After the assassination of Dr King in 1968, African American musicians & performers started to take bolder steps with their music in reflecting the dire circumstances they all faced on a daily basis. With albums like Curtis, Stand!, Is It Because I'm Black and Everything is Everything ideas of social justice and depictions of the plight of ordinary folks became increasingly frequent and strident but it was on May 21st 1971 with the release of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On that black music's political consciousness came into full bloom.
More of a collaborative effort than most realise, Marvin (after battling with Motown's owner Gordy) enlisted the help of Al Cleveland, Obie Benson & The Funk Bros, and produced a beautiful, multilayered album of heartbreaking sincerity that encompasses issues such as Vietnam, drug abuse, environmentalism and social deprivation and bolstered by a rich, lush production, repeating codas, hooks and buckets of soul this was always going to be groundbreaking but for me it's Marvin's singing that pushes this way beyond a protest/concept album and into something much more profound: released from the shackles of Motown's demands for dance numbers Marvin's vocal performance is simply stunning, with a jazzy, super horizontal, uber relaxed and honeyed tone that's layered over and over again on the same tracks bringing an ethereal, deeply spiritual quality to the album that no other singer could've done. Anyways after first hearing the album in my mid-teens it's long been thoroughly burnt into my soul. In fact I can't think of a single album that has meant more to me than this one, I discovered it when I was beginning to dig into the soul scene and, 20 years later, it's still never very far from my stereo or my heart and it's power & sentiments can still move me more than I care to admit here. I could go on but this is getting embarrassing so just give it a listen - it's 40 years old today goddammit.
I couldn't find the PBS documentary about the making of the album but this 55min feature is worth a watch if you're unfamiliar with his story.