The album was Gaye`s first as sole producer, and offers a lesson not so much in technical innovation, as in how to stick to an artistic principle. Gaye had been through a tough time in the lead up to this album. He had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of creative freedom that was afforded him by his label, Motown, whose owner Berry Gordy was notoriously autocratic. Then, in 1970, he was devastated by the loss of his friend and collaborator Tammi Terrell to a brain tumor, and plunged into depression; for a while refusing to sing either on stage or in the studio.
Eventually he agreed to begin recording again, but it would only be on his own terms; he would retain control of his own artistic output. He told Rolling Stone that `in 1969 or 1970, I began to re‑evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realised that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.`
The result was the title track from What`s Going On, a song that had initially been written by `Obie` Benson of The Four Tops and one of Motown`s in-house composers, Al Cleveland. They showed Gaye the track, and he added his own embellishments, and some extra lyrics. Upon hearing the track for the first time, Berry Gordy said it sounded `old` and `too jazzy` and refused to release it. Gaye, however was stubborn; he completely refused to record any more material until the track was released. This impasse was to last for several months. Finally, pressured by other figures at the label, Gordy agreed to a release, pressing 100,000 copies of the single. It sold out within twenty-four hours and went on to sell more than two and a half million copies.
Gaye had successfully forced through his artistic vision, and went on to record an album that has consistently been praised as one of the, if not the greatest soul record of all time.