“Give it up, do as I say/ Give it up and let me have my way” Madonna says at the outset of this set to a willing S&M bottom and, by extension, her fans and the music industry. Having recently scored considerable coups with material that would’ve been considered uncommercial coming from any other act, the singer put her power to the test on her fifth and wildest album, the first for her own label, Maverick. Like her art-photography-slash-softcore-porn book Sex, Erotica addressed female pleasure, self-hatred, the death of gay friends and mentors from AIDS, lovers who raced away from emotional intimacy, man-stealing so-called pals and other thorny subject matter. While “Deeper and Deeper” ranks amongst her most uplifting, melodious dance tracks, much of the rest is far darker, emphasizing rhythm, words, and bass over tunes Madonna talks and whispers throughout. When she does sing, it’s usually in her sultry lower register.
The models are deep house music and the hip-hop-informed spiritual R&B of Soul II Soul, here served up by collaborators Shep Pettibone, the co-author of “Vogue” who contributed his revered remixing services to You Can Dance and The Immaculate Collection, and newcomer André Betts. The sound is dirty, sometimes even distorted, as Madonna creates boudoir jazz by way of crackling samples and thwacking machine beats that push her diary-like poetry into provocative shapes. Sometimes she’s trifling, updating Motown songwriting tropes via street slang and puns: Calling the trollop in “Thief of Hearts” who steals her beau “little Susie ho-maker” is particularly cute. And sometimes she’s delicate in a way that she rarely gets credit for achieving: Check her gently bending chorus on the concluding “Secret Garden.” Her experiment in how far the public and media would let her go generated mixed results: Sex sold well but was panned mercilessly. Erotica achieved significant sales by most any other artist’s standards, but not hers. Suddenly, Madonna seemed overexposed, both literally and figuratively. A new approach was in order.