Few artists forged their own creative path like Marvin Gaye, who successfully fought for his musical freedom and thereby changed the direction of R&B. His 1971 album What's Going On perfectly encapsulated 1960s and 1970s social turmoil, and the track "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)" remains particularly relevant today.
Chafing under Motown's strict -- and decidedly nonpolitica l-- regulations, Gaye longed to record an album addressing the Vietnam War, poverty, environmental issues, and other vital topics of the day. Motown CEO Berry Gordy, however, believed that such material would simply not sell as many units as their traditional pop/soul-based singles. After recording the track "What's Going On" in 1970, Gaye presented the song to Gordy. Alarmed by its directness, Gordy initially refused to release the song as Gaye's next single, claiming the track was too "uncommercial." Upset, Gaye refused to record any more material for the label until Gordy relented. When the song subsequently became a huge hit in early 1971, Gaye reentered the studio in March to record the rest of the album. Ten days later, Gaye completed all the songs; in May 1971, Motown released the album to great critical and commercial acclaim. What's Going On not only became one of the best soul albums ever recorded, it also marked Gaye's transformation into a creative force who assumed complete control of his career.
Gaye co-wrote "Inner City Blues" with Motown songsmith (and frequent Gaye collaborator) James Nyx, Jr., and the Motown house band the Funk Brothers provided the excellent instrumentation. But Gaye's transcendent vocal performance proves crucial to the song's emotional power. Half scatting, half crooning, the singer leads the listener on an audial tour of the ghetto. "Money, we make it / 'Fore we see it you take it," he sings in a flawless tenor. Anger increases throughout the track, with Gaye decrying inflation, crime, and even the Vietnam War. Incredibly, the lyrics could easily address today's issues as much as those from the early 1970s. "Crime is increasing / Trigger happy policing," he croons. "Panic is spreading / God know where we're heading." Such fear and trepidation come alive through Gaye's world-weary voice, the soft bongos accented by the rhythm guitar riff, and the slight echo to the entire production.
Throughout the song he emphasizes frustration: "Oh, makes me wanna holler / Throw up both my hands," he cries. "Throw up both my hands" suggests futility, that the narrator believes life has controlled him. "Makes me wanna holler / The way they do my life / This ain't livin'!" he exclaims. Yet in the original ending to the song, he hints that change is possible. Referencing "What's Going On," he adds "Mother, mother / Everybody thinks we're wrong / Who are they to judge us / Simply 'cause we wear our hair long." This clearly references 1960s activists, and argues that these apparent radicals have been mislabeled due to appearance. "What's Going On" could be seen as part two to "Inner City Blues," calling for listeners to wake up and get involved. But "Inner City Blues" aims to shock through sheer poetry.
Gaye recorded numerous classics, and his silky voice could wrap itself around words concerning true love, sex, and politics. What's Going On and its individual songs established him as a bonafide creative force, one that deserved more independence and freedom. In addition, songs like "Inner City Blues" perfectly captured a particular moment and deeply resonates today.