Critic's Notebook: Madonna's Cringe-Worthy 'Madame X'

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The icon’s new album finds her appropriating a variety of cultures and influences to fatally clunky — and musically unappealing — effect.

Madonna is back with a true head-scratcher in Madame X, her 14th album, rounding out her fourth decade as a pop star. Musically, it’s a mess and represents her trying to meld the sounds of Lisbon, Portugal, her home the past several years, with influences as far-flung as Latin, trap, disco and seemingly any other cultural trinket she picked up at World Market. It also features some of the stupidest lyrics you’re likely to hear this year.

The net experience is like hanging out with your aunt who’s trying to impress you by doing ecstasy, telling you about her sex life and pretending she’s woke. Basically: what no human wants to hear right now.

For anyone who remembers the period where Madge pretended to have a British accent and dabbled in Eastern mysticism, this is the logical extension of the cultural confusion that has defined this century for the sexagenarian pop star. Madonna has struggled the past decade — with identity politics, social media stunts (remember the rollout of Rebel Heart?) and simply making music that has any resonance with contemporary audiences. 

The new record features a Ritalin-addled melange of vibes that often feel like Rihanna leftovers. We get the pop singer teaming up with young rappers like Quavo and Swae Lee, with pretty forgettable results. For production duties, she's enlisted a grab bag of producers, but even Mirwais, who helped keep her career going on Music and Confessions on a Dancefloor, can’t rekindle any of those albums’ sense of fun or poppy concision. And Diplo’s services behind the boards do little to move the needle — though his presence, as one of 21st century pop’s most recognized pilferers, feels apt.

Apparently, this is a concept album in which Madonna assumes the role of Madame X, whom she described to the Today show as "a spy.”

“She's a secret agent. She travels the world. She changes her identity. She sleeps with one eye open. And she travels through the day with one eye shut. She's actually been wounded. So she's covering up one of her eyes," the artist said.

There is definitely something The Spy Who Shagged Me-esque about this whole get-up (with a dash of Billy the Puppet doll from the Saw franchise). It's a persona that amounts to little and feels like a completely arbitrary, unnecessary reinvention.

As for the songs themselves, their titles give you a pretty good indication of what you’re in store for. In “Extreme Occident,” Madonna sings, “I went to the far right / Then I went to the far left / I tried to recover my center of gravity” and speaks to how she’s taken loosely from various Asian cultures. There's not an ounce of self-awareness.

And then there are tracks with names like “God Control,” which you know are going to be brutal. “God Control” goes from trap to bouncy disco to children’s choir spouting out the ridiculous chorus, “We lost God control.” It’s a six-plus-minute odyssey ending in a flitter of Madonna whispering, “wake up, wake up, wake up.”

On “Killers Who Are Partying,” she hits perhaps a career low as she sings, “I’ll be Africa if Africa is shot down / I will be poor if the poor are humiliated / I’ll be a child if the children are exploited / I know what I am / and I know what I’m not / I’ll be Israel if they’re incarcerated / I'll be Native Indian if the Indian has been taken.” What is she trying to say, exactly? In what way is Israel "incarcerated"? How can she be “Native Indian” or “Africa”? Is Africa being “shot down”? The sense of confused self-importance and entitlement are hard to shake off on an album riddled with moments like this.

There are a few hopeful bits sprinkled throughout, but they don’t last long. She does a decent Wendy Carlos impression on “Dark Ballet.” And when the bassline for “I Don’t Search I Find” drops, there’s a ray of light: It almost sounds like the Aphex Twin collaboration that never happened, and even though it’s a clear rip-off of “Vogue,” it’s the closest thing here you can actually imagine human beings dancing to. But then, during a breakdown, she regrettably sings: “It’s our gypsy blood / We live between life and death.” Guh.

Who is this album for? It feels like another piece of Madonna’s journey of cultural appropriation, tailored to satisfy her own fleeting interests above all. At 15 songs, and nearing an hour running time, it’s exhausting. Madonna’s voice has never been her strong suit, and here the vocals are drenched in Auto-Tune and other effects so that it barely registers as Madonna for most of the album.

Madame X is so brazen and confident that you almost have to admire it. Almost. If only it weren’t also so grueling, shaggy and oversaturated with cringe. But what does a new album for Madonna really need to accomplish besides providing the pretext for a tour and other branding contracts? She was a pioneer of the 360 deal, after all.

Why can’t Madonna get back together with Jellybean and record a freestyle album? Is that too much to ask?