Mercy, mercy, me … if only one could be sure. Is ["What's Going On"] a heartfelt personal statement by a brilliant singer who has at last been given the chance to express his true self? Or is it that Motown are determined not to be caught with their social consciences down when people like Curtis Mayfield have done so well out of displaying theirs? Like the other black labels, Motown have realised that in order to sell albums by black artists to the general (i.e., young, white) audience, it is necessary to present them as being "important," "serious" and "relevant." Out goes Funk, in comes Ecology. Thus this album contains printed lyrics (about war, pollution, poverty, drugs, God, inequality, etc), an earnest sleevenote and pictures of Gaye standing against a slum background in the rain, looking suitably concerned. About all that's missing is a lapel badge saying "I CARE." And yet, despite such cynical doubts, it has to be said that this is an impressive album, and that Gaye does emerge as a man of integrity with a deep love of life and God. Politically, the lyrics aren't going to scare anybody, but coming from a man who has spent the past ten years singing other people's songs, they are surprisingly sharp…. [The] album improves with every hearing. Gaye produced and cowrote all the songs, and plays piano. So here's a whole new dimension to a man, who, perhaps more than any other (remembering his beautifully spare and precise vocal lines on songs like "Grapevine" and "I'll Be Doggone") has always avoided excess and indulgence in his work.
Alan Lewis, "Gaye Liberation: 'What's Going On'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), October 16, 1971, p. 54.