Released on March 21, 1989, Madonna’s fourth album, Like A Prayer, found her digging deep to create a more confessional collection of music. Whether addressing her mother’s death when she was just five years old (“Promise To Try”), her subsequently strained relationship with her father (“Oh Father”), or her crumbling, troubled marriage to Sean Penn (“Till Death Do Us Part”), this wasn’t the Material Girl of just five years earlier. But alongside such heavier themes, Madonna made room for the explosive female-power pop of “Express Yourself.”
Re-teaming with her True Blue collaborators Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray, Madonna even went a little purple with the help of Prince. Not only did they duet on the album’s third track, “Love Song,” the blistering guitar that precedes the sound of a door slamming shut on the title track and first single is all Prince. He also contributed to the set’s closing track, “Act Of Contrition,” and “Keep It Together,” the album’s final single (and one that never seems to get enough attention).
It’s strange to think that I purchased Like A Prayer this very day 25 years ago. Since new releases regularly arrived on Tuesdays back then, I must have been on spring break. Only 16 and without a driver’s license, I’d persuaded my mom to drive me to Coconuts Music & Movies (or was it still Peaches Records & Tapes?) to buy the cassette as soon as it was out. Climbing back into the car, I unwrapped the plastic and cracked open the case, releasing the scent of patchouli into our Olds Cutlass Ciera (Madonna had the oil mixed with the glue that held the booklet together).
Popping the cassette into the car’s console, my saint of a mom, my younger brother who’d tagged along, and I listened to the entirety of Like A Prayer on the way home. That journey included a stop at the KFC drive-thru window where we were all startled by Madonna shouting, “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?!” at the end of “Act Of Contrition.”
Many more private plays later, Like A Prayer easily cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite albums. I decorated my bedroom with rosaries hung on this poster. Like A Prayer was also the first compact disc I ever purchased, prior to even owning a CD player.
But I still have that cassette, and yes, it still smells like patchouli. Not many albums leave such a lasting impression, but Like A Prayer continues to take me there every single time.
Billboard has delivered some great Like A Prayer anniversary coverage, including a track-by-track assessment and Keith Caulfield’s new interview with Patrick Leonard, who reveals just how quickly the album came together.