As Marvin Gaye entered his thirties, he wanted to shed the heartthrob crooner reputation that Motown leader Berry Gordy Jr. had created for him. Even though he was topping the singles charts with songs like “Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Hitchhike”, he didn’t have ownership over his success and instead felt like a Gordy puppet. What’s Going On is Gaye’s protest for his own intellectual and creative ideas and identity. He trashed the clean-cut image posted on his early album covers, looked to musical gurus like Isaac Hayes, Santana, and Curtis Mayfield for new inspiration, and strove to identify the challenges and problems in the world around us and emphasized a desperate need for love.
When Gordy first heard “What’s Going On”, he called it the worst thing he had heard in his life. Gaye proved him wrong when the single sold over 100,000 copies in the first week. But then the real challenge was on as Gaye had to complete the full album in under thirty days. One of the most obvious changes was the evolution of his voice, which sounds much more relaxed and natural than the vocals on his earlier releases.
Isaac Hayes’ mastery of the cool and sexy attitude on his album Hot Buttered Soul was an inspiration to Gaye. Hayes was never much of a singer but relied on his natural vocal character on his funk-loaded cover of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”. Gaye was also inspired by Hot Buttered Soul’s sweeping orchestral arrangements and Motown enlisted David Van de Pitte to arrange the string section and they recorded players from The Detroit Symphony in the same studio as Hayes, Detroit’s United Sound Studios. The strings are integral to the sound of What’s Going On and one can feel their grand and lush beauty on a beautiful hi-fi.
Gaye formulates a vocal and physical protest on “Inner City Blues (Make Me Want a Holler)”. He throws his hands up to wave down his listeners to acknowledge the cruelty of poverty. The track’s main groove is carried by a groovy bass line, similar to “Walk on By”, and spotlights Gaye’s piano and the Funk Brothers’ vibraphone. Its lyrical content is dense and melancholy but its smooth production makes it easier to digest and to give way to compassion and understanding.
After Stevie Wonder heard “What’s Going On” for the first time, he renegotiated the renewal of his recording contract with Motown to gain complete creative control of his work. Wonder protests urban and racial struggles on Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, but nothing hits harder than “Black Man”. Wonder’s funky Rhodes and synthesizers are backed up by explosive horns that reinforce his history lesson of how men and women from various backgrounds have made a positive impact upon the world.
After the death of Eric Garner and the police brutality controversy in Ferguson, MO in 2014, D’Angelo also felt the urge to inspire justice through his music. He rushed the release of his first original work in 14-years, Black Messiah, in an attempt to help heal the country’s social ailments. He performs “The Charade” is for his Black audience and points out the same injustices of Gaye and Wonder but decades later. He simply requests “a chance to talk” to end unjust violence, but instead irresponsible officers leave “outline[s] in chalk”. He sees them and the media as savages for disallowing their freedom of speech and demands fairness with his furious singing, even though he appears calm and collected throughout the song.
It’s frustrating that social evolution can be slow, but Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and D’Angelo challenged their craft to make a grander impact on society and highlighted suppression and injustice in their lyrics. Change starts with a conversation and evolves as it resonates with others, and music is one of the most powerful mediums to invigorate transformation. What’s Going On sparks this discussion with masterful instrumentation and lyrics that set a bold standard and will always be seen as a high-water mark in American art.