The title of Madonna’s 12th studio album MDNA implies that it’s infused with her essence, and indeed the pop singer is a lot more present than she was on 2008’s disappointing Hard Candy. The songs are filled with references to past Madonna hits, and lead single “Give Me All Your Luvin’” literally features a cheer chanting her name. What MDNA shares with Hard Candy in its most disappointing moments is a tendency to chase pop trends rather than set them, a sign of the desperation that peeks through whenever Madonna cedes the spotlight to a younger pop sensation, or apes the sound of other chart-topping artists.
There’s a lot of fairly disposable electro-pop on MDNA, from opener “Girl Gone Wild” to the fun but forgettable party songs “I’m Addicted” and “Turn Up the Radio,” and while it’s competently produced and pleasant to listen to, it’s seriously personality-deficient. Thankfully that’s not the case through the whole album, and the best songs combine Madonna’s individual vision with the talents of in-demand producers like Benny Benassi and Martin Solveig (plus veteran Madonna collaborator William Orbit). The dark, pulsing revenge fantasy “Gang Bang,” the defiant, upbeat “I Don’t Give A” and the elegant ballad “Masterpiece” are standout tracks that reflect the singer’s turbulent public life.
Although Hard Candy sometimes felt overrun with guest stars, MDNA’s appearances from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. are less intrusive. They prove superfluous on “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” but Minaj’s verse on “I Don’t Give A” adds to the song’s boldness, and the M.I.A. co-written “B-Day Song” is one of the highlights of the deluxe edition (which, frustratingly, features some of MDNA’s best songs overall). It’s a shame that Madonna can’t let go of her need to compete with performers half her age, but at least on MDNA she manages to make the pop style of the moment work for her, rather than being overpowered by it.