: the song’s extended outro consists of Madonna shouting “Die, bitch! Drive bitch!”, complete with car and gunshot noises. “I’m Addicted” is a more traditional (but rather enjoyable) club track with stuttering synths and digitized vocals. Produced by Italian DJ duo the Benassi Brothers, the song’s a standout.
After two experimental and somewhat rewarding tracks, the album retreats back to too-fluffy pop. Despite an ok hook, cliche-storm “Turn Up the Radio” is a joyless listen, and the aforementioned “Give Me All Your Luvin'” is possibly the dullest song made by three of music’s leading women. Nicki Minaj gets to play redemption later on “I Don’t Give A”, even if Madonna’s lyrics on the same song get into cringe territory.
Lyrics are one of MNDA‘s biggest obstacles. As mentioned, “Turn Up the Radio” is a “just listen to the music, it’ll be ok!” anthem 15 years past its expiration date, and “Girl Gone Wild” is just as erotically lame as the title would imply. Clunky name drops tarnish the otherwise really enjoyable slowburning, New Wave-inspired “Superstar” (sample: “You’re Abe Lincoln cuz you fight for what’s right”), and lyrics on “I Don’t Give A” approach Totally Radical levels of gettin’ with it (sample: “Working out/Shake my ass/I know how to multitask” and “Tweetin’ on the elevator”), made only worse by Madonna rapping them. At the same time, “Love Spent” is a pretty sharp tell-off to Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Richie, and “I Don’t Give A” handles the divorce, too.
The last three songs on MDNA are probably the strongest. Produced with longtime collaborator William Orbit, they blend electronica with some of Madonna’s 80-pop styles in a way that pays off. “Masterpiece” is the strongest of the three; “Love Spent” is just a little bloated, and “Falling Free” doesn’t have a solid hook to keep its feet on the ground for its five minute runtime.
Those last three songs are what essentially saves an otherwise uneven album. For all the flustered or uninspired moments across MDNA, the album also turns up enough fun tracks that it’s worth checking out. When it plays safe, the record loses any substance, but when it plays smart, it’s quite good. Too bad the two are too well mixed, three out of five stars.
tl;dr: 12 albums in, and Madonna can still hold her own, 3/5