Ironically, a question mark helped put a period on the end of Marvin Gaye's tenure with Motown Records. On Jan. 15, 1981, the singer's longtime label released his 16th studio effort, In Our Lifetime. Gaye felt the work had been compromised, and never recorded another note for his onetime musical home.
After years of releasing critically and commercially-beloved albums like What's Going On, Let's Get It On and I Want You in the 1970s - and, alongside Stevie Wonder, helping shift Motown from dominant soul-pop singles powerhouse toward a landscape for ambitious, conceptual R&B albums - Gaye was in a bad place. Two marriages had crumbled, including one to Motown founder Berry Gordy's daughter Anna; when he received a court order to surrender half the royalties for his next album to her, he cut the acidic Here, My Dear in 1979, a massive flop. Worse, a debilitating cocaine habit and troubles with the IRS put him in dire financial straits.
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Gaye's mood was low enough for him to consider taking his own life. "I'd given up," he later told biographer David Ritz. "The problems were too big for me. I just wanted to be left alone and blow my brains on high-octane toot. It would be a slow but relatively pleasant death, certainly less messy than a gun."
Nonetheless, during this time he attempted to put together a new release. An autobiographical disco single, "Ego Tripping Out," was released in 1979 and made the Top 20 of the R&B charts. It was the intended lead-in to Love Man, a sensual party album in the vein of I Want You that Marvin recorded in Los Angeles and Hawaii through 1980. Eventually, though, he abandoned most of the material for something more philosophical, like What's Going On and Let's Get It On. "Why did I have to regain my throne as the sex king?" he asked Ritz. "Who cared about competing with Michael Jackson and Prince? Look what was happening with the world. I had a message to spread. I had my theme."
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Decamping to London, the album intended to be released as In Our Lifetime? - with a question mark - and featured heavy, somber lyrics reflecting on Gaye's failed marriages, the nature of love, good and evil and even nuclear proliferation. By the end of 1980, Gaye had finalized the track list and was tinkering with mixes and edits. But Motown, exasperated with their artist, secured copies of the tapes and got to work crafting their own version of the album.
"I was humiliated," Gaye told Ritz. "Can you imagine saying to an artist, say Picasso, 'Okay Pablo, you've been fooling with this picture long enough...You might be the artist, but you're behind schedule, so we'll finish this painting for you. If you don't like the results, Pablo, baby, that's tough!'...Motown went behind my back. That's something I'll never forgive or forget."
In Our Lifetime reached a dispiriting No. 32 on the Billboard 200, with single "Praise" climbing to No. 18 on the R&B singles chart. Within the year, Gaye's contract was bought out by Columbia Records, and his first album for the label, Midnight Love, produced "Sexual Healing," his first Top 5 pop hit since 1977. Decades after his passing, In Our Lifetime? got the second look it deserved in 2007, when an expanded edition added Gaye's original London mix of the album and outtakes from the Love Man sessions.