[Marvin Gaye has designed What's Going On] as one many-faceted statement on conditions in the world today, made nearly seamless by careful transitions between the cuts. A simple, subdued tone is held throughout, pillowed by a densely-textured instrumental and vocal backing.
At first this sameness in sound persisting from one song to the next is boring, but gradually the concept of the album takes shape and its wholeness becomes very affecting. The style is set in the first cut, "What's Going On."… As they are throughout, the lyrics here are hardly brilliant, but without overreaching they capture a certain aching dissatisfaction that is part of the album's mood.
"What's Happening Brother" picks up from "What's Going On," strengthening its impact by making its situation more specific: a brother returning from Vietnam and trying to get his bearings on the block again, shifting between questions about old hang-outs and fears that there's no work anywhere…. "Mercy, Mercy Me" is one of the most bearable ecology songs, a genre that doesn't seem to inspire especially subtle or intelligent lyrics; Gaye's are inoffensive and the song itself is lovely. Considerably changed from the version that had backed the 45 of "What's Going On," "God Is Love" still has a strange attraction. It begins, "Don't go and talk about my father / God is my friend," and kinda grows on you.
"Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" ends the album and is one of its finest cuts. Again, an effective combination of latin drumming and strings with multi-tracked vocals make the most of direct lyrics…. Taking the album full circle, "Inner City Blues" blends back into "What's Going On," confirming itself nicely.
One or two other cuts don't hold together quite as well ("Right On," the longest number, misses) but the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I've always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn't expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won't happen again. (pp. 43-4)
Vince Aletti, in his review of "What's Going On," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 88, August 5, 1971, pp. 43-4.