Madonna isn’t the best singer in the world, but she may well be the best pop artist on the planet. While her vocal talents are certainly passable, to suggest she’s more noted for her ability to provoke and entertain isn’t too provocative. Her albums have emphasized this quality, providing impressive soundscapes and melodious excursions rather than vocal gymnastics and subtle observations.
Madge’s 12th, MDNA, is no different. The record is a taut, well-tuned and well-toned album that allows the superstar to get personal, tense and spectacular – sometimes all at once. It is as understated as a sledgehammer to the face.
Madonna works with a veritable ocean of producers, from Ray of Light’s William Orbit to Martin Solveig to Benny Benassi. Through the different traces, she remains every bit the wise-ass, knowing firecracker. Her natural authority and stubbornness, palpable through even the album’s flattest strokes, put the bulk of today’s pop artists to shame.
MDNA opens with a “prayer” of sorts on the track “Girl Gone Wild.” Benny and Alle Benassi handle production duties, giving the song a throbbing nightclub vibe. Madonna, winking throughout her tête-à-tête with the man upstairs, suggests that she really just wants to be good but knows that she’s really more or less a slave to the beat.
The Orbit-produced “Gang Bang” astonishingly doesn’t have the sexual connotations that the title might suggest. The track is dusky and portentous, with Madonna’s vocals taking a deliciously derisive tone. The beat is spiked with the cocking and firing of a gun, with Madge talking about keeping her enemies close and busting a cap in her lover’s ill-fated ass. The epilogue sounds like something out of an exploitation film, complete with gunshots and squealing tires.
“I Don’t Give A” is another highlight. Produced by Solveig and featuring Nicki Minaj and a little of that American Life strut, this is easily the most cutting song on MDNA. Witness: “I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminish myself/And swallow my life.” Minaj’s verse adds even more edge.
Other tracks, like “Turn Up the Radio,” deliver a somewhat gentler Madonna in love with music, the crowd and the fine art of telling a story to millions of people at the same time.
There are some less-than-stellar moments, though. The radio-friendly “Give Me All Your Luvin’” features Minaj and M.I.A. in supporting roles and is perchance the album’s least interesting track. And “Superstar” is fairly lifeless, with its weak chorus, tacky lyrics and barely-there production.
Overall, though, MDNA proves that Madonna can still slice to the bone and deliver the goods. This is a big, brash pop record with imposing melodies, killer beats and just the right drop of good old-fashioned violence for the kids.