Up Next

Music

A painful listen to Marvin Gaye’s newly released posthumous album

1972’s ‘You’re the Man‘ project is a reminder of post-civil rights America — and Tupac

Father, please stop criticizing your sons / Mother, please, leave your daughters alone / Don’t you see that’s what wrong with the world today? / Everybody wants somebody to be their own piece of clay … — Marvin Gaye, “Piece of Clay” (1972)

The release of Marvin Gaye’s posthumous You’re the Man album occurred three days before the 35th anniversary of his death — April 1. The collection also landed at streaming services four days before what would have been his 80th birthday — April 2. It arrives ensconced in nostalgia and chock-full of harrowing untapped potential.

Man was originally set for release in 1972. At the time, after the release of 1971’s What’s Going On, Marvin was one of the biggest stars in pop. Many of Man’s themes followed a similar sociopolitical examination of the world as What’s Going On. Gaye, it seemed, was settling into a groove, albeit one not completely welcome under the Motown umbrella of factory-assembled hits about romantic love and happily ever after.

The album features 15 songs that, until now, had never before been pressed to vinyl. The 17-song collection includes music from the original album as well as some of Gaye’s additional work from that period, including a rare extended take on “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.” It also features a handful of mixes from famed producer Salaam Remi, including the previously released “My Last Chance,” “Symphony” and “I’d Give My Life for You.” Man, as a 1972 concept, was originally scrapped in part because there were no singles on it in the vein of “What’s Going On.”

Marvin Gaye is the most complex and troubled musician in American history.

The racial and economic climate of America was still tugging at Gaye’s soul. On You’re the Man, he sang of busing rights and the 1972 presidential election. The album’s title song finds Gaye clamoring for America to leave the era of Richard Nixon behind and begin anew with a female president. It reads like a ringing endorsement of Shirley Chisholm, who was running for president the same year.

While some black entertainers of Gaye’s day crossed proverbial picket lines in support of Nixon, Gaye’s critiques left no question as to where he stood. Politics and hypocrites / Is turning us all into lunatics, Gaye sings in an assessment still relevant 47 years later. Can you take the guns from our sons? / Right all the wrongs this administration has done.

Written and sung from the perspective of a depressed Vietnam soldier, “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” has been a holiday staple for decades. Yet, hearing it among other Gaye songs of the same period gives it even more depth, heartbreak, misery and resonance. In a beautiful homage to his own gospel roots — music introduced to him by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., who would eventually kill his own son — “Piece of Clay” is a vivid examination of society manipulating its younger generations into carrying the sins of their elders.

A first and common thought about Gaye is his one-of-a-kind sensuality. He oozed eroticism and love, making him one of the most beloved sex symbols in music history. And you hear some of that, in different ways, on You’re the Man. The song “Try It, You’ll Like It” is a joyous celebration of rising together as a community. “You Are That Special One” harks back to the glory days of Gaye and former recording partner Tammi Terrell, who died in 1970 of brain cancer. Meanwhile, “We Can Make It Baby” is classic Gaye: a feel-good ditty in a catalog bursting at the seams with them. This album, though, wasn’t meant to be — at least not back then.

“I remember Marvin Gaye used to sing to me,” Tupac Shakur said. “He had me feeling like black was the thing to be.”

Man was shelved by Motown. It was ’72, and the label also relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles that year. With Motown refusing to further explore the impact and success of Gaye’s socially conscious recordings, it instead released Gaye’s soundtrack to the Ivan Dixon-directed Trouble Man.

“Gaye, like [Curtis] Mayfield [with Superfly],” reviews said at the time, “has created a score strong enough to be completely independent of the film.” By 1973, Gaye’s forever classic Let’s Get It On, fueled by the title single, cemented his status as a musical genius. He was larger than life. A Billboard mainstay. A role model to many, a sexual fantasy to others and the voice of a generation to all. No one was more surprised than Gaye. “I think that somewhere down the line,” Gaye told Rolling Stone in 1974, “God owes somebody a favor.”

Whether Gaye ever found out more about that favor will never be known in this world, as his father killed him in Los Angeles on April 1, 1984. Gaye had always teetered on the line between genius and insanity.

“[Marvin] had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug,” former Detroit Lions running back Mel Farr told me in 2015. He, alongside Hall of Famer Lem Barney, had helped record What’s Going On 12 years earlier. “I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

A deep listen to You’re the Man makes for a painful voyage. Not because the album isn’t enjoyable. It’s actually just that. Man is a musical trip back to Nixon’s exploits, Vietnam’s unhealable wounds, Martin Luther King Jr.’s ghost and the Black Panther Party’s unapologetic aggression. Gaye’s angelic octaves were real-time documentaries and testimonials of truths most news programs either never knew existed or willfully ignored.

Gaye is the most complex and troubled musician in American history. His demons gave way to vices. His vices gave way to manipulation, of himself and of the ones he was said to love the most. But in 1972, there seemed to be a path for Gaye to find some peace, however temporary. Marvin Gaye used to sing to me, Tupac Shakur said on 1993’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” He had me feeling like black was the thing to be.

The album’s title song finds Gaye clamoring for America to leave the era of Richard Nixon behind and begin anew with a female president.

Shakur is Gaye’s closest musical comparison, his flawed yet eternally adored predecessor. Had Shakur made better decisions, by his own admission, about who he kept in his inner circle and who he allowed to influence him, perchance history is different. And the history of music, as well.

In 1972, like many of his day, Gaye was still confused by his view of the world. He was hurt by what he felt. But even within the chaos of his own life, laden by heartbreak that seemed to stalk him, Gaye still believed in brighter tomorrows — when he wasn’t his own worst enemy. “An artist, if he is truly an artist, is only interested in one thing, and that is to wake up the minds of men,” Gaye said. “To have mankind and womankind realize that there is something greater than what we see on the surface.”

You’re the Man is a man in search of the man he was supposed to become. In so many ways, the man born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. never found him.

Correction: This piece has been updated — it is the 35th anniversary of Gaye’s death.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.