The Queen of Pop delivered her most disappointing album in 2012 despite a record-breaking Super Bowl halftime show.
Madonna looked set for another exciting rebirth ten years ago when she announced her 12th studio album, MDNA. Four years after Hard Candy, the master of reinvention left Warner Bros. for Interscope and divorced second husband Guy Ritchie. She was firmly expected to bring her A-game with Lady Gaga launching the most credible challenge to her Queen of the Pop throne in 30 years. Instead, Madge delivered the most regressive and disappointing record of her career.
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Statistical evidence supports this, as well. The 359,000 first-week sales of MDNA were Madonna’s highest since Music, but half of those sales came from an album-tour bundle, a by-product of her other major new partnership with LiveNation. Following its fall to No. 8, it posted the then-largest percentage sales drop for a No. 1 in the Nielsen Soundscan era, and within 13 weeks, it was gone from the Billboard 200.
Her new label might have anticipated a commercial nosedive after her third official hits comp, Celebration. She confounded pop fans with her deeply provocative hip-hop, R&B, and house of Erotica after 1990’s The Immaculate Collection. GHV2 was followed by American Life, a chilly concept album that analyzed the American Dream. In spite of their underperformance in the charts, their sense of ambition and originality couldn’t be faulted.
Contrary to this, there is little on MDNA that would even qualify as second-tier Madonna. In her second feature-length directorial effort W.E., “Masterpiece” is a genuinely lovely ballad that ensured that the royal biopic got some attention (but not a Razzie). Still, along with similarly restrained closer “Falling Free,” it seems to have wandered in from a totally different album.
Despite its faults, MDNA does not subscribe to the theory that all breakup albums must be characterized by seven-minute dirges of gloom and doom. Madonna sings, “I just need to dance,” on the gurgling electro-house of “I’m Addicted,” an expression of determination far removed from breakup albums designed to leave you weeping in the shower. It’s just a shame that she chose to head back into the clubs with the wrong company.
It was already evident on its predecessor that Madonna had lost some of her seemingly magical collaborative spirit. While people like William Orbit, Mirwais and Stuart Price were plucked from the fringes of mainstream music, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams had been making huge hits for decades. Hard Candy is an excellent contemporary R&B record, but it could have been recorded by Britney Spears, Nelly Furtado, or any number of pop stars who grew up listening to the Material Girl.
MDNA, however, saw the once switched-on Madonna fall further behind the curve. Back in the early ’00s, Solveig’s brand of electro-pop was considered generic, so it is not surprising that his three albums are more nightclub chain than an underground warehouse. “Turn Up the Radio” is particularly guilty of making the most dominant female artist in pop history sound like she’s channelling Heidi Montag.
A feeble attempt at a Mickey for the EDM generation, “Give Me Your Luvin'” essentially reduces Madonna to a bit player on her own comeback single, thanks to cameo appearances from M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj. The middle finger gesture at the Super Bowl remains more memorable than the track that accompanied it.
As the man jointly responsible for “Ray of Light,” “Nothing Really Matters” and “Runaway Lover,” you’d have expected Orbit to steer Madonna into more interesting dancefloor territory. Even his uptempo contributions border on the inane. Dubstep breakdowns that seemed mandatory back in the early 2010s immediately date the awfully titled “Gang Bang,” while hardstyle formula “Some Girls” spends four minutes searching for a melody, to little avail. Only “I’m A Sinner,” with its swirling psychedelic organs reminiscent of “Beautiful Stranger,” comes close to recapturing the group’s turn-of-the-century glory days.
Madonna should have put more trust in the Benassi brothers, Benny and Alle. The strobe-lit electronica of opener “Girl Gone Wild,” which throws in nods to everything from her one-time closest rival Cyndi Lauper to Like a Prayer cut “Act of Contrition,” briefly suggests we’re in for a journey back to her New York club roots similar to Confessions on a Dance Floor. Despite its love-is-a-drug metaphor, “I’m Addicted” and its chants of “MDMA” provide the most addictive moment of the song.
There is a saving grace in this sense of playfulness. MDMA’s music may often sound like it’s been designed by committee, yet Madonna’s lyrics, no matter how clunky (see “You’re like James Dean driving a fast car” on “Superstar”), ensure that the cookie-cutter tunes at least have some semblance of personality.
‘Love Spent’ took aim at Ritchie’s apparent gold-digging tendencies (“If we opened up a joint account/Would it put an end to all your doubts”); the second Minaj track, “I Don’t Give A”, demonstrated a fragile male ego (“I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminish myself and swallow my light”). But Madonna has the most fun envisioning a violent demise in “Gang Bang,” repeatedly shouting “Die bitch” in a vengeful tale apparently inspired by Quentin Tarantino (the director Ritchie has often been accused of aping just to throw some extra shade). Obviously, hell hath no fury like a 12-time Hot 100 chart-topper scorned.
Since then, she has released Rebel Heart and Madame X. While both were inconsistent, they had the touches that made Madonna so popular. Meanwhile, MDNA remains a deeply uninspiring listen that hasn’t improved with time.