The entire What's Going On album is narrated from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran who has just returned from the war and finds his home turf troubled and turbulent. The chatty greetings at the beginning of "What's Going On" represent the vet's return to his social world, and Gaye's vocals on the track are his first confused lament. You can almost see him walking into a room of friends and beginning to have a long, marijuana-influenced conversation about the state of the union.
Following that plaintive opening track, he sings about war, children and poverty, his own spirituality, and the environment (on "Mercy, Mercy Me"). The "Inner City Blues" come from a perspective close to Gaye's own experience, that of young black people in the impoverished and disinvested inner cities after the "white flight" of the 1950s. Overall, the narration is a casual but sensitive take on the possible feelings of a black war vet who doesn't believe in the war abroad and doesn't feel that he's getting his dues at home.