Q-Tip once said that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was kind of like the Bible—you kind of have to have a copy in your house. This is the part where I admit I don’t actually have Kind of Blue on vinyl (I have it on CD and a bunch of other Miles Davis albums on vinyl, but still…). Don’t yell at me.
But I think that everyone-needs-this quality—potentially for the sake of your soul’s salvation—applies to a lot of other albums. Does that apply to Radiohead or Led Zeppelin? Probably not. Does it apply to Van Morrison or Funkadelic? Yeah, probably! And it definitely applies to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
I didn’t really grow up with Marvin Gaye’s music. I remember hearing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and knew a little bit about him, but on some level I had to find this album for myself. It was around senior year of high school when I started scooping up armloads of extra-cheap CDs of The Canon at Circuit City and Best Buy and filling out my collection. Stuff like this, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed—essentially anything from before I was born. And once I heard this album, I was moved. Of course, my understanding of how fucked up the world was back then was a lot less sophisticated or extensive, and as far as I knew everything was fine. That wasn’t true then, and things have only gotten much, much worse. And as I return to this album, it carries greater resonance and emotional weight. It’s an album about the state of the world, the country and so on, but it’s also an album heavy with grief. Gaye recorded it after his singing partner, Tami Terrell, died of a brain tumor—she collapsed into his arms onstage, in fact. And whenever I think of that story, it’s hard for me not to get a bit choked up.
What’s Going On, you might notice, doesn’t have a question mark in the title. It can be read as a question—a plea to understand the cruel reality of war, poverty, addiction and grief—or it can also be read as a statement about the truths we’re inundated with and sometimes don’t know how to process. It’s a mournful album more than an angry one, and it’s also an incredibly beautiful album. There are recurring melodic motifs, and it’s best absorbed as a complete piece rather than as individual tracks, though it does have a handful of standouts.
This album, despite being released during the Nixon era, is as relevant today as it was when it was released, and sounds just as incredible. In 2017 after Trump was elected, I started a project of daily protest songs (which I never finished, but still intend to eventually compile into an epic playlist of songs for every day he’s been in office), and I pulled a few from this album, naturally. I also DJed later that year at a local bar and someone came up to me while I was playing “Inner City Blues.” Interestingly enough, he recognized it was Marvin, just not which album, so I held up the cover for him to remember and hopefully put on his shopping list and eventually bring it home. Where it belongs.
Sound Quality: Great