Madonna's fourth album, "Like a Prayer," was released 25 years ago on March 21. Not only was the album a commercial success, topping the Billboard album chart for six weeks, it was widely hailed as her finest album. Here are 10 reasons why "Like a Prayer" remains one of her crowning achievements.
1. It's best known for the singles.
The album spawned three monster hit singles. The title track, which reached No. 1; and "Express Yourself" and "Cherish," which both made it all the way to No. 2. "Keep It Together" also cracked the top 10, but "Oh Father" stalled at No. 20.
2. "Like a Prayer" has more meaning for Madonna than her other famous "Like a..." song.
"'Like a Prayer' is a very important song to me," she told me in an interview for The Billboard Book of Number One Albums. "I felt the impact that it was going to make. That song means a lot more to me than 'Like a Virgin.' I wrote it and it's from my heart. It's a very spiritual song. I think I was much more spiritually in touch with the power of words and music by the time I was recording that album."
3. The song's video was quite controversial.
It crossed an interracial love story with religious imagery and raised the ire of fundamentalist groups. They put pressure on Pepsi-Cola, forcing the soft-drink maker to yank a commercial featuring the song from the air.
4. The album was recorded at a time of emotional turmoil for Madonna and co-producer Patrick Leonard.
"It was a real coming-of-age record for me emotionally," Madonna told me. "I was at the end of my marriage [to actor Sean Penn] and I was working with Pat, who was also in a very dark state of mind, and we worked in a very isolated place in the Valley. I was very lonely when I was working on the record. I had to do a lot of soul-searching, and I think it is a reflection of that."
5. Madonna's mother, father, and Sean Penn all inspired the album.
"This album is dedicated to my mother, who taught me how to pray," Madonna wrote in the liner notes. The singer's mother, also named Madonna, died of cancer when Madonna was just six years old.
The album includes the track "Oh Father," which Madonna told me "was like the second half of 'Live to Tell,' in a way. It was a combo package — it was about my father and my husband. I was dealing with male authority figures once again. That is a great source of inspiration to my writing."
Another song, "Till Death Do Us Part," was originally titled "State of Matrimony," and can be taken as an autobiographical account of Madonna's ill-fated marriage to Penn.
6. The album came together quickly.
"I would start working on the music and then Madonna would come in the afternoon and work on some lyrics, then we would do a vocal and that was usually the vocal we kept," Leonard told me. "In the first week, we wrote 'Cherish,' 'Like a Prayer,' 'Spanish Eyes.'"
7. After appearing in several films, Madonna took a stab at Broadway with a role in David Mamet's "Speed-The-Plow" while the album was in production.
"Oh Father" was written in New York, while Madonna was working on the play.
8. Leonard says "Like a Prayer" is better than its predecessor, 1986's "True Blue."
"It is much more musician-oriented and much more live," he said.
9. The album features some notable collaborations.
The Andre Crouch Choir is featured on "Like a Prayer," giving it an authentic hymn-like feel.
The album also includes "Love Song," a song Madonna co-wrote with Prince at his Paisley Park Studios. "We were friends and talked about working together, so I went to Minneapolis to write some stuff with him, but the only thing I really dug was 'Love Song,'" Madonna said. "We ended up writing it long-distance, because I had to be in L.A. and he couldn't leave Minneapolis, and quite frankly I couldn't stand Minneapolis. When I went there, it was like 20 degrees below zero, and it was really desolate. I was miserable and I couldn't write or work under those circumstances."
10. "Like a Prayer" had some unique packaging elements.
The initial pressing of "Like a Prayer" on CD, cassette and vinyl was scented with patchouli to give it the essence of church incense. "She wanted to create a flavor of the '60s and the church. She wanted to create a sensual feeling you could hear and smell," a spokesperson for Warner Bros. Records said at the time.
It also included an insert offering "The Facts About AIDS," with safe sex guidelines.
Some have noted that the cover shot, which features Madonna's jean-clad midsection and bare midriff, is a play on the Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers."