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From the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

What's Going On

Marvin Gaye

1971

Buy At Rough Trade
What's Going On
Album Summary

What's Going On is the eleventh studio album by American soul singer Marvin Gaye. It was released on May 21, 1971, by the Motown Records subsidiary label Tamla. Recorded between 1970 and 1971 in sessions at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World, and United Sound Studios in Detroit, and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California, it was Gaye's first album to credit him as a producer and to credit Motown's in-house studio band, the session musicians known as the Funk Brothers. What's Going On is a concept album with most of its songs segueing into the next and has been categorized as a song cycle. The narrative established by the songs is told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to his home country to witness hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye's introspective lyrics explore themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with promoting awareness of ecological issues before the public outcry over them had become prominent ("Mercy Mercy Me"). What's Going On stayed on the Billboard Top LPs for over a year and became Gaye's second number-one album on Billboard's Soul LPs chart, where it stayed for nine weeks. The title track, which had been released in January 1971 as the album's lead single, hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and held the top position on Billboard's Soul Singles chart five weeks running. The follow-up singles "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" also reached the top 10 of the Hot 100, making Gaye the first male solo artist to place three top ten singles on the Hot 100 from one album. The album was an immediate commercial and critical success, and came to be viewed by music historians as a classic of 1970s soul. Broad-ranging surveys of critics, musicians, and the general public have shown that What's Going On is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time and a landmark recording in popular music. In 1985, writers on British music weekly the NME voted it the best album of all time. In 2020, it was ranked number one on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Wikipedia

Rating

3.93

Votes

11058
Genres
Soul

Reviews

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Wed Mar 15 2023
5

"But who really cares? Who's willing to try... to save our sweet world?" Shadows and light. Chiaroscuro, in painting. The bitter and the sweet, in chocolate. It's the stuff of melancholy, of regret, worry, dark times ahead. Marvin Gaye's human pleas, genuine and earnest... to save the babies, up against a symphony that's filmic, romantic, in an almost 1001 Strings kind of way. An orchestral setting that Berry Gordy thought was too old, outdated, the kids will never dig, etc. etc. But it's the perfect backdrop– nostalgia– that gives us context for Marvin's anguish about the future. It's also personal. It's an album about his brother's letters to him from Vietnam... the anti-war protests that Obie Benson saw firsthand which lead him to write "What's Going On?"... his own dark struggles with his family, addiction. A changing planet. And somehow Marvin is perfectly positioned to help us understand. He doesn't preach, he doesn't condescend. He brings you into his inner world, and doesn't count you out. And it's a Motown album? Impossible. I can't imagine the whiplash from the American public when this came out. Motown? Song cycles? Dark subject matter? *That* Marvin Gaye? An album for a coming storm... and one to put together the pieces from a few very real personal storms in the 1960s. An amazing album. The soundtrack to so many people's lives, their own anxieties and dark places and chances for redemption. Music for a sweet world. 5/5

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Wed Mar 15 2023
5

So magnificent and bittersweet. You cannot listen to this album and not feel that sense of sweet sweet nostalgia. It's an album about living in the future, suddenly waking up one day and it's 1971, and there's this moment of clarity, like "wait, what's really going on here?" Somehow it perfectly captures that for me. So beautiful.

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Wed Mar 15 2023
5

An immaculate and storied album. I listened to it a lot in college. I’ve always loved Gaye’s lyrics, thematic focus, and vocals on this album, but what struck me most today was the production and musicianship exhibited behind the man. And how well these songs flow from one into another. They practically compose a suite from “What’s Happening” through “Mercy” and from “Right On” to “Holy.” Simply one of the great, grooviest albums ever.

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Wed Mar 15 2023
5

Wow. This album puts you into such a specific mood. The rain on Marvin's face reflects today's weather accompanying my listen to this record. We start off this album with a political statement on "What's Going On" that is a very serious statement about police brutality hidden behind what sounds like jubilation and a very calming groovy bongo beat. Apparently when Marvin brought this to Motown they were appalled. Said it was way too political. I'm glad that Marvin stood his ground and argued that it was a very political time to be alive, pushing for the very real nature of this album. It feels visceral, like music that isn't made simply to make music. Lyrics like "Who Really Cares // Who's willing to try // To save a world that's destined to die?" are not the type of lyrics the label was expecting to hear, I'm sure. A lyric I deeply identified with. Save the damn babies. I absolutely love the way it flows, at least from the start through "God Is Love". Like I'm watching a movie. I will say that while the songs after "God Is Love" are still beautifully written and arranged, I wish that the entire album flowed together rather than dropping that concept midway through. Loved the drums on "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)". Loved all of the brass and woodwinds on "Right On". Loved the entirety of "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)". So many simple lines in this song that are just so great. "Panic is spreadin', God knows where we're headin'" As Marvin states on the final track, "this ain't livin'". We've made a lot of progress since 1971 but honestly this record could have been made yesterday and the themes Marvin's lyrics touch on would still be just as pertinent now as they were back then. The album cover makes sense to me now. It's not all sunshine and rainbows. 5/5.

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Wed Mar 15 2023
5

Absolute classic from start to finish - such a beautiful unique sound

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Fri Mar 24 2023
5

This is one of the most powerful and heartfelt musical statements ever made, and would be a strong contender for greatest album of all time in my book. I have always admired the atmosphere he was able to capture and maintain throughout the record. Although it has its emotional ups and downs, it really is one big musical statement - like a symphony with different movements and recurring themes. The arrangements are bold and intricately layered, but never overdone. The tracks seem to effortlessly flow into one another in a way that just hypnotizes you. The music is obviously meticulously composed and constructed, yet it feels so natural and organic that it almost seems like it could have been miraculously collectively improvised somehow. As you know, right before our last jam, I listened to this on the way up and damn near had a religious experience in my car. I mean I had heard this album dozens of times before but for some reason this album, and everything he was saying on it, just seemed so relevant to what we're still experiencing today and it hit me so hard. I kept turning the volume up, and up, and up, and heard it in whole new way all these years later. This album is a cry for help in an increasingly complicated and difficult world, but it retains a distinct and heartbreakingly beautiful sense of optimism. An optimism that we so desperately need to hold on to.

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Sat Jun 03 2023
4

Can't believe I've never listened to this album the whole way through. It's got a great feel to it and the whole thing is so cohesive. Reading the Wikipedia page about this album, here's one of the most random facts I've heard about a musician. "Around the spring of 1970, Gaye also began seriously pursuing a career in football with the professional football team the Detroit Lions of the NFL, even working out with the Eastern Michigan Eagles football team." That's insane - he would have been 31 and he just decided, ya know, I think I'm going to start playing professional football. Too bad it didn't work out, I'm sure my Lions could have used him. Anyway, back to the music. Going with 4 stars for this one.

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Fri Aug 04 2023
4

Love the sound, but there’s a bit too much about Jesus.

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Mon Apr 10 2023
5

A beautifully arranged and produced album with a powerful message that unfortunately never seizes to be relevant despite being over 50 years old. The way Marvin harmonizes with his own voice on the layered vocals is sublime and I've yet to hear another artist being able to do it in the way he does here. I give it 5 broken unsynchronized clocks, because it is timeless! 🕣🕜🕛🕖🕐

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Fri Aug 04 2023
5

No need to write anything here, it's What's Going On by Marvin Gaye. People who don't like this are empirically wrong.

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Mon Aug 07 2023
5

I've thought highly of this for a good while although don't really listen to it that much. Reading its back story, and that of Marvin Gaye in general, surprised me how radical this album actually was. Of course, it also contains some great tunes. A bit preachy but can't really ding it for that. And, what a piece of shit David Ruffin was! Full marks here

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Mon Aug 07 2023
5

I hadn’t heard this uninterrupted for over 20 years, and am thankful for being given a weekend for this. Perhaps the only song cycle/concept album that I consider flawless. A student flatmate once complained that the record was samey, which I worried over, but now doesn’t bother me. Its consistency is a marvel.

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Mon Aug 21 2023
5

A groovy yet emotionally charged album, Marvin Gaye looks around and watches society crumble apart, with songs about kids starving on the street, families being torn apart by the Vietnamese war, the aftermath trauma on those veterans, drug addiction, and the environment literally threatening human existence. The lyrics are simple enough that you can follow along and understand the messages he sends, never dragging too long or going on unnecessary tangents. Everything is relevant and to the point. It's hard to find a more consistent album. You really can't tell when one song ends and another begins. The mood flows perfectly and gradually shifts with the songs. Themes persist and are revisited but twisted. This creates a pretty fun experience, with the audience watching how the same melodies can be altered to create different effects and tell different stories. Marvin Gaye's vocals are top notch, smooth and sincere, easy to listen, clear, and yet has a lot to say. But not too much. The instrument is sparse and light enough to relax you and immerse you in the music, especially due to its atmospheric and diverse sounds, with all sorts of instruments (including woodwinds, brass, different percussions), synth effects, and back vocals. It's at times funky to sing or dance to, and at times like a beautifully happy or sad movie soundtrack. I'm also incredibly impressed by the production. Very few soul albums from the early 70s are up to par in terms of the clarity and mixing, as good as Stevie Wonder. This album flies by in 36 minutes. You couldn't argue that any track on here is unnecessary or could be cut. In fact, any less and you'd be complaining it was too short. Melodically, every song transitions well from one to the next. Of course, you got your hits ("What's Going On", "Mercy Mercy Me"). You got your interlude ("God Is Love"). You got your epic ("Right On"). And you got your satisfying closer ("Inner City Blues"). I don't have the faintest clue how you could improve this record.

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Tue Aug 22 2023
5

There aren't many albums better than this.

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Fri Oct 13 2023
5

10/10 thanks, Marvin Gaye 👍 Inventor of Sex

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Tue May 09 2023
4

It's smooth, it's epic and it's important. What more could you really ask for. Marvin's estate really needs to take it easy on trying to sue everyone under the sun though. It makes them look bad. It would be an extremely sad thing to ruin this dudes legacy with such crap. Amazing album though. Score: 80 Art: 70

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Mon May 29 2023
3

Whats going on 4 Whats happening brother 3 Flyin high 3 Save the children 3 God is love 3 Mercy mercy me 4 Right on 4 Wholy holy 2 Inter City blues 3 3.22

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Thu Dec 21 2023
3

I think this is so beloved more for being \"important\" than for sounding great. I bought this many years ago but I haven't listened to it in probably 10 years. There are 2 almost-bangers at the end of the album, tracks 7 and 9. The title track is also pretty great. But the album is not very musically diverse. The second track sounds like a copy of the first, and most of the rest has a similar, slow soul feel. I think if this album mixed things up more I would like it better. That said, the lyrics are good, and I've always like Marvin's singing a lot.

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Fri Jan 05 2024
3

It’s decent. A couple classic bangers, but there is a good amount of filler in there as well. Not a lot to say about it. Could be a 2.5, maybe? But I’m good with 3.

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Sat Jan 20 2024
3

I land somewhere between you two on this one. What’s Going On, Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues are top tier soul classics, but they’re the tent poles that hold this up when in starts to drag. The arrangements are great, and the recurring motifs do make this feel like a concept album rather than a collection of tracks, but it starts to wear thin at times, like he’s just scatting new lyrics over the same backing music. Lyrically it’s of its time (Viet Nam, ecological worries, racism) but it tips into self-parody in places. A three-star, mainly on the strength of those three classic tracks.

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Tue Jan 23 2024
3

this album really only has two good songs on it i mean they are realllly good songs i really like those songs

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Thu Feb 01 2024
3

Social and cultural significance: 5 stars. Musically, I’m just not that into it: 2 stars. I would seek this album out to listen to again like I would with Sgt. Peppers or Sticky Fingers.

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Sat Mar 18 2023
2

've never been able to get on with this album. Some definite classic Marvin in there, but Save the Children is so massively lame it drags the whole thing down

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Mon Apr 17 2023
2

Nice voice but album bored me. I hate 'Save the Children'. I don't hate children and if a child needs saving then yeah, let's save them but this song half makes me think we should just leave the children if it's going to produce more songs like this

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Thu Jun 15 2023
2

What's going on is iconic. I really disliked some of the songs though. Save the Children seems like a parody.

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Wed Feb 07 2024
2

What's Going On? Not much honestly.

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Mon Mar 20 2023
5

Beautiful weaving of some meaningful songs by the man himself

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Wed Mar 22 2023
5

The song; What's Going On is a stone cold classic. The album deserves four stars for that track alone. The question is does the rest of the album push it to a 5? The answer for me is Yes! THe overriding themes of war and inner-city strife, the environment and a loving and benevolent God are delivered with heartfelt soul and honesty as to be dissarming. Gaye's singing is incredible. I am not a fan of strings / orchestration in pop music, I feel like it clouds the musical threads in general and I feel that that part is the weak element of this album but I can live with it when the performance is this honest and true. The songs are able to cut through that fog and deliver thier messge with still great imact. 5 stars

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Fri Mar 24 2023
5

Classic, enduring album - a true great.

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Sun Mar 26 2023
5

This album is simply one of the greatest albums of all time. Marvin Gaye explores themes of racism, war, poverty etc. and does it all with a striking sense of empathy. The vocals are melodies are top notch and the music is soothing yet has an air of movement and restlessness that underscores the severity of the social issues. This album is always in heavy rotation for me.

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Tue Mar 28 2023
5

One of the best albums ever made. Marvtastic

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Wed Mar 29 2023
5

Amazing album, feels spiritual, like I’m floating on a cloud, but at the same time there’s a pain in it too. Lyrics make it a masterpiece. 3/1001 best album yet

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Thu Mar 30 2023
5

Good album to chill too but also has some the greatest vocals, lyrics, and bass lines of all time. Whole album flows well and doesn’t really have any misses.

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Sat Apr 01 2023
5

REally blown away by this one. Easily my favorite so far. FLows so well all the way through

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Thu Apr 06 2023
5

Naturally this is going to be five stars - it's Marvin Gaye for crying out loud.

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Fri Apr 07 2023
5

Makes me wanna give 5 stars, throw up my hands.

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Fri Apr 14 2023
5

Ok, I've never actually listened to this before. It's a concept album, each track into the next. I knew the themes it was going to deal with, but I had no idea this was the way it was going to be told. So good in its story, it's writing, and just overall vibe. I completely understand why this hits best ever lists. I'll be giving this one another spin

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Fri Apr 14 2023
5

Marvin Gayes masterpiece. Just an absolute beautiful album, which sadly a lot of the themes are still true today, over 50 years later.

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Sat Apr 15 2023
5

Lyrical and musical masterpiece

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Tue Apr 18 2023
5

incredibly soulful and catchy music with protest lyrics that feel incredibly heartfelt and real. the combo of funky easy listening with hard-hitting lyrics of love and war is an excellent vibe. 4.5/5 4.5/5

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Sun Apr 23 2023
5

This is a great album, but I’ve always felt that it’s missing something to put it over the top. 9/10

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Mon Apr 24 2023
5

Clear contender in my opinion of the best album about social justice ever produced. Gaye, a beloved son of Washington DC, was taken away far too young in the tragic shooting by his father. Who knows what he may have achieved and it is a poignant reminder that sometimes those who burn the brightest also burn the shortest. There's nothing I can say about this album that won't have been better said elsewhere. One thing I will mention is that Gaye's family released a new album posthumously called "Your the Man". It truly is worth your time to go and give *that* album a listen if you haven't heard it. Really beautiful and there are some showstoppers on it, especially 'Piece of Clay' if you have time for only one song with its piercing guitar and glorious organ. In that song, he speaks of the relationship between a father and son with respect to the false expectations of a father. Heartbreaking.

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Tue Apr 25 2023
5

Marvin Gaye's ”What's Going On” is a masterpiece that transcends the boundaries of time and genre. Released in 1971, the album tackles issues of social justice, war, poverty, and police brutality, making it an album that resonates with people even today. Gaye's smooth, soulful vocals and jazzy instrumentation make the album a joy to listen to from start to finish. Songs like ”What’s Going On”, ”Mercy Mercy Me” and ”Inner City Blues” are truly powerful and showcase Gaye’s brilliant artistry. Whilst it’s not the greatest album of all time like Rolling Stone claims, it’s certainly one of those albums that feel really special and easily fits into the debate for top 30.

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Fri Apr 28 2023
5

The pinnacle of 70s soul? If not, then at least one of the peaks. Despite the meandering religiosity of the middle of the album, this thing sings true.

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Fri Apr 28 2023
5

Classic album, all of the songs are what’s goin on

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Wed May 03 2023
5

Maybe we’ll never find the answers to Marvin’s musings, as the injustices of the past bleed into modern day, but as much as our revolving reality makes us want to cry, you just have to remember, always, to try.

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Wed May 03 2023
5

I don’t think there’s a top 10 list out there where this album isn’t present. It’s simply the best at everything it’s doing; best Motown record, best protest record, best vocal performance, etc. Of course you have to mention the lyrics, which are unfortunately, timeless. But what this manages to capture most is the world Gaye saw that was worth fighting for in the midst of all the chaos.

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Fri May 05 2023
5

- Heard this before - One of the most important albums of all time - Not something I listen to very often, but when I do I can easily see why it's considered one of the best of all time - Fav songs: What's Going On, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

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Tue May 09 2023
5

Beautiful music and vocals accompanied with such a poignant and deep message. Every song connects to the next and leads you on a groovin', socially conscious ride. What's Going On and Mercy Mercy Me are all timers.

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Tue May 16 2023
5

He's done it again. Favorite track: Inner City Blues

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Fri May 19 2023
5

Cooler than a poor bear in sunglasses. Great from start to finish. Inner City Blues, Right On, and Mercy Mercy Me are the highlights.

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Sat May 20 2023
5

Well I think this has to be full marks as a cultural touchstone alone. The songs do have a similar kind of sound but the lyrics and vocals and sentiment are spot on.

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Sat May 20 2023
5

I think it would absolutely break Marvin Gaye's heart that over 50 years after the release of this album, and nearly 40 years after his death, nothing has changed. This album is still as lyrically relevant as ever. Musically, it's gorgeous, with lush strings and deep, resonant bongos creating such a warm atmosphere. It's a masterpiece. Nothing more need be said.

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Sat May 20 2023
5

What can I say about this album that isn't already said, its a damn classic. One of the first soul albums I brought on record. Holds a special place in my heart.

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Fri May 26 2023
5

Half way through track one, that's a big yes. I really love the vibe, and his voice, the listening was extremely smooth. Well played Mister Gaye. Tbh there were not songs particularly shinning bright but just a really good overall experience. Favorite Songs : What's going on, Mercy Mercy me, Right on Rating : 4.5 / 5

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Sat May 27 2023
5

My second soul album that I listened through, and this one blew away the competition. Really nice and smooth

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Mon Jun 12 2023
5

One of my favorite albums of all time, absolute groundbreaking masterpiece.

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Mon Jun 12 2023
5

What a phenomenal piece of 1970s r&b. Marvin Gaye’s voice is equal parts unreal and perfectly mixed. Each snare hit and slide whistle mixing wonderfully and the sonically perfect piece.

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Wed Jun 14 2023
5

One of the shining gems of soul, perfectly capturing the restless times in which it was made. Marvin Gaye’s finest hour on record.

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Fri Jun 16 2023
5

Long time listener, yet it still gives me chills

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Mon Jun 19 2023
5

Hoewel r&b en soul mij niet per se liggen, springt dit album er voor mij direct uit. Toevallig onlangs nog een artikel gelezen over dit album, hoe What’s Going On over ongelijkheid gaat, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) over het klimaat, waar Marvin relatief vroeg mee was. Hoe het hem lukte een politiek album op Motown te uit te brengen. Dit album is niet je standaard r&b/soul album en dat hoor je direct. Hoe naadloos de nummer overvloeien, Save The Children > God Is Love > Mercy Mercy Me voelt als 1 lang nummer. Prachtige teksten zonder pretentie, wat soms lastig is als je een politieke boodschap over wilt brengen. What’s Going On is natuurlijk vandaag de dag een nog megahit, waar velen denk ik toch de boodschap erin missen. Zijn stem is zo zacht als boter en dat helpt ook. Hier en daar een hint van jazz (percussie op Save The Children, de blazers op Mercy Mercy Me) wat het album meer diepte geeft. Na het luisteren en deze review schrijven zie ik op rateyourmusic.org dat dit het nummer 1 album van 1971. In een jaar waar gigantisch veel goede muziek uit kwam, muzikaal innovatief en vooruitstrevend (Masters of Reality, Tago Mago, Maggot Brain), spant dit album volgens die snobistische gebruikers blijkbaar de kroon, en dat zegt voor mij al genoeg. Alom geprezen en gewaardeerd, het is onmogelijk dit album niet leuk te vinden.

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Mon Jun 19 2023
5

Ja gewoon goed, heerlijke classic

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Mon Jun 19 2023
5

listened to this one multiple times this weekend, such an incredible album. amazingly (and depressingly) this album released in 1971, but all of the critiques it had about society still completely apply today. marvin gaye also has one of the best voices ever in music, further carrying this album.

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Mon Jun 19 2023
5

Some to most albums are just collections of songs, this is actually an album album. Phenomenal and peak soul.

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Mon Jun 19 2023
5

What a great album. Wish it was longer. Great flow. A classic and still very relevant to today.

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Thu Jun 22 2023
5

a masterpiece with his Let's get it on.

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Thu Jun 22 2023
5

Surprisingly tight, and the concept was very strong. A low 5, but a 5 nonetheless.

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Thu Jun 22 2023
5

Transcendent and resplendent. This... might be a legitimately perfect album.

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Fri Jun 23 2023
5

Ett av de allra bästa soulalbumen, ibland det bästa.

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Mon Jun 26 2023
5

Everything is good about this album.

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Thu Jul 06 2023
5

Inspiring, hopeful, reflexive. One in a million.

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Wed Jul 12 2023
5

Turns out What's Going On and Let's Get It On are very different albums. This feels like the platonic ideal of R&B. Seriously still holds up. BT - What's Goin On - What's Happening Brother - Mercy Mercy Me - Right On - Inner City Blues

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Tue Jul 18 2023
5

I'm not crying. YOU'RE crying!

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Thu Jul 20 2023
5

Feel good music, cool vibes. Fantastic start to the album, with the party acoustics. Love it.

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Sat Jul 22 2023
5

A true classic. Not easy listening, as it is soul in its purest form, but if you dig deep you will find everything: smooth arrangements, meaningful lyrics, one of the best singing voices ever. And timeless songs like 'What's Going On' or 'What's Happening Brother'.

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Mon Jul 31 2023
5

You know that longing, earnest saxophone that opens behind the chatty greetings of “What’s Going On?” You're hearing it in your mind now and your head is starting to nod like you’re saying “No!” to everything other than the riff, the song, and its ideas. Right? Eli Fontaine, a session sax player, was just warming his chops in the studio over the track when Gaye told him to go home. Gaye said, “We’ve already got what we need.” Somewhat incredulous and probably taking it as a dismissal, Fontaine insisted that he was only “goofing around.” Gaye responded with, “Well, you goof exquisitely.” Simply put, one of the greatest albums ever, ever made. 'Nuff said.

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Tue Aug 01 2023
5

One of my top five albums of all time by one of my top 5 favorite artists of all time

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Tue Aug 01 2023
5

Think of one aspect of this album and tell me it’s not perfect. Lyrics, production, instrumentation, chords, structure, etc. Pure vibes coming off this thing. 5/5

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Thu Aug 03 2023
5

Masterpiece of an album with what is, in my opinion, the greatest singing voice ever. "What's Going On", "Mercy, Mercy, Me" and one of my favorite songs ever, "Inner City Blues" (which is also the theme for what I think is the greatest TV show ever, The Wire). 10/10

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Fri Aug 04 2023
5

Great album, high production, everything just flows. Mercy Mercy Me is a particular favourite.

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Fri Aug 04 2023
5

Sould music at its finest believe he recorded it in europe somewhere to get away from demons, maybe fighting demons is ehat they should call it. Still solid

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