For all its assests as a classic album, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On still posseses one major flaw.
It stands alone.
No album (that I’ve encountered, at least) manages to weave all the contradictory elements Gaye brought together on What’s Going On.
Influenced by the social upheaval of the late 1960s and the sonic creativity of the Beatles, Gaye, who was unsatisfied with the trappings of pop success, wanted to produce something different.
After he threatened to leave Motown if boss Berry Gordy didn’t release What’s Going On, Gaye found himself with a hit album, which has since remained on numerous all-time greatest lists.
What’s Going On endures because Gaye injected a social conscience to the pop machinations of R&B without getting didactic.
He also expanded R&B’s breadth by demonstrating it too had the ability to be symphonic in scope. R&B need no longer be relegated to the three-minute pop song.
The title track serves as a kind of opening theme to the album. It’s also a convenient single, since the fade out at the end separated it from the rest of the album.
But starting with “What’s Happening Brother”, What’s Going On transforms into a 15-minute suite. Taken by themselves, the five contiguous tracks starting with “What’s Happening Brother” are lush, beautiful songs by their own right.
But woven together as a single entity, they become an emotional roller coaster of gravity and optimism, of unrest and hope.
In its wake, R&B artists have attempted to create a similar theatrical feel as What’s Going On — getting rid of pauses between tracks, tying together themes between songs.
But no other album has managed to replicate its social conscience. Gangsta rap may style itself as the voice of an urban conscience, but the genre possesses none of What’s Going On gentility or subtlety.
What’s Going On is an architechtural feat. Like Antonio Salieri’s lament in the film Amadeus, misplace one note, and the structure would fall.
Gaye slows down the momentum of the album with the last three tracks. At 7 1/2 minutes, “Right On” is big in and of itself, while “Wholly Holy” does a fine job of setting up the album’s final definitive statement, “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”.
What’s Going On is a towering masterpiece, influencial as it is enduring.
And that’s the problem — the album makes you hungry for more, for a musical experience with both heart and mind, painstaking in its detail as it is free in execution.
But What’s Going On stands alone.