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Since the beginning of mankind, we have witnessed hideous events resulting from war, either by religious beliefs (such as the Crusades in the Mid-Middle Ages), political-economic (such as World War I, World War II, the French Revolution, among others) and territorial hegemony (such as the Cold War), among others, resulting in a journey of pain and suffering, in the hands of each nation.
Although they are not repaired, many have learned their limitations and what can be changed in the future, while others seek the destruction of lives for their own economic and political gain.
I, like many others, have the belief that because of the intellectual capacity that a human being possesses, the time may come when we will put our differences aside and be able to coexist, in order to achieve peace and harmony by embracing what divides us, instead of what separates us (of course, it is rather utopian, but if we do not have this thought, this desire can never be achieved).
These two albums provide different and reflective perspectives of two historical periods marked by war conflicts, a theme immensely influential and addressed in the artistic world (by many other artists, such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Zeca Afonso, José Mário Branco, among others).
Marvin Gaye — What’s Going On
Genre (s): soul, R&B, symphonic pop, psychedelic soul
The first album under review is entitled What’s Going On, by African-American artist Marvin Gaye, released in 1971 by Tamla Records (subsidiary label of Motown Records).
Widely regarded by critics, such as Rolling Stone (#1 on the 2020 updated list), NME (#1 in 1985) and The Guardian (named the Greatest Album of the 20th Century) as the best or one of the best albums of all time, Gaye (one of my favourite singers ever) revolutionised the music scene by carrying out What’s Going On, his most ambitious work ever, which for me, is the pure embodiment of the soul genre in the history of popular music.
Recognized as one of the greatest pop superstars and sex/love symbols of his generation (proclaimed “Prince of Motown”), Marvin Gaye had numerous hit singles during the 1960’s, ranging from “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You), “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, among others, making him one of the artists who brought most income to Motown.
Although his CEO Berry Gordy was quite cherished by his artists and audience, he tended to take artistic control, which for Gaye became asphyxiating at the turn of the decade, causing him to threaten to leave the label if he was not granted full control of his creativity (game changing for several African-American artists like Stevie Wonder; for those who are interested, I covered this topic in my previous article).
Having been marked by several events at the time, both on a personal (derived from issues in his marriage with Anny Gordy and the premature death at 24, of singer, collaborator and friend Tammi Terrell of a brain tumor, in 1970), and sociopolitical level (such as the Civil Rights Movement (in particular the 65 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, a pivotal moment in his life: “with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”)), led Gaye to social isolation and consequent estrangement from the stage for a long period, leading to a deep depression and drug abuse.
However, all these factors provided time and creativity for the artist to create What’s Going On, his magnum opus and first concept album (also considered the first true album by Motown, which until then had been dominated by singles’ market success).
Inspired by stories described in letters sent by his brother Frankie (who was enlisted in the Vietnam War for 3 years), such as the disappearance and mistreatment of American soldiers, along with the feeling of powerlessness and desire to actively express himself on these socio-political subjects, he decided to musically appropriate this narrative into the album’s storyline, starting with the home arrival of a recently returned war veteran (used throughout the album), who is confronted with a country marked by cultural change, violence, injustice, poverty and oppression.
Production and arranging wise, the album was recorded and conceptually developed in several studios such as Hitsville U.S.A. (the original Motown headquarters), Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit, and The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California, between June-September of 1970 and March-May of 1971 (the recording process was interrupted due to a complaint by Berry Gordy, to the point where Gaye refused to go on until he changed his mind about what he was witnessing, particularly with the song “What’s Going On”, which to Gordy, was allegedly “the worst thing I’ve heard in my life” when he first heard it).
Produced entirely by Gaye, it is full of several multitracking techniques and overdubbing vocals, containing a mix of contrasting percussion and orchestration, something that was unheard of according to Motown standards.
It had the assistance of several instrumentalists/engineers, such as the Funk Brothers (Motown based-session musicians group between 1959 and 1971, responsible for contributing over 100 number one singles; members such as James Jamerson (one of my favourite session musicians ever; bass guitar on several tracks, such as “What’s Going On” and “What’s Happening Brother”), Wild Bill Moore (tenor saxophone on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, Jack Ashford (percussion and tambourine), Chet Forest (on drums), among others)), Gaye himself (lead vocals, background vocals, piano, mellotron on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and box drum on “What’s Going On”)), Gordon Staples (violin), George Benson (saxophone), Italo Babini (cello), John Matousek (master engineering), among others, who contributed to a collection of contemplative sounds of symphonic pop and obscure psychedelic soul, with the influence of the galloping and eclectic nature of jazz, felt on brass and keyboard instruments, as well as the arrangement and orchestration of strings instruments and background vocals/choir spiritual harmonies of gospel, resulting in a passionate, soulful and challenging project on all levels, combining perfectly with the lyrical component.
Not only was this input influenced by the Vietnam War, but also by a proposal from Renaldo Benson (member of the Four Tops, Motown’s legendary vocal group) to Gaye.
On May 15th, 1969, while Benson was returning on the Four Tops bus tour, he encountered a confrontation between student anti-war activists and the police in Berkeley’s People Park at the event known as “Bloody Thursday”, marked by police brutality, immense injuries and fatalities.
Shocked by the events (“I saw this and started wondering ‘what was going on, what is happening here?’), he created the original concept of the title track “What’s Going On” and decided to offer it to Gaye, having accepted it (even though he initially refused) and added musical composition to both the lyrics and the arrangement itself.
These two situations provided the inspiration Gaye needed, so that he could lyrically emulate the pain, revolt and suffering of the time, serving as a shift to a more conscious type of songwriting, as in an attempt to “reach the souls of people”, making them “look at what was happening in the world”.
Although all the songs were composed by Gaye, it had the cooperation of several co-writers such as Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland (on “What’s Going On”, “Save The Children” and “Wholy Holy”), James Nyx Jr. (on “What’s Happening Brother”, “God Is Love” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”)), Earl DeRouen (on “Right On”), Anna Gordy and Elgie Stover (on “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” and “God Is Love”), by focusing on central themes of society, peace, awareness and the consequences of war (on “What’s Going On”, the central and most iconic theme of the project, which consists of a call for peace on Earth, correlating the pain endured by the loss of children in the war and the letters with his brother; on “What’s Happening Brother”, inspired by the letters between himself and his brother, tells the story of a recently returned American soldier from Vietnam and the cultural adaptations to which he is subjected; on “Save the Children”, in which it addresses the dangers of American society’s lack for caring, which will result in the suffering of its children) violence and social injustice (also on “What’s Going On”, which is representative in the title that is itself a question directed at the social situation of the country), religion (on “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”, based on the artist’s drug use, particularly marijuana, referring to the high effect it has on him; on “God Is Love”, in which he refers the importance of religion and God in his life and the unifying and familiar component it contains; on “Wholy Holy”)), poverty and oppression (on “Right On”, which is Gaye’s cry of support and compassion, for all those who seek to help their neighbour, even if they are unable to do so; on “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler”, one of my favourites and darkest tracks on the album, depicting the underground world marked by economic disparity in the ghettos, police brutality towards African-Americans and Vietnam War Protestants)) and environmental awareness (on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, which on many ways, was one of the first raising awareness songs about the destruction of the environment, alerting to issues that generate it such as overpopulation, oil consumption and radioactive waste)), presenting a cyclical song structure, in which each song follows the line of the previous one, providing a highly cohesive musical form and concept, representative of the human and racial suffering of the time.
Therefore, What’s Going On is Marvin Gaye’s most important work, placing him on a cultural pedestal occupied by very few, cementing his name in musical history and as a reference for any composer, who intends to be bold in defending their causes.
In spite of not being an album that I absolutely love, I have always taken it into consideration and have enjoyed it since my teen years, so I recommend it to all lovers of soul, symphonic and gospel genres, social awareness and concept albums, and those who want to experience a milestone work in popular culture (Link here).
The Roots — Game Theory
Genre (s): east coast hip hop, alternative hip hop, jazz rap, boom bap, experimental hip hop
The second album under review is called Game Theory by African-American hip hop group The Roots, released in 2006 by Def Jam Recordings (which is currently owned by Universal Music Group).
Commonly known as The Roots Crew, they are one of the most acclaimed groups of the golden age hip hop period (my favourite period of the genre).
Despite being more recognised in the underground community at the time, they have always proved to be a highly interventional group, with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and James Poyser, as their most innovative and creative members, both conceptually, instrumentally, rhythmically and lyrically.
Following the release of several commercially successful albums such as Do You Want More?!?!, Illadelph Halflife (my personal favourite) and Things Fall Apart (made during the period of their participation in the creative collective Soulquarians, propelling them to a mainstream audience), the Philadelphia, PA-based group has never been unknown in addressing issues related to race, economic disparity and society.
In Game Theory (first release after leaving Geffen Records), they presented us with a distinct approach as they move away from more appealing hooks and rhyme schemes, towards a much more political and experimental songwriting, full of references to the state of a mid-2000’s America marked by terrorism, Iraq War, among other factors.
To realise this notion, it is not necessary to go beyond the cover and title itself.
Through a man’s silhouette hanged with news headlines behind him, the term “Game Theory” becomes clearer, making us reflect on the “game” of power and hegemony applied by the government forces and their true intentions, either to lead to cooperation or to conflict of a nation, capable of extracting the dark nature of the human being full of addiction, greed and exploitation.
Production and arranging wise, the album was recorded (mostly using the Apple program Garage Band) and conceptually developed (between March and May 2006) at several studios such as The Studio, The Boom Room and A House Called ?uest in Philadelphia, PA, Encore Studios in Burbank, California, Conway Studios and Glenwood Studios in Los Angeles, California, and Integrated Studios, Quad Studios, Platinum Studios and Electric Lady Studios in New York City, New York.
It had the collaboration of several producers/engineers/instrumentalists as members of The Roots (main performers like Black Thought (lead vocals), Questlove (drums, recording engineering and background vocals on “Baby”) Kamal Gray (keyboards) and producers (Owen Biddle, main producer in songs like “In The Time” and “Long Time”)), J Dilla (producer on “Dillatastic Vol Won(derful)” and record engineering on “Can’t Stop This”)), Steve Mandel (recording engineering on several tracks such as “False Media”, “Baby” and “Atonement”), Malik B (lead vocals on “Game Theory”, “In The Music” and “Here I Come” (co-founder and former member of The Roots)), Larry Gold (string arrangements/conductor and cello), among others.
All of these contributors provided influences from various musical genres, such as jazz, experimental music, funk and neo soul, as well as the incorporation of sampling and its associated techniques (primarily influenced by J Dilla, legendary hip hop producer and dear The Roots’ friend, who died months before the album’s release, of a rare blood disease called TTP; it included samples such as Slum Village’s “Fantastic” on “Dillatastic Vol Won(derful)”, Sly and The Family Stone’s “Life of Fortune and Fame” on “Game Theory”, The Jackson 5’s “All I Do Is Think of You” on “Can’t Stop This”, Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army? “on “Atonement”, among others), interpolation (of Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype”, one of my favourite hip hop groups), highly accurate and atypical sonic beats (regarding the group’s motto, usually quite cadential and jazzy-based beats and grooves), hypnotizing and haunting bass lines and quite compressed drums full of density, stiffness and artistic expressiveness, something that Questlove applies as few have ever managed.
As said by Questlove, the creative process proved challenging “to not over think” it (something that has always been notorious in his approach).
And although the perfectionism and expressiveness in the group’s repertoire has always been felt, this characteristic is even more noted in Game Theory’s lyrical content.
By incarnating a judgmental stand, the main lyricist (with the participation of all members of The Roots) and frontman Black Thought draws attention to all the wrongdoers who incite conflict, having in view the destruction of the mentality and ideals of American society, which deals so much with numerous issues in its daily life, such as:
- Poverty, addiction and crime (on “Don’t Feel Right”, in which it highlights the financial life and crack addiction lived by immense citizens, appealing to the conscience of each one to seek their own ideals and causes; on “Long Time”, in which it highlights its vision of the ghettos and all those who do not care about their communities; on “Clock With No Hands”, by referring to poor people’s inability to seek a better life, i.e, how they will get out of poverty, if they do not have opportunities to do so; on “Atonement”, in which they address their concern about the dangers of the city full of insecurity, drugs and violence, revisiting their time between Chicago and L.A.; on “Can’t Stop This”, a loving tribute to J Dilla accompanied by a sample of his track “Time: Donut of the Heart”, in which they highlight his love for hip hop and the legacy left in his community, by mentioning the socio-economic ladder disparities lived in them, calling for altruism and mutual help in order to overcome adversities);
- Injustice/social violence (on “In The Music”, which refers to the injustices experienced by the African-American community and brutality by police authorities; on “Take It There”, a song of hope and change for those oppressed by the system; on “Baby”, the group’s encouragement to the African-American community of embracing black culture, by taking pride in their roots and qualities that will lead to success; on “Here I Come”; on “Livin’ In A New World”, a track where Black Thought “shouts” their ideals when weaving questions about overcriminalisation, drug laws, security state, etc.), in a world so manipulated by the media (on “False Media”, in which it refers to the negative influence that the media have on the public opinion of the group, by alluding to Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype”);
- Consequences of war (on “Game Theory”, which correlates consequences provoked by the Second World War and the Iraq War, fearing possible tragedies that may come, such as the assassination of the president).
Therefore, this album has the capacity to expand our ideological horizons, around the reality faced in our surroundings.
Lyrically, The Roots are one of my favourite groups and I recommend this project’s listening to all lovers of more reflective, conscious and alternative hip hop and sociopolitical issues (Link here).
Clash of Times (What’s Going On vs. Game Theory)
Since the influence of war is common to mankind, the 1970’s were no stranger to this fact.
The 1970’s were marked by various events of political and ideological tension, such as the Cold War (1947–1991, the most notorious war of the second half of the 20th century, marked by the search for economic and nuclear hegemony between the two world superpowers at the time, U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.), Vietnam War (1955–1975), Dirty War (1976–1983 in Argentina), among others, resulting in numerous deaths, unemployment and socio-ideological scars that are still felt today.
And in its time, there is no musical work that represents its repercussions better than What’s Going On.
With this work, Gaye made us reflect on our own acts and repercussions that may have for future generations, reminding us of what is more important than anything else, and that is the quest for peace by rejecting the policy of hatred and greed, in order to evolve as a society.
However, many of these factors have not been learned over the successive decades, leading us to the events of the 2000’s.
It was initiated by one of the most notorious terrorist attacks in history, on the Twin Towers, by the Al-Qaeda organisation on September 11th, 2001, triggering the War on Terrorism globally (2001-Present) and fuelling the Afghanistan War (2001-present).
It was also marked by several others such as the Second Congo War (1998–2003, marked as the second deadliest war in history, with estimated 5,4 million deaths) and the Iraq War (2003–2011), which influenced the mentalities of the generation, and this is immensely noticed in several musical projects, such as Game Theory.
By relating various subjects to the consequences triggered by war, The Roots enhanced knowledge and teachings of street life, aiming to raise awareness of the need for a more homogenous, interpersonal and humanitarian society, in order to move away from all superfluous, personal and inhuman motivations that lead to war, conflict and division.
Over the decades, various anti-war movements have contributed to a more vocal and intervening role for society, and in my opinion, this is the only way to achieve this goal.
In war there is much more to lose than to gain, a life is worth more than several zeros.
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him” — Martin Luther King
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