The new album by Madonna, MDNA (Interscope), is in large part a tribute to her contributions to the pop world’s gene pool. It opens with her reciting the Act of Contrition, like she did over squalling guitars on Like a Prayer; she flirtatiously sings “you can be my lucky star,” a callback to her early ’80s hit, on “Gimme All Your Luvin'”; “I’m a Sinner” is a brassier, stompier rework of “Beautiful Stranger,” her floaty, gorgeous contribution to the Austin Powers soundtrack. There’s the requisite Catholic imagery and even an unfortunate foray into rap, just like there was on American Life. This self-tribute is so awkwardly put together, though, that it comes off like a celebrity shouting to someone who doesn’t recognize her, “Do you know who I am?”
MDNA spends about an hour trying to answer that question, but Madonna’s headfirst plunge into the stormy, synthy dance music filling stadiums and festivals is at times so brutal to listen to, it seems like she’s posing that question to herself. It’s an odd tack for someone who has made a career out of turning her name into a synonym for controversy and great pop songs, and it’s enough to make one wonder if the fragmented Internet age has freaked her out in a fundamental way, making her feel like she has to reclaim her throne as the most prominent female pop star of the MTV era.
Even more curious about the identity crisis all over MDNA is the way that Madonna doesn’t even really sound like Madonna for much of it. She has never been a vocal stylist, but her voice at its most powerful provided a rallying cry for ladies, girls, and women around the world to seize the day. Here she’s almost a nonpresence; she sings in a reedy voice for most of it, only exploring her lower register when she feels like she absolutely has to. The end result? The listener knows that MDNA is a Madonna album not because her voice sounds recognizable, but because of the Hall of Fame sonic branding.
Madonna has made a career out of springboarding from current trends and tumbling into a pile of pop gold, so her move toward EDM with this album shouldn’t be too surprising. What is mildly shocking about it, though, is how hamfisted MDNA sounds at times. There are audible clashes between various pieces of the mix that just sound bad; Madonna’s rapping on “I Don’t Give A,” for example, sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody of a Madonna rap song until Nicki Minaj comes in. Minaj lays down a couple of rhymes that are by no means the best in her vast catalog, but her sudden presence shows that the music isn’t the song’s biggest weakness. “Superstar” is a plainspoken love song with an instantly memorable melody, but something about its production brings to mind the Education Connection commercials with the rapping waitress, or perhaps a commercial for a new line of tampons. And then there’s “Gang Bang,” the five-and-a-half-minute slow-burn revenge fantasia that borrows liberally from Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” (take that, Lana Del Rey!) and manages to incorporate both a wobbling dubstep drop and Madonna yelling “Drive, bitch!” in a way that brings to mind her work in Shanghai Surprise and Swept Away. (That particular homage is probably unintentional.) While the open-road guitars that get julienned into the mix sound great, the whole package is unfortunate and overlong.
The album’s back end contains a couple of ballads—”Masterpiece,” which sounds tailor-made for Lite-FM playlists from 15 years ago, is followed by “Falling Free,” which has an odd beauty about it that would probably be more striking if the strings weren’t so precisely placed. (Curiously, two of the best tracks are relegated to deluxe-version add-ons—the M.I.A.-assisted “B-Day Song,” which fuses a bouncy post-punk bassline and single-entendres with a line borrowed from Sonny and Cher and is probably as close to sounding like the Slits as Madonna is going to get, and “Beautiful Killer,” a simple yet shimmering track with “Papa Don’t Preach” strings. There’s also an LMFAO remix of “Luvin’,” for those people who thought the halftime show needed more RedFoo and SkyBlu.)
Much online hay has been made about the “feud” between Madonna and Lady Gaga, with Madonna partisans saying that the shape-shifting pop star owes her entire career to the Material Girl’s trailblazing ways and Gaga fans replying with a variation on “LOL OLD.” (Kids.) But MDNA avoids the goth-metal drag of Born This Way and, as a result, sounds more like a response to Rihanna’s recent wildfire success on the charts; the Barbadian singer’s recent blend of her studio-tricked voice and super-obvious borrowed dance-music tropes has fit right into the four-on-the-floor mix dominating pop radio for the past 24 months. The most obvious homage to Rihanna’s success comes on “I’m Addicted,” a club banger that finds Madonna chanting “MDMA” as synths swirl around her—similar to the way Ri chanted the titular acronym on “S&M,” her 2011 single that was either about bedroom bondage or oppression by the media, depending on what piece of press fluff you were reading.
Up until that point, though, “I’m Addicted” is probably the best song on the album, with Madonna’s voice processed to next week and a thumping beat that will probably sound great at 3 a.m. early Monday. It’s the sort of song that Madonna has always done best—it doesn’t merely pay homage to cultural trends, but instead models them in her own image. But Madonna spends much of the rest of MDNA looking back, both at her career and at the musicians creeping into her rearview mirror’s view, and the end result is disconcerting enough to make one ask, simply, “Who’s that girl?”