Augmented Reality, Multiple Tracks, Tour Prep and TikTok
Less than an hour after she delivered one of the most imaginative awards show performances in a career full of them, Madonna stood backstage in an eye patch at the Billboard Music Awards, explaining how the seeds of her forthcoming album, Madame X, were planted more than three decades ago.
“[Madame X] was a name given to me when I was 19 and I first moved to New York, by a woman who I looked up to and admired,” Madonna told Billboard’s Senior Director of Charts Keith Caulfield. The woman she was referring to was modern dance genius Martha Graham, who influenced Madonna’s choreography as a mentor, prior to her death in 1991. “And she gave me that name because she said she couldn’t recognize all my different personas, because I kept changing the way I looked.
“And that was in the beginning of my career, when I didn’t think about who I should be or what I should be — I was experimenting,” Madonna continued. “And so I felt like I had come full circle, and gave the record that name, because I’m in the same frame of mind.”
If the title of Madame X, Madonna’s fourteenth studio album due out June 14, reflects the complex, multifaceted nature of her pop aesthetic, so will the way in which the full-length is unfurled. There’s already been “Medellín,” the mid-tempo, multi-lingual Latin pop confection alongside Colombian heartthrob Maluma released last month, as well as its opulent, cinematic music video for the track, which clocks in at nearly seven minutes.
Then there was the pair’s Billboard Music Awards showcase of the song, which combined live dancers and light BDSM play with augmented reality technology, which allowed multiple avatars of Madonna to seemingly grace the stage on the ceremony’s telecast. Madonna says that she came up with the concept for the eye-popping set piece “many, many months ago,” and required weeks of rehearsals to properly configure her AR personas for the green screen.
Yet as ambitious as the visual presentations of “Medellín” have been, the song represents just the first piece of the multi-track pre-album rollout that Madonna has planned over the next six weeks. The Maluma collaboration has already been followed by “I Rise,” the theatrical solo song that closes out the Madame X track list and was unveiled on Friday (May 3). The inspirational track features a sample of speech made by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School school shooting survivor Emma González.
Next up is “Crave,” the combustible team-up with Swae Lee, on May 10; the Rae Sremmurd rapper is currently riding a hot streak as a featured artist thanks to his appearance on French Montana’s “Unforgettable,” Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” and Ellie Goulding and Diplo’s “Close to Me.” After “Crave” comes “Future,” a Quavo collaboration that was also produced by Diplo, on May 17, and finally June 7 will bring “Dark Ballet,” one of the more multi-dimensional songs on the new album, according to President of Maverick Music Greg Thompson.
“[The album] is a journey, and there are a lot of chapters,” Thompson explains of the decision to slowly trickle out five tracks ahead of the release, a deviation from Madonna’s previous rollouts. Her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, suffered leaks months ahead of release, resulting in six songs being rushed out early for an iTunes pre-order. “In a world where we’re more song-driven than we’ve been in a long time as an industry, it became a real question and a challenge: How do we make sure that people really understand this album by the time it comes out, but still have songs that can be hit singles in certain areas?”
To that end, “Crave” with Swae Lee will become the de facto pop radio single upon its release, with an official music video to soon follow. Meanwhile, “Medellín” — which received a global television launch across Viacom networks in April — will continue being pushed in Latin markets. The decision to lead with “Medellín” instead of “Crave” came down to the belief that it was “the signature track to the body of work, and the right place to start telling the story,” says Thompson. He adds, “I think we have a good shot to get a top five club record with some [‘Medellín’] remixes, and get that song into people’s spaces that they might not anticipate.” (Madonna has notched a record 57 top five-charting hits on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart.)
Aside from the upcoming song and video releases, Madonna confirmed to Billboard that there have already been production meetings for her next tour, which would follow the 82-date run in support of Rebel Heart. The Madame X campaign will also feature a few more surprises — including further use of the growing short form video platform TikTok, where Madonna launched the “Medellín cha cha cha challenge” earlier this week. “She started playing with it,” Thompson says with a laugh, “and we’re having some fun with it. We think it’s cool.”
Above all, the rollout is designed to capture the multi-continent creation of Madame X, after Madonna relocated to Lisbon in 2017. “Crave” was one of the songs that was conceived in Portugal as the pop superstar started to focus on the follow-up to Rebel Heart, while other tracks — which range in language, from English to Spanish to Portuguese — were birthed in Colombia, Brazil and the States, among other locations.
So out of that 13-song track list, what do those five pre-release tracks represent to Madonna? “A little smorgasbord of delights,” she says with a wide smile. “Appetizers from around the world.”