At the beginning of the 1970s, mainstream Black music was a massive singles scene. A handful of Motown acts, including the Supremes and the Temptations, had managed to score Top 10 albums during the ‘60s, but with the exception of Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic Records releases post-“Respect” and Ray Charles’ run of early ‘60s hits on ABC, Black artists weren’t typically creating classic album-length artistic statements on par with The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.”
Then along came Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a 1971 game-changer that turns 50 on May 21. It would become the first Top 10 LP for Gaye, a major recording artist who’d had many hit singles but hadn’t reached higher than number 33 on the Top 200 album chart. In one fell swoop, it completed his transition from Motown heartthrob to the poet of soul music while helping to reshape the entire genre. The album was unlike anything previously released by a Black superstar: Written and produced by Gaye (a first for any Motown artist not named Smokey Robinson) and clocking in at just over 35 minutes, it secured his spot as one of music’s leading Black auteurs of the decade.
He wasn’t the first Black artist to produce challenging music after assuming complete creative control — James Brown had done it and so had former Impressions leader Curtis Mayfield — but Gaye, who butted heads hard with Motown in order to pursue a new artistic direction (he was signed to the Motown imprint Tamla), was the first to do it with such a thematically and musically cohesive statement. The nine tracks on “What’s Going On” are connected without pauses, like a stream-of-consciousness contemplation. These aren’t catchy three-minute pop confections but rather, songs with the musical sophistication of a classical suite, featuring strings, woodwinds, lyrical and musical motifs, and experimental production that blended psychedelic soul with a Phil Spector-ish wall of sound.
Inspired by social unrest in the U.S. and his brother’s three-year stint fighting in Vietnam, “What’s Going On” — whose title is a pointed statement, not a question — wasn’t just a smooth soul crooner arbitrarily taking a sharp left turn into social consciousness. If he had wanted to, Gaye probably could have spent years coasting on the 1968 success of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a chart-topping smash that, at one point, was Motown’s best-selling single of all time. That probably would have helped Motown head Berry Gordy, who has said that he was “terrified” when Gaye first said he wanted to make a “protest album,” sleep easier at night.
But instead of caving to creative expectations, Gaye decided to challenge himself and his audience by embarking on a stunning music reinvention that rivaled what The Beatles had done a half-decade earlier with “Rubber Soul.” Gaye, who had once harbored aspirations to be the Black Frank Sinatra, thoroughly transformed his sound and image, creating a new chameleonic musical persona that would carry him through the ‘70s. From “What’s Going On” to “Let’s Get It On” to “I Want You” to “Here, My Dear,” no Gaye album would sound quite like the one that preceded it.
In addition to repositioning and rebranding Gaye decades before “rebranding” became a thing, “What’s Going On” blended the political and the religious in a way no singer had managed to do since Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” seven years earlier. Looking both inward and outward, Gaye ventured into areas like social justice, environmental awareness, drug addiction, war, and faith. The singles “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” all went Top 10, while “Wholy Holy,” became an enduring inspirational classic. Aretha Franklin covered it the following year on her landmark gospel album “Amazing Grace,” and one week before the 50th birthday of “What’s Going On,” “Wholy Holy” turned up in the third episode of “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins’ new Amazon Prime miniseries “The Underground Railroad.”
“What’s Going On” wasn’t just a singular artistic achievement; it opened up other Black artists (and some White ones) to new creative possibilities. Later the same year, Isaac Hayes dropped “Black Moses” and Sly and the Family Stone released their own most-enduring musical statement, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” an album whose title was directly inspired by “What’s Going On.” John Lennon recorded “Imagine” about a week after the release of “What’s Going On,” and although the former Beatle had already been tackling political themes in his solo work, it’s easy to imagine him being influenced and inspired by Gaye’s foray into social consciousness.
The following year, Gaye’s Motown labelmate Stevie Wonder would, like Gaye, assume creative control of his career and release “Talking Book,” which ended a nine-year Top 10 dry spell on the album chart and began his run of ‘70s classics. “What’s Going On” opened the door musically for other future Motown multi-hyphenates like Lionel Richie and Rick James, and paved a path for Prince to burst onto the scene in the late ‘70s with fleshed-out musical statements fusing the sacred and profane, while presaging the arrival of message rap in the early ’80s. Cyndi Lauper, Robert Palmer, and Angela Winbush all enjoyed chart hits with remakes of “What’s Going On” tracks; the Strokes covered “Mercy Mercy Me” as a B-side; and when D’Angelo burst onto the R&B scene in 1995 with his “Brown Sugar” album, he sounded like the reincarnation of Gaye, who was killed by his father in 1984, on the day before his 45th birthday.
A concept album intended to be listened to and processed as a single work of art, “What’s Going On” was a pivotal precursor to R&B albums as complete, ambitiously conceived musical statements (from Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” to Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”) rather than collections of potential singles. It was also an antecedent to more sonically adventurous, lyrically intricate, and politically outspoken neo-soul and alternative R&B. H.E.R.’s recent song of the year Grammy-winning “I Can’t Breathe” is like a direct descendant of Gaye’s magnum opus.
That’s remarkable resonance for an album that Berry Gordy didn’t even want to release (“I said, ‘Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?’”, Gordy recalled years later), but what would Gaye’s legacy be without it? Would he have continued to craft such challenging and visionary music? “What’s Going On” didn’t turn out to be a protracted change in direction for him. Although he recorded a thematically similar album, “You’re the Man,” as a follow-up, that project was shelved and went unreleased until 2019, and Gaye would never again make such an overtly album-length political statement. Stevie Wonder would grab the baton, while Gaye moved on to other things.
The die, though, had been cast, and history had been made. John Legend once described “What’s Going On” as “the voice of Black America speaking out that we couldn’t always smile on cue for you.” It’s a summation that has applied every year of the 50 since the album first dropped.
That’s actually one of the most impressive things about “What’s Going On” in 2021 — how well it has aged. Curtis Mayfield veered into social consciousness nearly one year before Gaye did with his 1970 debut solo album “Curtis,” but like James Brown’s proclamations of Black pride from the same era, it sounds thoroughly of its time. “What’s Going On,” though, is lyrically and musically timeless. Gaye could release it today, and its melodies wouldn’t be out of place, and lyrics like “Crime is increasing/ Trigger-happy policing/ Panic is spreading/ God knows where we’re heading” (from “Inner City Blues”) would sting as acutely now as they did then.
Interestingly, the legacy of “What’s Going On” far surpasses its reception at the time. Reviews were somewhat mixed upon its release (like several other ‘70s Gaye albums, including “Let’s Get It On” and “Here, My Dear,” its critical reputation would grow over time), and despite launching three Top 10 singles, the album wasn’t a runaway chart hit. It only reached number six on the Top 200 album chart, and it scored just one Grammy nomination, best R&B vocal performance, male, for “Inner City Blues (Make You Wanna Holler),” which Gaye lost to Lou Rawls’ “A Natural Man.”
But in the long run, outside of Stevie Wonder’s trio of consecutive mid-‘70s Album of the Year Grammy winners, it’s hard to think of any work by a Black artist from the 1970s that had such a monstrous effect on the genre and a greater impact on shaping the Black talent that came after it. There may not have been a surplus of joy on “What’s Going On,” but by descending so beautifully into despair, Gaye created brand new hope for generations to come.