Coinciding with the 35th anniversary of his death and what would have been his 80th birthday, Marvin Gaye’s long shelved project, You’re the Man, is finally seeing the light of day. Originally recorded in 1972 as a follow up to his classic album, What’s Going On, You’re the Man continues the socially conscious and political themes that Marvin addressed in What’s Going On and combines his intellectual lyrics with the smooth, soulful backing tracks.
The history of this record is just as controversial as the reception that What’s Going On generated in 1971. Predominantly known as a Pop and R&B singer, Marvin Gaye wanted to explore a new side of his creativity, and make music that had a significant societal effect, akin to Bob Dylan. Having just signed the most lucrative and expensive contract in music history at the time, Marvin tested the boundaries of his new contract by rejecting the familiar love songs and dance numbers that Motown presented to him. Marvin’s insistence on recording music that focused on the Vietnam War, Racism, and Poverty was a stark contrast to the radio friendly music that Motown Records built their reputation on. Motown founder Berry Gordy was so bitter about Marvin’s decision to record What’s Going On, that he purposely sabotaged the promotion and sales for the single, You’re the Man, which would have served as the lead track for this follow up album. Disgusted with the tepid reception that the new single received and weary of the fights surrounding the album, You’re the Man was shelved and never revisited for the duration of Marvin’s life.
Fast forward to 2019, where with the help of Marvin’s wife Jan Gaye, Motown A&R agent Harry Weinger, and producer Salaam Remi, You’re the Man is finally getting the release and attention that it rightfully deserves. Consisting of 17 tracks, You’re the Man retains the original recordings, as well as remixes and alternate takes pieced together by Remi and his production team. This however, does not dilute or alter the tone of the album, and it serves as perfect companion to What’s Going On when played consecutively, as this was the Marvin’s original intention when recording both albums.
It’s evident that Marvin was at the his creative peak during this era, as his voice and songwriting are near perfect. Marvin’s insistence on including social messages in his lyrics is clearly evident in the songs “You’re the Man” and “Woman of the World,” with the former questioning the the validity of the upcoming Presidential candidates, and the latter arguing that the nation is overdue for a Female President. It’s intriguing to think that Marvin was addressing such sensitive topics in 1972, especially since these are relevant issues 47 years later. In fact, the majority of the songs are on this album mirror the same struggles that our society faces today. Its as if each song was a prophecy of what our world would be like if we did not begin to make some changes to our world. “The Whole World is Rated X” and “Where Are We Going” call into question the morals and ethics that have devolved within our society, while “I’m Going Home” conjures up images of a soldier lamenting his return home from a war zone.
However, the highlight of this album is the track “Piece of Clay.” This gospel inspired song invoked such a magical sense of emotion each time that I played it, that each time I hit repeat, I discovered something new and unique about the song. Marvin’s voice is as smooth as silk during the verse, and takes on a slight raspy edge as he transitions to the choruses. Adding to the gospel feel is the Hammond Organ and a gospel choir, which provide layered harmonies and compliment Marvin’s voice alongside the blues based rhythms. These moments are especially moving during the choruses and refrains, in which Marvin transitions between soulful crooning to powerful singing. With lyrics focusing on tolerance and a call for understanding, this song epitomizes Marvin’s vision for his music by combining his gospel roots with his R&B abilities. Much like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Piece of Clay” is a testament to an artist using every creative fiber in his being to implore listeners to examine the world around them and make a change for the better.It’s a shame that such a beautifully written song waited nearly 5 decades to receive a proper release. Fortunately, this song can now influence entire generations of listeners, much like Cooke’s masterpiece.
That seems to be the message that Marvin wanted to convey with this album. You’re the Man is the perfect bookend to What’s Going On. While What’s Going On was an examination of the state of the world at the time, You’re the Man is about possible solutions to society’s most troubling issues, told through the eyes of one of history’s most celebrated and influential singers of all time.