Inside Madonna's Star-Packed New Album 'Rebel Heart'

Madonna performs as part of The MDNA Tour at Philips Arena on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012], in Atlanta. (Photo by Robb Cohen/RobbsPhotos/Invision/AP) (Photo: )
Madonna performs as part of The MDNA Tour at Philips Arena on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012], in Atlanta. (Photo by Robb Cohen/RobbsPhotos/Invision/AP) (Photo: )

The following article is provided by Rolling Stone.

By CARYN GANZ

Madonna was in Africa in late November, visiting schools built by her Raising Malawi nonprofit, when the first leak hit the Web: 40 seconds of "Rebel Heart," a defiant, dance-y track she had recently been working on. Three weeks later, the leak became a flood. Madonna was back in New York on December 17th, when fans started alerting her via Instagram that 13 demos recorded for her unfinished 13th album, also called "Rebel Heart," had been illegally posted online and were spreading like wildfire.

It was an unprecedented leak: Nearly a full album's worth of work arrived four months before its planned April release date. "She was devastated," the singer's longtime manager Guy Oseary says.

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Madonna's response was swift and dramatic: She decided she would complete six tracks and get them up for sale on iTunes as soon as possible. The songs leaked on a Tuesday; they needed to be online by Friday if fans were going to buy them before 2015. "The deadline for getting this music out was a 50-yard dash," Madonna says. Some in her camp urged her to not rush out the songs, but she insisted. "Starting Wednesday, it was like, 'You've got to get this music out – I can't take it,' " adds Oseary. "What could we do? You've got to just battle through it."

With most of Apple about to go on holiday break, the challenge wasn't simply mixing and mastering the tracks to Madonna's satisfaction, but getting them loaded into the iTunes store, which can be a laborious process. (Oseary, who also manages U2, worked closely with Apple on the surprise release of U2's "Songs of Innocence" last September.)

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Madonna and her team worked for nearly 72 straight hours to make it happen, getting key help from Interscope's Steve Berman and iTunes' Robert Kondrk. She didn't learn until 11:30 p.m. Friday that the finished songs were indeed going to reach fans before the new year. But the payoff was immediate: The songs, which Madonna called "an early Christmas gift," shot to the top of the music service's charts in 42 countries. "The fans are extremely loyal," she says, "and I'm really supergrateful for that." (The full 19-track album now has a March 9th release date.) "Every time a country would tweet about getting it, it put a smile on my face, because it meant it was working," Oseary says of the iTunes rollout.

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No one in Madonna's camp will say who was responsible for the leaks, but Oseary says security has been tightened. "We figured out the holes," he says. "Clearly, we have experience now in what to do and what not to do in the future." (On December 23rd, however, several days after we spoke, 14 additional demos leaked online.)

Madonna started work on the follow-up to 2012's Number One "MDNA" early last year. From the start, she was focused on one thing in particular: making the songs stand on their own. Throughout the sessions, Madonna would ask herself if she could perform each track stripped down, alone with an acoustic guitar. "This is all part of my Armageddon thinking right now," she says. "The world is changing and what does it all come down to at the end of the day? It comes down to the songs."

The first step was finding the right collaborators. For years, she used to work with only one producer on her albums, but that hasn't been the case since 2005's "Confessions on a Dance Floor." For "Rebel Heart," she again worked with an array of stars, including Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper and Nas, often posting photos of the sessions on Instagram. "Writing music, you have to be vulnerable," she says. "It's almost like writing your diary in front of somebody and reading it out loud. Some people made me feel comfortable and I felt connected to them, and other people seemed very strange to me."

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Minaj, who turns out a ferocious rap on "Bitch I'm Madonna," was again one of her most in-sync creative partners, having also appeared on "MDNA." "Whenever we work together, she sits with me and listens to the song and says, 'Tell me what this song is about to you,' " Madonna says. "She's very methodical in her thinking. It's a back-and-forth until she gets it right."

Madonna says she found herself drawn to Diplo, who worked on a handful of tracks, thanks to their shared love of globe-trotting and "absorbing and seeing the beauty in other cultures." Several up-and-coming producers made key contributions as well, like Blood Diamonds and DJ Dahi, who worked on the ominous "Devil Pray."

The biggest guest was one of the last to arrive to the party: Kanye West came in near the end of the sessions to provide the grimy production for "Illuminati," a track that plays with one of the Internet's favorite conspiracy theories. "People often accuse me of being a member of the Illuminati, but the thing is, I know who the real Illuminati are and I know where that word comes from," Madonna says. (Her definition: scientists, artists and philosophers who flourished during the Age of Enlightenment.) She says West loved the song so much, he actually jumped up and down on the mixing board: "We were worried he was going to hit his head on the ceiling."

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Her first sessions with two groups of songwriters from Avicii's camp wound up guiding her to two distinct thematic paths: songs about letting her heart steer the way and tracks about her stubbornly rebellious spirit. "I never consciously think, 'I want to write a song about this subject' – music leads me to where I want to go emotionally," Madonna says. "One team had a more upbeat approach to songwriting, sonically speaking, and the other team chose darker chords."

While "MDNA" was widely considered Madonna's "breakup album" (she had divorced British director Guy Ritchie in 2008), she dives headfirst back into personal territory on "Rebel Heart," writing about triumph after heartbreak on "Living for Love," a buoyant throwback house track produced by Diplo.

"Lots of people sing about being in love and being happy, or they write about having a broken heart and being inconsolable," Madonna says. "But nobody writes about having a broken heart and being hopeful and triumphant afterward. That was my challenge. I didn't want to be a victim."

27. The king and queen of pop attend the Oscars together

<em>March 25, 1991</em>  Remember that time the two biggest pop stars on the planet dated? It's easy to forget since it only lasted one week. But it hit mass-chaos status when the Madonna brought Michael Jackson as her date to the Oscars, where she performed that year's Best Original Song honoree, "Sooner or Later."
March 25, 1991 Remember that time the two biggest pop stars on the planet dated? It's easy to forget since it only lasted one week. But it hit mass-chaos status when the Madonna brought Michael Jackson as her date to the Oscars, where she performed that year's Best Original Song honoree, "Sooner or Later."

26. Malawi adoption

<em>2006</em>  Madonna's adoption of Malawian infant David Banda Mwale doesn't seem like a likely entry for a list of controversial moments, but naturally even it came with a contentious flavor. The singer attracted backlash from the country's government when her request to adopt David resulted in a waiving of Malawi's ruling not to allow foreign adoptions. Madonna has since adopted a second Malawian child, Chifundo James, whose name was changed to Mercy.
2006 Madonna's adoption of Malawian infant David Banda Mwale doesn't seem like a likely entry for a list of controversial moments, but naturally even it came with a contentious flavor. The singer attracted backlash from the country's government when her request to adopt David resulted in a waiving of Malawi's ruling not to allow foreign adoptions. Madonna has since adopted a second Malawian child, Chifundo James, whose name was changed to Mercy.

24. "American Life" video takes it down a notch

<em>April 1, 2003</em>  In an unprecedented move for an artist who built her legacy around refusing to censor herself, Madonna changed her tune by choosing to tame down her <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYduJw5LyFM" target="_blank">"American Life"</a> video so it would center less on war and violence amid the country's international volatility.
April 1, 2003 In an unprecedented move for an artist who built her legacy around refusing to censor herself, Madonna changed her tune by choosing to tame down her "American Life" video so it would center less on war and violence amid the country's international volatility.

23. "Erotica" album

<em>Oct. 25, 1994</em>  Madonna's alter ego, Mistress Dita, was in full swing on the "Erotica" album, a sexually charged ode to genital liberation. In addition to the title single, whose video was banned from networks, "Deeper and Deeper," "Fever" and "Bye Bye Baby" were all provocative pop hits. The singer's next album, 1994's "Bedtime Stories," continued her sexual track.
Oct. 25, 1994 Madonna's alter ego, Mistress Dita, was in full swing on the "Erotica" album, a sexually charged ode to genital liberation. In addition to the title single, whose video was banned from networks, "Deeper and Deeper," "Fever" and "Bye Bye Baby" were all provocative pop hits. The singer's next album, 1994's "Bedtime Stories," continued her sexual track.

22. Marriage to Sean Penn

<em>Aug. 16, 1985</em>  Madonna upped the ante as a tabloid fixture by marrying Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn. She dedicated her third album, "True Blue," to the actor, but the pair divorced in January 1989.
Aug. 16, 1985 Madonna upped the ante as a tabloid fixture by marrying Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn. She dedicated her third album, "True Blue," to the actor, but the pair divorced in January 1989.

21. Lady Gaga is "reductive"

<em>Jan. 12, 2012</em>  Lady Gaga fueled Madonna comparisons from the first moment she hit the big leagues, and the original Material Girl did not shy away from making her feelings on the similarities known. During a <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJuYjtp70jc" target="_blank">January 2012 interview with ABC News</a>, Madonna called Lady Gaga "reductive" and then told the world to "look it up." She later crooned out a few bars of Gaga's "Born This Way" at the close of the similar-sounding "Express Yourself" on the "MDNA" Tour.
Jan. 12, 2012 Lady Gaga fueled Madonna comparisons from the first moment she hit the big leagues, and the original Material Girl did not shy away from making her feelings on the similarities known. During a January 2012 interview with ABC News, Madonna called Lady Gaga "reductive" and then told the world to "look it up." She later crooned out a few bars of Gaga's "Born This Way" at the close of the similar-sounding "Express Yourself" on the "MDNA" Tour.

19. "What It Feels Like For A Girl" video banned

<em>April 2001</em>  The hyper-violent video for <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYwgG2oyUbA" target="_blank">"What It Feels Like For A Girl,"</a> which tells the story of an abused woman seeking vengeance, was banned from MTV and VH1.
April 2001 The hyper-violent video for "What It Feels Like For A Girl," which tells the story of an abused woman seeking vengeance, was banned from MTV and VH1.

18. Puerto Rico condemnation

During the Puerto Rico stop on her "Girlie Show" world tour, Madonna rubbed the country's flag between her crotch and received official condemnation from the nation's congress.
During the Puerto Rico stop on her "Girlie Show" world tour, Madonna rubbed the country's flag between her crotch and received official condemnation from the nation's congress.

17. "Erotica" days recalled in "Girl Gone Wild"

<em>March 2012</em>  Madonna returned to the homoerotic imagery and sexualized fetishes of her "Erotica" days in the stylized video for <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYkwziTrv5o" target="_blank">"Girl Gone Wild."</a>
March 2012 Madonna returned to the homoerotic imagery and sexualized fetishes of her "Erotica" days in the stylized video for "Girl Gone Wild."

15. The sexual era is announced via Interview

<em>June 1990</em>  This one speaks for itself.
June 1990 This one speaks for itself.

14. John McCain is Hitler?

<em>Aug. 23, 2008</em>  During the opening stop on her Sticky & Sweet Tour, Madonna compared Republican presidential candidate John McCain to Hitler during a video montage.
Aug. 23, 2008 During the opening stop on her Sticky & Sweet Tour, Madonna compared Republican presidential candidate John McCain to Hitler during a video montage.

13. Religious groups crucify "Live to Tell" performance

<em>May-September 2006</em>  German prosecutors threatened to sue Madonna after she performed "Live to Tell" while standing on a cross and wearing a crown of thorns on her "Confessions" Tour.
May-September 2006 German prosecutors threatened to sue Madonna after she performed "Live to Tell" while standing on a cross and wearing a crown of thorns on her "Confessions" Tour.

11. "Body of Evidence" nabs NC-17 rating

<em>January 1993</em>  The sexually provocative "Body of Evidence" received an NC-17 classification upon its completion, but its theatrical release was softened enough to earn an R rating. The video release retains the initial version.
January 1993 The sexually provocative "Body of Evidence" received an NC-17 classification upon its completion, but its theatrical release was softened enough to earn an R rating. The video release retains the initial version.

10. The cone bra

<em>April 1990</em>  Madonna's cone bra has taken on many iterations, including during her recent "MDNA" Tour. Its genesis came at the hands of Jean-Paul Gaultier during the Blonde Ambition Tour, sparking backlash as well as numerous copycat versions.
April 1990 Madonna's cone bra has taken on many iterations, including during her recent "MDNA" Tour. Its genesis came at the hands of Jean-Paul Gaultier during the Blonde Ambition Tour, sparking backlash as well as numerous copycat versions.

9. Nude Penthouse photos

<em>September 1987</em>  Having already caused an uproar in 1985 when Playboy and Penthouse published nude photos from 1978, more controversy arose when Penthouse featured another set of naked gems.
September 1987 Having already caused an uproar in 1985 when Playboy and Penthouse published nude photos from 1978, more controversy arose when Penthouse featured another set of naked gems.

6. "Like a Prayer" video's burning crosses infuriates religious communities

<em>March 1989</em>  Pepsi dropped Madonna as its spokeswoman after the <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ" target="_blank">"Like a Prayer"</a> video's protests were so vehement that the company felt it had no other choice. The backlash spread far and wide, with the videos' images of burning crosses prompting the pope to ban Madonna from appearing in Italy. In 2005, MTV ranked the video at No. 1 on its list of the 100 Videos That Broke The Rules.
March 1989 Pepsi dropped Madonna as its spokeswoman after the "Like a Prayer" video's protests were so vehement that the company felt it had no other choice. The backlash spread far and wide, with the videos' images of burning crosses prompting the pope to ban Madonna from appearing in Italy. In 2005, MTV ranked the video at No. 1 on its list of the 100 Videos That Broke The Rules.

1. "Sex"

Oct. 21, 1992  Nothing is Madonna's illustrious career is more notorious than "Sex," the coffee-table book that was loaded with erotic photos, including multiple nudes of the singer engaged in graphic sexual acts. The book remains one of the most sought-after out-of-print materials.
Oct. 21, 1992 Nothing is Madonna's illustrious career is more notorious than "Sex," the coffee-table book that was loaded with erotic photos, including multiple nudes of the singer engaged in graphic sexual acts. The book remains one of the most sought-after out-of-print materials.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.