Ten years ago, Madonna looked set for another exciting rebirth when she announced her 12th studio effort, MDNA. In the four years since 2008’s Hard Candy, the master of reinvention had left her Warner Bros. home for Interscope and split with second husband Guy Ritchie. And with a newcomer by the name of Lady Gaga launching the most credible challenge in 30 years to her Queen of Pop throne, she was firmly expected to bring her A-game. Instead, Madge delivered the most regressive and disappointingly basic record of her career.
The stats back this up, too. Although MDNA’s first-week sales of 359,000 was Madonna’s highest since Music, half that number came from an album-tour bundle, a by-product of her other major new deal with LiveNation. It later dropped to No. 8, posting the then-biggest percentage sales drop for a No. 1 in the Nielsen Soundscan era, and within 13 weeks it was out of the Billboard 200 altogether.
Of course, her new label might have been anticipating a commercial nosedive in the wake of her third official hits comp, Celebration. After 1990’s The Immaculate Collection, she confounded her pop fans with the deeply provocative hip-hop, R&B and house of Erotica. 2001’s GHV2, meanwhile, was followed by American Life, a decidedly chilly concept album dissecting the American Dream. But although they both underperformed in the charts, you couldn’t fault their sense of ambition and originality.
In stark contrast, there’s little on MDNA that would even class as second-tier Madonna. Penned for her second feature-length directorial effort W.E., “Masterpiece” is a genuinely lovely ballad which ensured that the royal biopic got at least some awards attention (and not at the Razzies, either). Still, alongside similarly restrained closer “Falling Free,” it appears to have wandered in from an entirely different record.
For all of its faults, MDNA doesn’t subscribe to the theory that all breakup albums need to be defined by seven-minute misery-wallowing dirges. “I just need to dance,” Madonna notes on the gurgling electro-house of “I’m Addicted,” a statement of intent far removed from breakup albums designed to leave you crying in the shower. It’s just a shame that she chose to head back into the clubs in the wrong company.
The signs that Madonna had lost some of her seemingly magical collaborative spirit were already evident on its predecessor. Whereas the likes of William Orbit, Mirwais and Stuart Price were plucked from the fringes of the mainstream, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams had been making super-sized hits for the best part of a decade. Hard Candy is a perfectly solid contemporary R&B album, but it could have been recorded by Britney, Nelly Furtado or any number of pop stars who grew up listening to the Material Girl.
MDNA, however, saw the once switched on Madonna fall even further behind the curve. Martin Solveig’s brand of electro-pop was considered generic back in the early ‘00s, so it’s little surprise that his three offerings are more provincial nightclub chain than underground warehouse. “Turn Up the Radio” is particularly guilty of making the most dominant female artist in pop history sound like she’s channeling Heidi Montag.
Then there’s “Give Me Your Luvin’,” a feeble attempt at a “Mickey” for the EDM generation which, thanks to cameos from M.I.A and Nicki Minaj, essentially relegates Madonna to bit player on her own comeback single. That middle-finger gesture at the Super Bowl undoubtedly remains more memorable than the track it accompanied.
As the man jointly responsible for “Ray of Light,” “Nothing Really Matters” and “Runaway Lover,” you’d have expected Orbit to steer Madonna into more interesting dancefloor territory. However, even his uptempo contributions border on the inane. The dubstep breakdown that seemed to be mandatory back in the early 2010s instantly dates the awfully titled “Gang Bang,” while the formulaic hardstyle of “Some Girls” spends four minutes in search of a tune to little avail. Only “I’m A Sinner,” and its swirling psychedelic organs reminiscent of “Beautiful Stranger,” comes anywhere close to recapturing their turn-of-the-century glory days.
You only wish that Madonna had put more faith in the Benassi brothers, Benny and Alle. The strobe-lit electronica of opener “Girl Gone Wild,” which throws in nods to everything from her one-time closest rival Cyndi Lauper to Like a Prayer cut “Act of Contrition,” briefly suggests we’re in for a journey back to her New York club roots similar to Confessions on a Dance Floor. And although its love-is-a-drug-metaphor is hardly subtle, “I’m Addicted” and its chants of “MDMA” suitably provides the most addictive moment.
This sense of playfulness is a saving grace. MDMA’s music may often sound like it’s been designed by committee, yet Madonna’s lyrics, no matter how clunky (see “You’re like James Dean driving a fast car” on “Superstar”), ensure that the cookie-cutter tunes at least have some semblance of personality.
Ritchie’s ears were no doubt burning through most of its recording, with “Love Spent” taking aim at his apparent gold-digging tendencies (“If we opened up a joint account/Would it put an end to all your doubt”) and second Minaj feature “I Don’t Give A” hinting at a fragile male ego (“I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminish myself and swallowed my light”). But Madonna has the most fun envisioning a violent demise in “Gang Bang,” repeatedly shouting “Die bitch” in a vengeful tale apparently inspired by Quentin Tarantino (the director Ritchie has often been accused of aping just to throw some extra shade). Hell hath no fury like a 12-time Hot 100 chart-topper scorned, obviously.
Since then, she’s released Rebel Heart and Madame X; while both were inconsistent, they had flourishes of the Madonna famous for setting herself apart from the crowd. MDNA, on the other hand, remains a deeply uninspiring listen that hasn’t gotten better with age.