Madonna is ahead of the curve once again with her new, ambitious "Rebel Heart" (Interscope) album.

She went a little too far with her 2003 album, "American Life," and then opted for the safer (well, safer for Madonna) world of dance music for a few albums.

With "Rebel Heart," she is innovative again, searching for ways to express her rebellious side and her softer, more heartfelt side. Madonna rarely gets credit for the strength of her melodies, but on this album, they are undeniable. From the gospel-influenced stomp of the single "Living for Love" to the reggae-tinged kiss-off "Unapologetic Bitch," the focus here is on creating a musical backdrop as memorable as the lyrics -- not through production, though Madonna has certainly assembled a who's who of collaborators here from Kanye West to Avicii and Diplo, but through melody.

"Joan of Arc," one of the best songs of her storied career, is an example of what musical magic occurs when all the pieces of a Madonna plan come together. Lyrically, it's a revelation, as she discusses the perils of fame and how all the negativity gets to her. "Never admit it, but it hurts," she sings, before adding, "Even hearts made out of steel can break down." In the end, though, love gives her strength and she remains quietly defiant.

Of course, Madonna can still be openly defiant, too. In "Holy Water," she uses West's aggressive synths and beats to gleefully blend sexual and religious imagery. The mix of joyful, classical-influenced EDM bits and trap-inspired hip-hop on "Bitch I'm Madonna" is a thrilling tension, even before Nicki Minaj shuts it down with a powerful verse.

Madonna breaks new ground with these combinations of hard and soft. On "HeartBreakCity," she takes what could have been a French torch song and toughens it up, adding a thunderous choir and massive-sounding production.

Despite her unexpected revelations on "Rebel Heart," Madonna is more artistically fearless now than ever, ready to forge new styles at a time in her career when most would be considering acoustic interpretations of her hits and decades-themed cover albums.

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THE GRADE A