Madonna: Rebel Heart

Photo: Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot

Rebel Heart has a profoundly human element to it, one that paints Madonna more as a person than a product, which is in and of itself a minor miracle.


Rebel Heart

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2015-03-10
UK Release Date: 2015-03-09

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

For a bunch of people who tried to illegally download Madonna's 2003 album American Life, this was the exact phrase they heard, spoken by the Queen of Pop herself, followed by minutes of silence. Some context: as a way to try and counteract file-sharing in the immediate aftermath of Napster's shutdown, Madonna and her team thought that by creating dummy files that mirrored the run times of the actual album tracks and uploading them to various P2P servers, Madge's stern warning would help curb any sales losses and force digital thieves to reconsider their actions. The plan ended up backfiring, with one irritated hacker defacing Madonna's website and posting the MP3s to every song on the album, adding the message "This is what the fuck I think I'm doing."

On 16 December 2014, Madonna received word that more than a dozen demos for her pending album Rebel Heart had leaked. With iTunes executives on vacation, there was little Madonna could do outside of decrying the leak as "artistic rape" on Instagram, eventually holing up in studio and putting some finishing touches on a handful of songs while her manager Guy Oseary called in every favor to rush-release a short EP of album tracks that would come with every album pre-order. Astonishingly, the gambit worked, and Madonna topped iTunes charts around the world.

The parallel between these two incidents is uncanny, and in the case of American Life, all that behind-the-scenes drama ultimately overshadowed Madonna's usual boundary-pushing narrative, her defiant attitude, controversial music video, and political grandstanding all working in tandem to relegate American Life as nothing more than a footnote in her legacy, many calling it the worst album of her career. While Rebel Heart's leak was one of the most high-profile in recent memory (and, all things considered, it wasn't nearly as bad as when Bjork's entire album Vulnicura got out before its existence was even announced), Madonna's less-abrasive response has softened the blow, with most people either taking issue with the lyrics to the new song "Illuminati" or commenting on her spectacular stage fall and recovery at the 2015 BRIT Awards instead of the fact that over 20 demos made their way onto the internet so easily.

Although the Diplo-produced "Living for Love" is hands-down the best single we've heard from Madge since 2005's ABBA-sampling "Hung Up" and some have already declared that this will be her greatest triumph since Confessions on a Dance Floor, the truth of the matter is that when removed from all the hullabaloo, Rebel Heart is unlike any other album in Madonna's discography. Instead of creating a brand-new aural persona as she's done so many times before, Rebel Heart is very much the first Madonna album that's actually about Madonna with a majority of these tracks commenting on her own history and accomplishments with varying degrees of success. While there is the usual glut of mindless sex jams and of-the-minute trend chasers that have so characterized her last three full-lengths, those few meta moments that actually work reveal a rare poignancy that hasn't been seen since 2000's Music.

Take "Holy Water" for example. Describing what she thinks she tastes like when you go down on her, Madonna sounds very much at home with aggressive sentiments like "Bitch, get off my pole" and "Yeezus loves my pussy best" (Kanye West shows up in a small production capacity here), blatantly toying around with religious iconography while having a bit of provocative fun. During a breakdown near the end, she somewhat inexplicably interpolates the entire "Ladies with an attitude" verse from "Vogue", presumably to give weight to the song's theme of owning your own sexuality, even if its inclusion entirely unnecessary. So why add it? While the verse does fit nicely over the song's mid-tempo electro throb, this is a rare case of Madonna acknowledging her own legacy (much like Prince, she's not one for a lot of reflection), leaving these well-worn tropes out in a window display for all to see instead of keeping them in the stock room in back and hoping no one will notice.

The sense of dirty fun that permeates "Holy Water" is what ultimately makes it succeed over tracks like "Bitch I'm Madonna" and "Illuminati", two songs that absolutely reek of desperation, wanting so badly to shock and offend listeners that they fail to resolve as satisfying songs first and foremost. Discounting notable exceptions like Music and Confessions on a Dance Floor, a majority of Madonna's post-millennial work has been about chasing trends instead of making them, and discs like Hard Candy and MDNA end up being filled with easy chart hits but ultimately lack any real convictions underneath, the importance of style being prioritized over the songs themselves.

Thus, in working with the likes of Diplo and Avicii, some may have thought that Rebel Heart would follow that same trap, playing shadow games with the Hot 100 instead of carving out a distinct emotional identity. Part of the reason why Rebel Heart feels much more lived-in than her last few albums is because there is still some bitterness coursing through its veins, Madge telling us "I can't be a superhero right now" on "Joan of Arc" before angrily carping "I'm popping bottles that you can't even afford" to an ex-lover on the defiant "Unapologetic Bitch". At other points, she seems to be wrestling with her own legacy, observing "I-can / I-con / Two letters apart" on the appropriately-titled "Iconic", later noting that "If you don't make the choice / And you don't use your voice / Someone else will speak for you instead."

Madonna aficionados, however, will find the most to decipher in "Veni Vidi Vici" and the album's title track, two songs that show Madge at her most introspective and biographical, aspects she herself rarely touches upon (and, of course, these songs are relegated only to Rebel Heart's Deluxe Edition). In "Veni Vidi Vici", Madonna actually outshines her own guest Nas by dropping verses that stroll through her past hits while commenting on her own influence with a wink and a smile:

I expressed myself

Came like a virgin down the aisle

Exposed my naked ass

And I did it with a smile

And when it came to sex

I knew I walked the borderline

And when I struck a pose

All the gay boys lost their mind

I justified my love

I made you say your little prayer

They had me crucified

You know I had to take it there

I opened up my heart

I learned the power of good-bye

I saw a ray of light

Music saved my life

Meanwhile on the strum-and-drum title track, which is easily the album's most successful pure pop moment, she makes numerous references to her past, ranging from defying her father's requests that she "be like the other girls" while also noting that she's "spent some time as a narcissist" while "trying to be so provocative". The song turns out to to be a rather rousing little anthem, but the degree to which she overtly acknowledges her past ends up feeling more human than it does cheekily self-referential. Some folks may want to make an argument that this is in fact Madonna's most personal album to date, and even with a Deluxe Edition that clocks in at a full 19 tracks (and a bloated Super Deluxe Edition that features a full 25), they'd actually be 100% correct.

Although "Body Shop" plays like an Ani DiFranco sex jam and "Unapologetic Bitch" strikes more than a few poses copied from the Gwen Stefani playbook, make no mistake: there are still more than a few forgettable jams on here, ranging from the generic thump of "Hold Tight" to the yawn-inducing ballad "HeartBreakCity". Yet those who stick it out will find that even though its pleasures are more modest than iconic, Rebel Heart has a profoundly human element to it, one that paints Madonna more as a person than a product, which is in and of itself a minor miracle.

Back in 2003, she barked the phrase "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" at downloaders despite not knowing herself what she wanted to do with her career at that point. Now, with Rebel Heart she's dropped the overt hit-chasing to instead take on her most radical incarnation yet: that of an actual, relatable human being, flaws and all.

Splash image: press photo by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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