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In some circles, the six saddest words in the English language may be: “Don’t you know who I am?” Often the answer is an ego-crushing “no.” So when Madonna names a song “Bitch I’m Madonna” — and books Nicki Minaj to add praise — well, no one knows better than she does that celebrity is Darwinian.
At 56, Madonna has to contend with a generation of singers who have studied her playbook so thoroughly that they are far more her competition than her admirers. But with the six songs she suddenly released on Saturday, she’s still a contender.
Madonna put the songs out shortly after an online leak of more than a dozen songs thought to have been planned for “Rebel Heart,” an album she had scheduled for release on March 10. In an Instagram post that she later deleted, Madonna called the leak a “form of terrorism.”
But her commercial response was shrewd. The songs can be downloaded from online music services with a preorder of the album or separately, and Madonna’s name recognition is still so strong that the announcement catapulted all six tracks into the iTunes Top 10 in dozens of countries. (They have since slipped in the United States, but five of the tracks were in the Top 20 early Tuesday morning.) Madonna said that the leaked files were unfinished, and that’s exactly how they sound, particularly those that can be compared with the official releases. Madonna and her producers tweaked the songs further, changing up rhythms and adding sizzle and sharpness to each mix.
In some ways, “Rebel Heart” shapes up as a sequel, with lessons learned, to her 2012 album, “MDNA.” On that album she switched between angry breakup songs and party-girl boasts; she also returned to her longtime strategy of collaborating with top D.J.s of electronic dance music as producers. But the resulting songs often felt coldly mechanized and dutifully trendy; overprocessed vocals and cliché-slinging lyrics didn’t help.
The six-song preview of “Rebel Heart” features Madonna’s better side: as a savvy pop ear and musical team leader, and as a lyricist who sometimes ponders sin along with romance and fame.
Madonna is still reacting to a breakup in two of her new songs (and in more of the demos). But at this point, she’s bouncing back. “Living for Love,” easily one of her best singles in a decade, transmutes revenge into upbeat redemption. Diplo and Alicia Keys are among its seven songwriters; Ms. Keys’s piano is also in the track, which harnesses blipping electronics and a house beat to a gospelly buildup. Madonna moves through accusations on the way to positive thinking: “After the heartache, I’m gonna carry on,” she declares.
“Unapologetic Bitch,” another Diplo collaboration, is more testy. It swerves in and out of a reggae band groove, punctuated by air horn and electronics, as Madonna insults her ex’s sexual performance and taunts, “I don’t care no more/ Tell me how it feels to be ignored.”
“Ghosttown” mixes affection and postapocalyptic gloom. It’s a straightforward ballad over synthesizer chords, written with songwriters who have also supplied material to Rihanna, Demi Lovato and Jason Derulo; it begs for a dystopian-romance video.
“This world has turned to dust/ All we’ve got left is love,” Madonna sings, before the chorus promises, “When it all falls down, we’ll be two souls in a ghost town.” Most of the “Rebel Heart” songs tend to check off at least two idioms per track. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is, fortunately, the most negligible of the “Rebel Heart” tracks. Behind generic club-night lyrics like “We get freaky if you want,” Diplo’s production alternates between blipping, trance-flavored verses — hinting at the chords from “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — and the slow, sparse beat of trap.
Kanye West shares the production credits on “Illuminati” and leaves his imprint with distorted vocal effects, a hard kick drum and a rubbery bass line. He’s also mentioned in the song’s merely clever lyrics, which have Madonna rapping the names of celebrities, summarizing the theory of the all-seeing Illuminati conspiracy and concluding, “It’s like everybody in this party/ shining like Illuminati.”
Madonna’s hedonism and higher consciousness converge in “Devil Pray.” Its music, with Avicii among the producers, is a little behind the curve; it uses acoustic rhythm guitar above synthetic four-on-the-floor like Avicii’s hit with Aloe Blacc, “Wake Me Up.”
Madonna, the longtime God-fearing bad girl, sings about how “we could do drugs and we could smoke weed and we could drink whiskey,” but no, those would be bad alternatives. She wants her soul saved from the devil, and not even the tempting electronic beats of clubland can dissuade her. “Teach me how to pray,” she implores. That’s a different Madonna — not blasphemous but devout.
The leaked tracks might, in the end, only raise Madonna’s stature. When the finished album is released — with or without different songs — fans will hear what she adds to them, what she changes, what her standards and instincts demand. They won’t experience Madonna the celebrity or Madonna the fashion statement but the Madonna who has kept us listening for decades: Madonna the musician.
Correction: December 23, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of a song. It is “Devil Pray,” not “Devil’s Pray.”