Completed the same month Madonna and Sean Penn filed for divorce, 1989′s Like a Prayer finds the star analyzing her life — seeking strength and sometimes finding struggle in Catholicism, marriage, friends and family — while reinventing herself as a far more adult artist by reclaiming and updating the music of her youth. Co-produced and co-written by Madonna mostly with Patrick Leonard but with key contributions by longtime collaborator Stephen Bray, Madonna’s fourth album draws from classic gospel (“Like a Prayer”), Sly & the Family Stone (“Express Yourself”), Elton John (“Promise to Try”), Motown and the Association (“Cherish”), the Beatles (“Dear Jessie”), Simon & Garfunkel (“Oh Father”), go-go funk (“Keep It Together”), Latin folk (“Spanish Eyes”), and Jimi Hendrix (“Act of Contrition”).
When one considers that the album also features contemporary influences like Prince (who appears in “Love Song” as strikingly low-key duet partner) and even the Smiths (note the ringing guitars and domestic despair of “Till Death Do Us Part”), Like a Prayer comes across as a particularly remarkable achievement because her eclecticism is presented as an explicitly autobiographical statement. Up to this point Madonna was largely seen as a sexy provocateur with streetwise songs, savvy videos, and a scattershot filmography, but Prayer presented her as an introspective singer-songwriter. The racial, religious and feminist debates over this album’s hugely popular and controversial videos for “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” both expanded on and distracted from this relatively new image of Madonna as legitimate auteur. Yet everything came together during the following year in what would be her crowning and most influential achievement, the Blond Ambition Tour, which raised the bar for pop concert presentation on nearly every level.