Madonna's 'Rebel Heart': What the Critics Are Saying
Partially leaked long before its release, her 13th studio album is led by her single "Living for Love" and also includes collaborations with Kanye West, Diplo, Nicki Minaj, Avicii and Nas.
Madonna's Rebel Heart hits shelves on Tuesday — legally and in full, as multiple tracks from the pop icon's thirteenth studio album have been leaked since late last year.
Led by her self-empowerment single "Living for Love," the album also includes collaborations with Kanye West, Diplo, Nicki Minaj, Avicii, Nas, Chance the Rapper and Mike Tyson, among others. It will be supported by her Rebel Heart arena tour, which kicks off on Aug. 29 in Miami.
See what top critics are saying about Rebel Heart:
Billboard's Joe Levy gives it three-and-a-half stars out of five, as it's full of oppositions: "Biting breakup songs like 'Heartbreak City' rub up against some of the most absurdly lubricious sex songs of her absurdly lubricious career. ... Declarations of invincibility like 'Unapologetic Bitch' are undone by laments over the price of fame and the way that even hearts of steel can break. Her decades-long love affair with house continues alongside her decades-long love affair with singer-songwriter confessions. Religious devotion and earthly love are cross-wired, ... and songs with spare, inventive beats battle for dominance against expertly realized maximalist pop. There's one other tension of note: Her determination to outgrow the past and shed her skin (as she puts it on the title track) tangles with her own back catalog."
Additionally, the album "has 14 producers working in seven different teams and still it sounds exactly like a Madonna album," and "one of the strangest things about Rebel Heart is how subtle it seems by current standards. These songs unfold slowly, building through foreplay-like intros before hooks are displayed over a shifting series of textures, as if the tracks were being remixed while you're listening to them. In a short-attention-span world of hits that relentlessly spotlight mini-hook after mini-hook for club DJs to drop in a few bars at a time, they seem positively luxurious and downright intellectual."
Time's Jamieson Cox says, "Given all the turmoil, it’s impressive — and a little surprising — that the final product is her most consistent album in a decade, and one that renders any hypothetical 'bid for continued relevance' moot by remaining proudly scattershot. It’s an album that places more emphasis on Madonna the person than Madonna the sonic visionary, and it benefits as a result. ... The album presents two faces, neither of which are designed to stand alone: the #1 Baddest Bitch out for sex and blood ('the Rebel') and the vulnerable veteran reflecting on love, life, and difficult choices ('the Heart'). And while the songs in the former group are great fun, because nobody can poke fun at Madonna like Madonna, ... the latter ones are the true stunners. ... it has surprising gravity, and doubles as a portrait of a lion approaching the winter of a career without precedent. It’s the realest, and the best, Madonna has sounded in quite some time."
Rolling Stone's Caryn Ganz writes, "Rebel Heart is a long, passionate, self-referential meditation on losing love and finding purpose in chilling times. It's also a chance for the Queen of Pop to floss a bit and reflect on how she painstakingly carved a path others have happily twerked down in the years since her 1983 debut." Of the collaborations, some "gel perfectly," like 'Illuminati' with West and 'Devil Pray' with Avicii," but unfortunately, "cameos from Nas, Chance the Rapper and Mike Tyson don't elevate their respective songs. And Madonna lets her own appetite for over-the-top sex songs run wild on a handful of cringy tracks like 'Holy Water' and 'S.E.X.'" Yet "the album is at its strongest when Madonna shoves everyone to the side and just tells it to us straight. ... Deep down, Madonna does have a rebel heart — and you can't fault her for reminding us that pop music is all the better for it."
Los Angeles Times' Randall Roberts gives it three stars out of four, as it "is a far better album than MDNA — cleaner, crisper, more sober, less a flimsy attempt at drawing fickle youth ears and more a sturdy rhythmic platform to showcase some of the most striking tracks she’s made in 15 years (specifically, since Music, her last great album). Her clear focus on a mission of self-empowerment "drives tracks such as 'Illuminati,' 'Joan of Arc' and 'Iconic' into that sweet spot between club frenzy and revelatory lyricism, the kind that can lift spirits to emotional heights." The carefully written songs "have been fortified by producers and as such are thick and modern, with heavy bass, lots of tweaky snare and high-hats and a midrange action that snakes through songs like locomotives winding through mountainous tracks."
USA Today's Elysa Gardner also gives it three-and-a-half stars out of four, as the songs "present Madonna at her most determined and spiritually unplugged. ... [She] is a survivor, and Rebel Heart celebrates that increasingly rare bird with a bittersweet vengeance."