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Marvin Gaye - You’re the Man Music Album Reviews

Recorded in 1972, this largely unreleased “lost” album is a fascinating glimpse into what one of the great 20th-century artists strategically allowed the culture to see.

Morally right-on, emotionally vulnerable, and still musically avant-garde, Marvin Gaye’s previously unreleased 1972 album You’re the Man is the timeless sound of a combustible rhythm and blues. Just from the title track’s first few seconds of wah-wah guitar, the album beams us directly into the heart of what a Jet magazine writer in 1972 once called “the new Black sound”—that rising tide of politically urgent, progressive Top 40 soul music like the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” the Staples Singers’ “This World,” the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack extravaganza “Freddie’s Dead.”


Here’s the thing: You’re the Man is still the New Black Sound of today. It’s no less pressing and cutting-edge than Donald Glover’s racial satire “This is America” and it’s no less warmly interior or black community-minded than Solange’s proggy When I Get Home. Gaye’s 1972 anti-Nixon clapbacks on You’re the Man —such as “demagogues and admitted minority haters should never be president”—could just as easily apply to the ghastly failings of today’s crooked Trump administration.

In the 1970s, Gaye emerged as a seer, digging for deep grooves in the effort to realize an all-inclusive, democratic world that still seems beyond our reach. Troubled by imperial war, hypocritical governments, exclusionary racial policies, and looming ecological disasters, Marvin Gaye was the musician-as-dissident, striving for liberation that he himself never personally managed to achieve during his lifetime. Along the way, he demonstrated immense range. Within the course of a single album, Gaye could come off as conscious, pensive, concerned, driven, committed, topical, tough, sexy, urbane, hypnotic, tortured, troubled, hip, religious, defiant, disillusioned, high-flying, defiant, blunted, and compassionate.

You’re the Man captures those wide-ranging precincts, punctuating them with mesmerizing flights into black power era funk and soul by way of conga-tinged grooves. It’s not a concise, perfectly constructed concept album like Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On, his erotic 1973 Let’s Get It On or his 1976 intimate masterpiece I Want You. There was, after all, a reason Gaye chose to shelve You’re the Man. And an essential question lingers: Is You’re the Man really a finished record that Gaye would have wanted released? But hearing it 47 years after it was abandoned, You’re the Man throws time itself into relief, offering us revisionist insight into how Gaye managed his creativity in the immediate aftermath of his runaway early ’70s success.

Just one year before the release of “You’re the Man,” in 1971, Gaye shed his crooner-cabaret Mr. Perfectionist image and forced short-sighted Motown CEO Berry Gordy to release his agitprop masterpiece What’s Going On. An operatic protest album, What’s Going On produced three commercial juggernauts, the anthemic title track, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler”)”. Gaye carried the message music torch of Motown artists like The Temptations, Edwin Starr, Martha Reeves, and Steve Wonder to inaugurate the early 1970s FM-radio era of the black protest record. And alongside figures like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, Gaye helped turned 1971 into the year where black albums mattered as much or more than singles.

By all accounts, however, Gaye privately struggled with how to follow up What’s Going On. In 1972, Gaye was in and out of studios in Detroit and L.A., working with producers like Willie Hutch and Hal Davis. Nearing the close of a troubling relationship with partner Anna Gordy, and resisting the idea of relocating to L.A. to be near Motown’s new headquarters, Gaye nervously abandoned plans to release all those other songs he’d been working on for a year, pursuing instead other options like his duet album with Diana Ross, and an original score to the film Trouble Man. A year later, in 1973, Gaye released the commercial smash Let’s Get It On, his official studio follow-up to What’s Going On, controversially leaving behind his excursion into political subject matter in favor of boudoir sex.

Co-written by his What’s Going On collaborator Kenneth Stover, and one of the last tracks he ever recorded at Motown in Detroit, You’re the Man’s scorching title tune remains an astonishing synthesis of the queasy, tricky state of American electoral politics in the early 1970s—it’s an orphaned masterpiece about hollow campaign promises disconnected from political action have imperiled American democracy. Released on April 26 in 1972 as his first single after What’s Going On, “You’re the Man” climbed the charts only a few weeks after American airplanes dropped more bombs over North Vietnam than any time since 1968. As the War disturbingly ramped up, the acidic presidential election campaign season kicked off, too. When Gaye blurts out in the title song “busing is the issue” (on the alternate version of the track, he downgrades the concern to “busing is just one issue”) he’s specifically referring to the way segregationist candidate George Wallace had turned court-ordered busing—a liberal move meant to speed up the integration of public schools— into a contentious issue every democratic hopeful had to address to stay in the race.

In that tumultuous election year, black folks’ interest in reconstructing society to ensure full participation for all was upended by more pragmatic concerns related to winning electoral seats. The passing of Civil Rights legislation in the mid 1960s, in tandem with Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, had failed to transform the everyday reality of harsh life for many black working class and poor people, particularly given national economic underdevelopment, the dissolution of city services, reduced federal spending, and widespread attacks on affirmative action programs. In March 1972, black leaders gathered in Gary, Indiana to launch the National Black Political Assembly—a clear sign of surging political momentum in democratic circles. Unfortunately, many black politicians—newly arriving in elected offices in and out Washington—hadn’t exactly been able to revolutionize the system, more just reform or work within its limitations. Some black politicians even became guilty of the same abuses and community neglect as their white counterparts. Both elated by the opportunity to participate in electoral politics and skeptical of the result, “You’re the Man” moves in both directions at once, full of political disgust and hopeful optimism at the same time.

“You’re the Man” takes sarcastic aim at ineffective elected officials, both black and white. Gaye serves up holler-worthy lyrics like “I believe America’s at stake,” “Politics and hypocrites are turning us all into lunatics,” and “Don’t you understand/There’s misery in the land” over a simmering rhythm track marked by his signature minor sevenths and suspended chords. “You’re the Man”’s musical DNA makes it a close cousin of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The track also features Gaye’s trademark vocal stylings (he’d incorporate multiple tracks of lead vocal; he essentially sings in counterpoint to himself) along with a full array of inhalations, blurted-out whoos, whelps and squelches, as if to suggest that words themselves can’t convey the sheer emotionality and toll of the subject matter.

Besides the title track and the transcendent ballad “Piece of Clay,” a handful of other tracks on You’re the Man tracks also diagnose the national condition. “The World Is Rated X” is a Bobby Womack-esque funk song that aims to convince us that “the world is in a grave situation,” “not only in the movie show” but we have to “take a look outside, it’s where the truth is really told.” Over chugging guitar and dramatically arranged strings, we learn the solution to the world’s taboo MPAA rating is to spread love and peace all over the land.

“The World Is Rated X” is a screed against sin that appears to want to suppress ’70s libertarian permissiveness in favor of conservative respectability politics (especially when Gaye croons “God is watching, he knows where you’re at,” as the track fades). But Gaye recorded “The World is Rated X” at a moment marked by the growing popularity of blaxploitation films like Superfly. Even Black Panther Party revolutionary Huey Newton lambasted these films as “counter-revolutionary,” admonishing the way that children and teens replaced their late ’60s prideful black power afros and dashikis for Superfly’s degradingly stereotypical fashion of coke-spoon necklaces and pimp fedoras. In that void, black musicians like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, and Stevie Wonder emerged as quasi-Messianistic, ethical figures in the community. In recording “The World Is Rated X,” Gaye posits himself as a hero, saving us from our own communal descent into retrograde behavior.

Gaye’s boho-hippie, Afro-Christian, universalist love ethic also extends to secular, more romantic concerns on the album, too. The seductive “I’m Gonna Give You Respect” blazes with horns, blaring tom-toms and Pips/Chi-Lites style harmonies; it spins a story about how Gaye’s insecurity that his girl might leave him makes him want to be a more respectful man. “You’re That Special One,” “We Can Make It Baby,” “I’d Give My Life for You” and “Symphony (the latter two newly mixed by Salaam Remi) are so-so romantic tunes, at least in the grand context of the Gaye musical canon. But romantic, sax-heavy “My Last Chance” lets Gaye show off his featherine, supple tenor: “May I have this last dance/his is my chance to get close to you” he sings, as he confesses “I’m just a shy guy/I’m so nervous/Girl, but I got to try.”

Gaye’s yearning intimacy extended to family situations, as well. “I Want to Come Home for Christmas,” replete with a 6/8 beat and a spoken word monologue, delivers its punchline nearly a minute into the song – that’s when we learn the song is really a profoundly empathetic lament about a prisoner of war, inspired by his brother Frankie, who served in the Vietnam war and whose plight previously inspired What’s Going On. “Christmas in the City,” on the other hand, is a wordless, electric piano doodle; its ho-hum jazz is both spooky and forgettable.

You’re the Man includes a fascinating, relaxed alternate version of the title track featuring the lyric “maybe what this country needs is a lady president.” It’s worth remembering that “You’re the Man” was composed and recorded in April 1972, just one month before the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. In February 1972, activist Angela Davis was released from jail on bail; in January of that same year, unflappable congresswoman Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to run for president. As Gaye chimed on about a woman president, numerous black women musicians—from Roberta Flack and Nina Simone to Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin—made equally profound artistic statements, combining race, gender, politics, and pleasure in intersectional ways their male counterparts usually failed to do.

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The way in which black women were both politically active in the early 1970s and yet suppressed by sexist and racist establishment glass ceilings is also what makes “Woman of the World” You’re the Man’s most boneheaded cut. The song refers to a “liberated lady of today” who has “come a long way baby” (echoing the Virginia Slims slogan). Gaye pleads with this newly free and emancipated lady who has caught his eye to remember their childhood days. Given that the new legislation has “put him down” in favor of her independence, he asks her if this is really where she wants to be. Basically the sentiment of the song is: Now that you’re running the show, lady, what about us dudes?

Less a vile anti-feminist tract than a profoundly confused and naive mess that prioritizes male panic over the new feminism, “Woman of the World” is a song only men could have written. It pales compared to Curtis Mayfield’s loving 1970 “Miss Black America” or the vision of mutuality between men and women that later informed Gaye’s 1976 Leon Ware co-composed album I Want You. Coupled with what we now know of Gaye’s history of troubling emotional and physical violence (ex-wife Jan Gaye alleges in her 2015 biography, co-authored with David Ritz, that he abused her), the singer-songwriter may have been prophetic with regards to race and class, but not so much when it came to feminism and women’s rights.

In its highs and lows, You’re tThe Man—a self-canceled/lost Marvin Gaye album that has now arrived 47 years later in the midst of cancel culture—is a fascinating glimpse into what one of the great pop music artists of the 20th century strategically allowed the culture to see—and what he didn’t. Just as the title track reminds us that charismatic political leaders often fail us, the album as a whole inadvertently reminds us that the culture doesn’t rise and fall on charismatic male music icons like Marvin Gaye and John Lennon—and others with questionable behavior or rap sheets—in the way it did when they seemed like singular, indispensable revolutionary heroes. You’re the Man reveals Marvin Gaye as a multidimensional, complicated human being who deserves our respect, but not necessarily our unchecked worship—no more so than the political figures he so rightly critiques. In 2019, movements like #blacklivesmatter have taught us that we can strive to be “‘leaderful”’ in embracing collective models of governance rather than pin our hopes and futures on any one single charismatic individual. Marvin Gaye was a single charismatic musician whose iconic genius was interlaced with the continuous trouble in the water that informed it. A profound musical gift from the past that remarkably has a lot to say about our present condition, You’re the Man presents us with the unequivocal truth that because we’re all fallible, nobody should be the man.



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