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Madame X CJ Thorpe-Tracey , June 21st, 2019 10:16

For her fourteenth album, Madame X, Madonna hooks up with French producer Mirwais to produce a swirling fusion of trap, fado, dub, and disco, but the results end up sounding shallow and contrived, finds CJ Thorpe-Tracey

Less than two minutes into Madame X’s second track ‘Dark Ballet’ – six minutes into the album as a whole – the song fully collapses into piano flourishes and then a ridiculous synth solo take on Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance Of The Reed Flutes’ (yeah, from The Nutcracker Suite). There’s vocoder and Madonna doing spoken word on top. "The storm isn’t in the air," she proclaims, "It’s inside of us."

And instead of feeling like ‘Whoah! What crazy off-piste shit is this from the Queen of Pop?!’ as one might’ve responded if it was 1996 and the tunes were one iota as glorious as Ray Of Light, instead one sort of goes, ‘Oh, right. Hmm.’

Kate Tempest this is not, never mind Cupcakke. ‘God Control’ follows with its expensive blend of choirs, frantic arpeggios and swizz like: "People think that I’m insane, the only gun inside my brain," that we’re meant to sway between identifying with and being shocked by. "I don’t smoke, it’s true." The soca, Latin feel and melodic simplicity places Madame X perhaps closest to Rihanna, without her vocal strength or (still, many albums into Fenty’s career) her vivid, raw spirit.

‘Batuka’ is hypnotic in a good way and ‘Crazy’ has a decent slow grinding half-lascivious half-heartbreak chorus (and Madonna’s best singing on the record). But then ‘Extreme Occident’ and its casual phoney equivalences of east and west, left and right – othering dressed up as empathy – is some of the most stupid faux-politicking bollocks I’ve heard in song, even as a neat Indian tabla groove fights to rescue it. ‘Killers Who Are Partying’ preens like Sting. "I’ll be a child if children are exploited… I’ll be Islam if Islam is hated" Oh, fuck off Madge, no you really won’t. Even simple acoustic’n’beats ballad ‘Crave’, with Swae Lee from Rae Sremmurd sounding more bored than horny, has an icky aftertaste, when it ought to be beautiful.

Overall, Madonna’s fourteenth album Madame X feels as if Mirwais had mostly completed a decent run-of-the-mill modern pop record, albeit with a cool hotch-potch global feel; hip nods in place to fado, dub and other micro-genres dunked amongst the trap and retro disco. But then just before sign-off, Herself went through the top-lines with a sharpie. Every so often, she said "Here, let’s put something bonkers here!" And then again, a few minutes later, "Here too!" And so on. Because none of these carefully curated flourishes feel as if they truly live inside the ‘whole’ of this music. Instead it all feels plonked on top of a template.

In theory, I like Madonna when she’s wacko. But it can’t be mistaken for musical innovation and especially not for courage, which she seriously seems to be claiming. As Madame X unfolds I’m not charmed; I’m more and more irritated and, later on, just tired. Set against today’s diaspora – wealth and legacy banked – Madonna simply isn’t wayward. It doesn’t matter if she says she is. Yes, huge achievements for subsequent generations of artists and an important pioneer of self-expression. But that all happened. Madame X is like Becky With The Good Hair got the same budget as Lemonade to compose her white, centrist response.