Madonna's fourth album opens with something unexpected—jagged, refracted guitars. A nervy move for the woman who was the reigning queen of pop, renowned for bringing together the most cutting-edge elements of the world's underground subcultures with the splashy pageantry and big hooks that made her an MTV superstar. But Like a Prayer had an unexpected genesis of its own, coming on the heels of Madonna's first few public stumbles: There were her coolly received forays into acting and her marriage to her Shanghai Surprise co-star Sean Penn, which ended two months before the album's release. And then there was the controversy over the title track's video, so white-hot it incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church and made Pepsi scuttle an endorsement deal. But as this vibrant album still shows, Madonna's low points only served as springboards to reach her highest heights.
In terms of lyrical content, Prayer exists in stark contrast to the giddy, retro-minded True Blue, but it's also a leap forward for Madonna's brand of pop innovation. The title track combines gospel-choir exuberance, grimy riffs, and existential angst with a forceful vocal; "Express Yourself" is anthemic and strutting, its demands for a higher love seeming to rise from her divorce papers' ashes. Madonna slips into the confession booth often, and her least guarded moments are arresting: The mournful "Oh Father" grapples with grief and family, while "Till Death Do Us Part" pairs hyperactive beats with wistful coulda-been lyrics. Prince, one of the few pop acts whose late-'80s stature rivaled Madonna's, adds heat to the lightly funky "Love Song" and manic riffing to the album-closing pastiche "Act of Contrition." That finale both bookends “Like a Prayer” and puts it in a blender, as Madonna riffs on the demands of Catholicism and the foibles of fame. It is a winking close to an album that stretched the boundaries of pop, and, in the process, elevated a true icon to even greater heights.