Rebel Heart was introduced to the world with an indiscipline uncharacteristic of Madonna. Blame it on hackers who rushed out a clutch of unfinished tracks at the end of 2014, a few months before the record's scheduled spring release. Madonna countered by putting six full tracks up on a digital service, a move that likely inflated the final Deluxe Edition of Rebel Heart up to a whopping 19 tracks weighing in at 75 minutes, but even that unveiling wasn't performed without a hitch: during an ornate performance of "Living for Love," she stumbled on-stage at the BRIT Awards. Such cracks in Madge's armor happily play into the humanity coursing through Rebel Heart (maybe the hiccups were intentional after all?), a record that ultimately benefits from its daunting mess. All the extra space allows ample room for detours, letting Madonna indulge in both Erotica-era taboo-busting sleaze ("Holy Water") and feather-light pop ("Body Shop"). Although she takes a lingering look back at the past on "Veni Vidi Vici" -- her cataloging of past hits walks right on the edge of camp, kept away from the danger zone by a cameo from Nas -- Rebel Heart, like any Madonna album, looks forward. Opener "Living for Love" announces as much, as its classic disco is soon exploded into a decibel-shattering EDM pulse coming courtesy of co-producer Diplo. Madonna brings him back a few more times -- the pairing of the reggae-bouncing "Unapologetic Bitch" and Nicki Minaj showcase "Bitch I'm Madonna," their titles suggesting vulgarity, their execution flinty and knowing -- but she cleverly balances these clubby bangers with "Devil Pray," an expert evocation of her folktronica Y2K co-produced by Avicii, and "Illuminati," a sleek, spooky collaboration with Kanye West. These are the anchors of the album, grounding the record when Madonna wanders into slow-churning meditation, unabashed revivals of her '90s adult contemporary mode, casual confession ("I spent sometime as a narcissist"), and defiant celebrations of questionable taste. Undoubtedly, some of this flair would've been excised if the record was a manageable length, but the blessing of the unwieldiness is that it does indeed represent a loosening of Madonna's legendary need for control. Certainly, the ambition remains, along with the hunger to remain on the bleeding edge, but she's allowing her past to mingle with her present, allowing her to seem human yet somewhat grander at the same time.
Rebel Heart Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine