Madonna has been known for reinventing her image and sound over and over again since her debut in the early '80s. After giving birth to her daughter in the 1990s, she began work on her seventh studio album with Babyface and Patrick Leonard. Those sessions, however, failed and Madonna teamed up with English producer William Orbit and created what be an introspective departure from Madonna's previous work, a leap that captured a new generation of mainstream listeners while becoming a favorite of fans. Ray of Light was released in March 1998 across the globe and met much commercial success.
Ray of Light is more introspective and that is in part due to her indulging in Kabbalah, studying Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Ashtanga yoga - a brisk type of yoga designed to sweat and purify the body. Her acquired knowledge is littered throughout the album including a song about letting go of sins by “swimming to the other shore” in “Swim.” The song “Shanti (Ashtangi),” a Hindu Sanskrit prayer, reflects her practice backed by Middle Eastern influence.
Ray of Light was at the time a brave jump to make sonically in mainstream music. A combination of trip-hop, dance and electronica wrapped up in ambiance, the album stood out as adventurous and against the upcoming pop acts phasing out an alternative scene that dominated radio. The album’s title track took dance to the forefront, an uptempo techno track that became a moderate hit. Balladry was also found using the album’s sonic theme on the lead single “Frozen.” “Sky Fits Heaven,” a gentler techno-laced track, also takes on Madonna’s spiritual side with lines, “Fate fits karma so use it/ That's what the wise man said to me/ Love fits virtue so hold on to the light/ That's what our future will be.” Vocally, Madonna's voice was more open and mature filling space from high to sultry low.
The album spawned several singles to promote the offering. “Frozen” led the record and peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 while also reaching the top 10 in both Mainstream and Adult Top 40 while also another dance hit for the pop star. The freedom chanting Eurodance-like hit “Ray of Light” followed but did not reach the heights of that of “Frozen” but was fueled by the playfully chaotic music video which reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart. “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” was not released in the U.S. but the b-side, “Sky Fits Heaven,” ended up charting on the U.S. dance chart when it was released as a promotional track. At that time, because it was not a commercial or radio song, it was not eligible to chart on the sales or airplay tallies.
Ray of Light as an album was impressively nominated for six Grammy Awards winning four. Madonna took home Best Pop Album, Best Dance Recording and Best Short Form Music Video (both for “Ray of Light”) while it also won Best Recording Package which is awarded to the art director unless the artist is also a director. Madonna had been nominated for Grammy Awards but had not won one until this album. Light also was a hit at the MTV Video Music Awards where it was nominated in nine categories and taking home six.
Commercially, the album was a success around the world selling 16 million copies. In the United States, it was certified four times Platinum by the RIAA for shipments of 4 million copies. It has sold just shy of that at 3.9 million. The number did not reflect orders placed through direct mail clubs where it logged 459,000 copies.
20 years later, Ray of Light continues to be a fan favorite looking back on Madonna’s extensive catalog. Listen to the album below.
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