The Queen of Reinvention, Madonna’s output in the late-90s and first decade of the 21st century proved to be the most diverse of her career. In the span of five albums, she explores electronica, country, rock, disco and hip-hop. She even learned how to play the guitar. Join Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel as they take a look at Her Madgesty’s most eclectic works in part two of the Popdose Guide to Madonna.

Ray of Light (1998)

In the two years after the release of Bedtime Stories, Madonna entered a new phase of her life. She started dating her personal trainer, Carlos Leon, and began work on the feature film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, in which she portrayed Argentinian First Lady Eva PerÁ³n. In the midst of filming, she found out she was pregnant and in October 1996, she gave birth to her and Leon’s first child, daughter Lourdes.

Madonna took some time off after Lourdes’s birth and during that time became interested in Eastern mysticism, yoga and Kabbalah. Her newfound spirituality and centeredness, along with first-time motherhood, greatly affected the direction she took on her seventh studio album, Ray of Light. Regarded by many critics and fans as one of the best — if not the best — album she’d ever released, Ray of Light revealed a mature, thoughtful Madonna. Leaving behind the image of the Material Girl, she was now a Mystical Mama, even down to the hippy-chic new look she’d adopted.

After writing songs with Babyface and Patrick Leonard, both of whom she’d worked with previously, and Rick Nowels, who had written songs with Celine Dion and Stevie Nicks, Madonna decided that the direction her collaborations were taking with each of them wasn’t what she wanted for her new album. So, she asked electronic musician William Orbit, whose work she greatly admired, to produce the new album. Orbit’s production gave the songs an ambient, electronic sound that Madonna had only dabbled in previously — most notably on “Bedtime Story,” the track from her last album that had been co-written by BjÁ¶rk. Because Orbit preferred to work largely with samples and synths and other technology-based instrumentation, the album was recorded largely without live instruments, which was also new for Madonna.

In addition to experimenting musically, lyrically she also ventured into new territory, writing some of the most personal, self-reflective songs of her career, exploring the topics of motherhood, spirituality and fame, which she’d never really addressed in a serious way previously. She even crafted a song around text adapted from the Yoga Taravali. And vocally, she was stronger than ever, owing to the extensive voice lessons she took in preparation for Evita.

A huge critical and commercial success, Ray of Light debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 albums chart and produced two top-five singles in the U.S. (“Frozen,” and “Ray of Light”). Three additional singles were also released: “The Power of Goodbye,” “Nothing Really Matters” and “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” the latter of which was only released in the UK, where it was a top-10 hit. Ray of Light received six Grammy nominations, winning four. “The Drowned World Tour” to support the album was planned, and was scheduled to kick off in 1999, but was postponed until 2001.

Music (2000)

Not that the fans were disappointed by Ray of Light, but it was, relatively speaking, a pretty heavy experience. Sure, we got it — Madonna had borne a child, broken up with the baby daddy, and turned 40. But what a pleasure it was to hear her sounding so cool and relaxed on Music. (Robin Monica remembers exactly where she was when she heard the title track for the first time: in a gay bar. The rump shaking started immediately.)

No longer satisfied with being just a performer, songwriter, and producer, Madonna added “guitarist” to her list of credits on Music, which took some of the material in an unexpected direction: country. The departure in style worked like gangbusters, taking “Don’t Tell Me,” the album’s second single, to #4 both in the US and in the UK, where Madonna had recently taken up residence. Of course, this was country as re-imagined by the new gods of European electronica, a.k.a. William Orbit (still hanging around after Ray of Light) and Mirwais, Madonna’s principal collaborator on Music; it fit right in with the album’s primary sound, which was slick, futuristic, and ever so danceable. Unlike some of Madonna’s earlier albums, where it’s quite clear which songs are the singles and which are the catchy but undistinguished filler, Music has enough single-worthy tracks that it’s sort of astonishing how few were officially released. (Reportedly, Madonna felt “Amazing” was too similar to her Austin Powers 2 love theme, “Beautiful Stranger,” and thus kept it off the radio. Madonna, you were wrong on that one.)

One of the songs that did achieve single status was “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” a remarkably simple and straightforward ballad about the everyday struggles and humiliations faced by half the world’s population. It failed to live up to the chart performance standard set by “Music” and “Don’t Tell Me,” but sometimes, even for Madonna, hit-making isn’t the point. An international megastar/mogul/cowgirl can still have a vulnerable side. Obviously, that openness means a lot to some of the fans: last year, the Madonna tribute episode of Glee included an all-male cover of “What It Feels Like.”

American Life (2003)

After 20 years in the music business, Madonna had reinvented herself many times over. And with her ninth studio album, American Life,  she decided to become the Anti-Material Girl, denouncing materialism in both her own life and in American culture. She became a “harder-edged” Madonna, both with her new, more severe look and the more rock-influenced sound of her new album.

Working again with Mirwais, with whom she had collaborated on Music, American Life‘s sound maintains the electronic sensibility of that album, but adds more guitars and a rougher, almost violent, texture. There is also quite a bit of digital manipulation of Madonna’s voice, which is unnecessary and distracting. For example, “Nothing Fails” has the potential to be a really powerful ballad, especially with the incredible choir that comes in about 3/4 of the way through the song. But with Madonna’s voice sounding even slightly manipulated, the song becomes less than great — not a total failure, but definitely not as good as it could be. See also “Intervention.”

But the musical direction and vocal manipulation aren’t the only things that make this album not-so-stellar; the lyrics are some of the worst, most uninspired Madonna’s ever written. While it’s commendable that she decided to take a more political, confrontational-yet-introspective approach, the lyrics just don’t cut it. “American Life” tries way too hard to make a statement and the unintentionally hilarious rap doesn’t help matters (however, the Missy Elliott American Dream remix of the song is a lot of fun). “Mother and Father,” a well-intentioned reflection on Madonna’s childhood, features some of the most amateurish lyrics she’s ever written (“They couldn’t take my loneliness/I couldn’t take their phoniness/My father had to go to work/I used to think he was a jerk.” Really, Madge?). See also “I’m So Stupid” (“But now I know for sure/That I was stupid/Stupider than stupid”).

Not every song on the album is terrible, though.  “Love Profusion” and “X-Static Process” are lovely acoustic-guitar driven tracks, the former being dancier and the latter being a ballad. “Easy Ride” is almost a sequel to “Gone,” in which Madonna reflects on working hard for her happiness and maintaining her sense of what’s really important. And “Die Another Day,” the theme to the James Bond film of the same name, is a satisfying electro-dance track, probably the most fun song on the entire record.

While American Life is a fairly unsatisfying record, it is commendable for its unapolagetic nature and the fact that it is one of the first of Madonna’s records in which the message she was trying to convey was more important than having an album full of hits. It may be one of the worst Madonna releases, but it is still better than most of the vapid crap being foisted upon listeners of pop music today.

Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)

Madonna has never had an album “bomb” (au contraire — every single one of her studio albums has reached the Billboard Top 10, with seven hitting number one), but given that almost 25 million copies of True Blue have been sold worldwide, the bar is set absurdly high. Going as far back as Music, one can see something very interesting happening: Madonna is losing popularity in the United States while maintaining her superstar status abroad. For example, three of the four singles from American Life failed to chart on the Hot 100 at all, but “Hollywood” reached the Top 10 in four other countries, including the UK. It should be noted that all four went to number one on the US Club charts. Yes, Madge (as the Brits dubbed her when she moved to London), the kids at the disco still love you best of all.

Confessions on a Dance Floor was both a triumph and a turning point for Madonna. Its lead single, “Hung Up,” broke her back into the US Top 10, becoming her 36th track to do so and tying her in that achievement with Elvis. It also went to number one in an insane 45 countries, a feat that rated inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records. But after the initial rush of excitement, America turned away from its golden girl once again. While her next three singles reached the Top 10 in Britain, Canada and Italy, and the Top 40 throughout most of Europe, it was no such luck on our shores (with, again, the exception of the Club chart: four singles, four number ones). What the hell was going on here? Was it ageism? (The singer was now forty-seven.) Had Madonna gone too “Euro” for our Yankee tastes? Indeed, she hadn’t worked with an American producer since Bedtime Stories in 1994.

Whatever US record-buyers thought, the artistic achievement of Confessions is a major one, at least from a booty-shaking perspective: it’s as if Madonna sent herself back in time to the late 1970s with 21st-century technology and made a disco record from the future. “Hung Up” is built around a an ABBA sample that will not quit, and sets the tone for the following 50 minutes. The inherent contradiction characteristic of the disco ethos — swooning romanticism undercut by the urgent need for instant gratification of numerous sorts — is alternately embraced (in “Get Together,” a sexy-ass come-on track that should have been a giant hit) and condemned (in “How High,” in which Madonna criticizes her own youthful obsession with fame), but the bottom line is an insistence on getting down with no time-outs: the album is mixed as one long, unbroken DJ set. Even when giving us a peek into Madge’s married life (“Push”) or getting all Kabbalah on us (“Isaac”), it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. In fact, you should dance to it. Go ahead.

Hard Candy (2008)

Pharrell Williams and Timbaland! Kanye and Justin! Madonna went for broke on Hard Candy, releasing her inner black chick and tapping into the urban dance-pop sound that, so far, has defined popular music in the 21st century. As if anticipating backlash for the move, she wrote the following lyric: “It may feel old to you but to me it feels new.” Evidently, that rationale wasn’t good enough. The album’s first single, “4 Minutes,” gave Madonna her 37th Top 10 track, but “Give It 2 Me” and “Miles Away” sank like two groovy stones. One wonders — could it be? — whether the lead single’s success was based less on Madonna’s contributions than on the presence of co-writer/guest vocalist/Renaissance dude Justin Timberlake, who was barely a toddler when La Ciccone’s recording career began.

Granted, many of the songs on Hard Candy sound a lot like, well, a lot of others Pharrell and Timbaland have written and produced (Nelly Furtado, anyone?), with a dash of New Wave here and a soupÁ§on of ’80’s funk there. But this seems to be what the kids like these days…so why didn’t folks want to hear Madonna’s take on it? (Again, this is all relative: the album sold almost 4 million copies worldwide, which for most singers would be a life-changing achievement — but for our Madge, something of a disappointment.) We’ve got to consider the age question again, as well as the possibility that some people were not feeling Madonna as a homegirl. Perhaps longtime fans just felt conflicted about their idol riding the wave instead of setting the trend. Is this the beginning of the end for her long and fruitful pop music reign? Maybe…but if she even occasionally comes up with something as hot as “Candy Shop,” she should stay in the game, even if she no longer defines it.

In Part 3 of the Popdose Guide to Madonna, Kelly and Robin Monica will fill in the gaps, discussing the singer’s work on soundtracks, her hits and remixes collections, and, of course, the videos.