Marvin Gaye’s soul masterpiece, ‘What’s Going On,’ was released 50 years ago today

Today, May 21, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On album, considered by many critics to be among the greatest albums of all time.

The politically and socially themed song cycle was a departure for Gaye, who came to fame as one of Motown Records’ most revered singers of soulful love ballads.

What’s Going On is a concept album told from the perspective of a Vietnam vet who has recently returned from the war and who reflects on the serious issues facing people in the inner city. Among the topics addressed in the tunes: War, police brutality, racial injustice, poverty, drug abuse and environmental pollution.

The album’s classic title track and first single perfectly encapsulates the album’s themes. Released in January 1971, the song climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped Billboard’s R&B singles chart.

Motown founder Berry Gordy initially was apprehensive about releasing “What’s Going On” as a single, thinking the vocal scatting and jazz-influenced music sounded dated and that its political themes would hurt the tune’s commercial prospects. However, after the song’s quick success, Berry gave Marvin the green light to make a whole album along the same lines.

What’s Going On went on to yield two more hit singles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which peaked at #4 and #9 on the Hot 100.

Last year, Rolling Stone’s latest list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” ranked What’s Going On #1. The magazine calls the record “one of the most important and influential LPs ever made.”

“What’s Going On” has continued to serve as an anthem promoting peace and unity, and has been covered by dozens of artists over the years. In honor of the album’s anniversary, a new animated lyric video for the song will premiere at Gaye’s YouTube channel at 12 p.m. ET.

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