Though a diverse caravan of songwriters and producers were brought in to help shape Rebel Heart – marking a change from Madonna’s customary tight-knit recording partnerships – the album offered some of her strongest material of the 21st century, including the majestic ballad Ghosttown and a confident return to the Billboard Hot 100 in Bitch, I’m Madonna.
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“She is there to make music, and that’s the only thing she is there to do”
The headlines supporting Rebel Heart’s release were, however, almost exclusively focused on the leaks that forced Madonna to release six of the album’s songs ahead of its official release date of 6 March 2014. For an artist used to being in control, having dozens of part-finished tracks sneak their way online was received as a cruel form of creative vandalism that she fought hard to put into perspective. Producer Diplo, who worked on cuts such as Unapologetic Bitch, could see how much it mattered to one of the most successful female singers of all time. “She’s still treating this one as if it’s her first record,” he told Mojo magazine. “But she is Madonna, and she is really there to make music, and that’s the only thing she is there to do.”
Among the best Madonna albums, Rebel Heart is, in many ways, a greatest-hits compendium of Madonna’s magic DNA: there’s a strong dance dynamic, a generous helping of – often sexualised – humour, plenty of mannered theatricality and a razor-sharp focus on hooks, coming from thumping dance beats, crazy, nagging production wizardry and reassuringly familiar melodic earworms.
Setting the stall out for Rebel Heart’s reception, the album’s lead single, the gospel-dance roof-raiser Living For Love, made No.1 on the US dance chart, as did its two follow-ups, the Carpenters-esque Ghosttown – one of Madonna’s greatest-ever ballads – and the Nicki Minaj-assisted, Bitch, I’m Madonna. Though the latter remains perhaps Rebel Heart’s most enduring number, all three show just how the best Madonna songs of the era asserted her continued relevance on the pop landscape.