Madonna is at a crossroads.
The windup for her 12th studio album, "MDNA" (Interscope), was huge, drawing more than 114 million viewers for the most-watched Super Bowl Halftime Show in history, where she rolled out the album's first single "Give Me All Your Luvin'." However, radio didn't really embrace the giddy, cheerleader-driven pop song, which stalled at No. 10 after its initial burst of sales, even after it was augmented with current A-listers Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. and LMFAO. That welcome re-raised the question that has dogged Madonna for the past decade or so: Can she still be a pop star?
Part of what makes "MDNA" so extraordinary is that the answer seems unclear -- even to Madonna. On half of "MDNA," Madonna, surrounded by such state-of-the-art collaborators as hot producer Martin Solveig, sounds like she is readying her last stand as the Queen of Pop, marshaling upbeat dance numbers, well-crafted enough to match anything today's crop of pop princesses -- Rihanna, Katy Perry and, of course, Lady Gaga -- could muster. On the other half of "MDNA," though, Madonna, with her "Ray of Light" producer William Orbit, sounds like she could easily leave pop behind to create dark, challenging EDM and work on her far-more-lucrative concert tours.
Throw in the fact that Madonna clearly still has unresolved feelings about her divorce from director Guy Ritchie -- and is willing to openly discuss them -- and "MDNA" not only becomes her most interesting album since 1998's "Ray of Light," but her most artistically fearless album since 1989's "Like a Prayer."
There is no filler here, no unrealized potential. Each song on "MDNA" is part of Madonna's internal argument about her future as a pop star, an artist, a wife and a woman. And over the course of an hour or so, they all try to hash it out.
The songs produced by Solveig, best known in America for the dance hit "Hello," are all timely pop songs, ranging from the catchy escapism of "Give Me All Your Luvin' " and "Turn Up the Radio" to the defiant "I Don't Give A," which features Madonna rapping about her post-divorce life ("You were so mad at me / Who's got custody? / Lawyers, suck it up / Didn't have a pre-nup") and employs Minaj in another song-stealing turn.
The songs produced by Orbit are more diverse. There's the tabloid-fodder dubstep "Gang Bang," where Madonna cleverly adopts Ritchie's violent filmmaking style into her lyrics, and the electronic "Some Girls." However, even more thrilling is the gorgeous, vulnerable trio of tracks that close out the regular version of the album -- the Abba-esque, banjo-riffic "Love Spent," the Golden Globe-winning love song "Masterpiece" and the epic, "Frozen"-like "Falling Free," where Madonna looks for a way to move on.
"MDNA" shows that Madonna, who celebrates the 30th anniversary of her breakthrough debut this year, can still pull out some surprises -- even for herself.
BOTTOM LINE Madonna expresses herself