Releasing one of the most-hyped albums of the year, Madonna has worked incredibly hard at coating everything about her first album since leaving Warner Bros. with a heavy dose of confectioners' sugar. MDNA, the ill-fated title of Madonna's twelfth album, has a lot riding on it. Madonna's appeal has been that of a dwindling, aging pop star. While she's done a great job working with “future it” producers in the past, in recent attempts it's almost as if she's been grasping at what others have succeeded with in mixed efforts at retaining relevancy. Confessions on a Dance Floor allowed fans to see the Queen of Pop in a new light, “Hung Up” launching her again into the public's eye with an aggressively electronic production and dance floor consciousness. And then, with Hard Candy and “4 Minutes,” Madge again sought mainstream attention by working with high profile artists like Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, both artists who had been radio mainstays at that time. And leading off MDNA with “Give Me All Your Luvin',” Madonna tapped quirky producer Martin Solveig (“Hello” with Dragonette) and rappers/singers Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. Given “Hung Up” and “4 Minutes,”, this move really isn't that far-fetched for the singer. She's done it before, and it's paid off. But the move left a bad taste in Madonna purists' mouths, while mainstream radio ate the track up, catapulting it to peak at #10 on Billboard's Hot 100 and #1 of the Hot Dance Club Play tracks. So... Madonna purists, I think this round goes to effective marketing.
Here's what you'll need to know about Madonna's album: anyone could have actually made this album, but you'll be unable to imagine anyone else doing it after you've listened. The collaborative efforts of producers and guest vocalists give MDNA that vaguely generic sound that thrives on mainstream radio, but Madonna's unique vocal abilities make the album distinctly her own. Is this a good thing? Ultimately, that's your decision, but as with any album, there are good and bad sides to MDNA. The controversy and the hype and the timing and everything else that shows Madonna clamoring for audiences to buy it up before the sugar high wears off are all valid concerns. There are, however, some genuinely enjoyable tracks included, similar to how Katy Perry's Teenage Dream album was chock full of hits. Are the songs “good”? Mainly in a marketable sense, yes. Award winners, however, these are not (except for “Masterpiece,” so far. I hold to this for the rest of the album though).
The most notable thing in Madonna's new effort is her selection of producers. Outside of Solveig, Madonna also taps high profile dance artists Benny and Alle Benassi, Klas Ahlund (Robyn, Teddybears), and previous collaborator on the wildly successful Ray of Light, William Orbit. It's easy to tell the contributions different producers give to her music. “Girl Gone Wild,” for instance, bears the obvious hallmarks of a Benny Benassi production, reminiscent of his remix of “Celebration.” The same signature sound can be heard on “I'm Addicted.” Additionally, Solveig's bouncy and effervescent production style can be heard on “Turn Up The Radio” (one of the album's standout tracks) and “I Don't Give A” with Nicki Minaj. This second collaboration with Minaj turns out to be a clunker of a track, though. It's Orbit, though, whose imprint is felt most on the album. He collaborates with Madonna on half of the album, including Golden Globe winner for Best Original Song “Masterpiece.” Orbit's sound is a subtler approach than Benassi's and more familiar than Solveig's, giving his tracks a 'deja vu' edge over his contemporaries. Take “I'm A Sinner,” a slinky and outrageously fun track that rides hard on the sound that gave Austin Powers a run for his money - “Beautiful Stranger.” On the other hand, “Gang Bang,” a deep club stomper with more writers on board than you could imagine, comes across as shallow and insipid. Or even reductive (thanks for bringing that word back, Madonna...). So it's six of one, half a dozen of another, and quite literally so. Where will you fall?
If you purchase the album, seek out the Deluxe Edition, which gives the purchaser 5 additional tracks including “Beautiful Killer,” “I F***ed Up,” and “B-Day Song” all produced by Solveig (with M.I.A. back on the latter track), and “Best Friend” produced by Benny Benassi. These are four tracks that are worth some attention, as the production is beyond cool on some of them. This is especially true on “Best Friend,” sounding amazingly like Bjork's "Hunter." The Party Rock remix of “Give Me All Your Luvin',” replacing M.I.A. with remixers and pop music jokesters LMFAO, brings up the rear.
Love her or leave her, from a purely musical standpoint, MDNA offers little to set it apart from what the majority of artists are releasing these days. She does nothing better, but she also does nothing worse. If MDNA is purely a vehicle to reintroduce Madonna to the mainstream, then it will serve its purpose as “Give Me All Your Luvin'” and “Girl Gone Bad” have already proven. Will the album achieve even the type of success Confessions achieved? That is yet to be seen, as Confessions yielded a fair amount of left field tracks that fans loved enough to see release in one format or another. Perhaps album closer “Fallin' Free” will get recognition for the tenderness and gentility it exhibits, or the intense “I F***ed Up” may resonate with listeners. Time will tell, but for now I'm ready to give props to Madonna for what she's done well on the album. The bonus disc, as well as “I'm Addicted,” “Turn Up The Radio,” “I'm A Sinner,” and “Fallin' Free” are all standouts for me.