This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.
When people talk about Madonna exposing herself, they normally mean her tendency to drop her knickers. But her fourth proper album, 1989’s Like a Prayer, is filled with nakedly emotional songs such as “Promise to Try” (about her mother, who died when Madonna was just six) and the mournful “Oh Father” (just guess).
“The album is drawn from what I was going through when I was growing up,” Madonna told Rolling Stone. As always, she had a kicker: “I’m still growing up.” Like a Prayer was the sound of Madonna figuring out her life, most explicitly on “Till Death Do Us Part,” a thinly fictionalized portrait of her volatile marriage with Sean Penn. But it was also the sound of a pop diva who had been learning how to sing and wanted to show off. Later, this would lead to an unfortunate tendency to tackle show tunes by Andrew Lloyd Webber. But here it meant that she not only belted blockbuster singles such as “Express Yourself,” she indulged in gentle psychedelia and a slow, grinding collaboration with Prince, “Love Song.” Who would have guessed then that pop music’s two leading imps of the perverse would end up as two of its most publicly devout figures (Prince with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Madonna with kabbalah)? That Sacred vs. Profane wrestling match was showcased in the glorious title track, where Madonna declared, “Everyone must stand alone,” and then, “I’m down on my knees/I wanna take you there,” seeking succor in both God and fellatio, or maybe fellatio with God. In a career full of transgressive moments, “Like a Prayer” is the most transgressive — and the most irresistible.