Conventional wisdom has it that, with What’s Going On, his 1971 state-of-the-world address, Marvin Gaye wrested creative control from Berry Gordy in order to release an intensely personal album that strayed far from Motown’s rigid strictures. That’s certainly true to a point, but it was arguably with his next album, Trouble Man, that Gaye actually wielded his full power. Having signed a $1 million contract with Motown in the wake of What’s Going On, he was unequivocally established as soul music’s most bankable star. However, rather than record What’s Going On 2, or aim in some other way for more chart hits that consolidated the success of his previous album, Gaye chose to record a soundtrack with no clear single – nor, really, a great deal in terms of Gaye’s actual voice, arguably the very thing that Motown forked out all those zeroes for.
Yet such was Gaye’s power at the time, he managed to make Trouble Man both an artistic and a chart success, taking its title track into the Top 10 in both the mainstream and R&B charts, while its parent album rose to No.14 in the Top 200 and No.3 in the R&B listings. No mean feat for a Blaxploitation soundtrack that only bore superficial resemblance to prior works by Isaac Hayes (Shaft) and Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly). True to Gaye’s ambitions at the time, he sought to push the genre beyond its boundaries, creating a complex jazz- and blues-influenced album that went far beyond the frenetic wah-wah workouts of lesser efforts.
Newly enamoured with the Moog synthesiser, a gift from Stevie Wonder, Gaye deployed the instrument to perfectly squelchy effect on ‘“T” Plays It Cool’, an almost effortlessly groovy piece on which the Moog provides a paranoid jitter beneath jazzy sax lines. Elsewhere, Gaye chooses to contribute handclaps, rather than vocals, to the likes of ‘Main Theme From Trouble Man’, while a cinematic string arrangement and rasping sax conjure the film’s edgy South Central LA setting.
True to form, Gaye obsessed over the tiniest details, performing every instrument he could and “writing” the orchestral arrangements by singing them to the musicians. He was so confident of his approach that even the album’s title track was a more meditative affair than the far more upbeat theme tunes that Hayes and Mayfield had recorded before him. In the few other instances that he added vocals to a piece, they were, as Rolling Stone noted at the time, “strangely ethereal”, doing less to push the narrative of the film than they did to create an atmosphere that, in its streetwise despair, was effectively the equal of What’s Going On’s ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’.
Yet history persists in framing Trouble Man as if its sole function was to support the film – no matter that the film itself would be long forgotten by now, were it not for the music that accompanied it. Really, however, the album marks the moment where Gaye truly did assert his creative control (Want a follow-up to my mega-selling political statement? Sure… have a largely wordless soundtrack). It also signposts the confidence he would have to stuff his 1976 masterpiece, I Want You, with extended instrumental grooves, while also, despite its economic use of vocals, conjuring the same emotional landscape of What’s Going On.