By the '70s, Motown artist Marvin Gaye was bored with "the Sound of Young America." When he wanted to go more in the direction of message music, label founder Berry Gordy wasn't pleased. It didn't help matters that Gaye had a reputation around the label of being "difficult," making him somewhat of a pariah among the talent pool. One of the key tracks for Gaye's new musical path was a song that was co-written by Four Tops member Renaldo Benson and Motown staff songwriter Al Cleveland. As Gaye worked on the song that would become "What's Going On," he angrily reflected on the stories told to him by his brother Frankie Gaye who was a Vietnam vet. The melancholy alto sax line was blown by Eli Fountain and, like the song itself, it seemed as a kind of aligned signal that the upbeat '60s were giving way to the more pessimistic '70s. When Gaye delivered the complete version of "What's Going On" to Motown, some executives thought it sounded like a radio that wasn't tuned well; to them it sounded like two records playing at once. Issued on January 20, 1971, "What's Going On" waited at number one R&B for five weeks and number two pop for three weeks in early 1971. Its flip side was the gorgeous ballad "God Is Love," which appeared in truncated form on the What's Going On album.
The What's Going On LP entered the R&B charts in the Top Five and held down the top spot for nine weeks before peaking at number six pop, going gold, and spawning three number one R&B/Top Ten pop singles: the title track, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)." Though Gaye had covertly dipped into message music before (he wrote Martha & the Vandellas' "Dancin' in the Streets"), his triumph was influential on his Motown labelmate Stevie Wonder, who'd just turned 21 around the same year and was beginning to feel his own sense of independence.