It’s been quite a while since we last heard from Gorillaz, the musical project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett. The group was last heard from nearly 7 years ago with the release of their third and fourth albums, Plastic Beach and The Fall, having disbanded for a while due to a falling out between the two masterminds. In the intervening time, Albarn’s kept busy with solo material and Blur, and the fictional Gorillaz band had apparently gotten into their fair share of shenanigans (including drummer Russel evidently becoming a titan-sized person at one point). When the news came that Gorillaz had reformed to record new material, expectations were understandably high, as their albums represented some of the most well-written and eclectic music of the 2000’s. The group has been building quite a bit of hype behind their newest release Humanz, with plenty of animated material for the fictional band, as well as 6 total songs released ahead of time and the release of an app to engage in all kinds of alternate reality game shenanigans, including a global pre-release listening party. With the album now out for all to hear, was the 7 year wait really worth all the hype?
It’s kind of hard to know where to start with this album given how wide-ranging the music of Gorillaz can be, primarily due to the number of collaborators and how much they can influence the sounds of the album as a whole. The standard release is 20 tracks: 14 songs and 6 interludes, and with the exception of only one song, the entire album is mostly collaborator-driven. Despite this, there is still an attempt at a consistent framework throughout the album, chiefly about how we all relate to our fellow people in society, with some emphasis placed on the context of the social and political climate of the past couple of years.
The album opens with “Ascension,” a quirky banger of a rap track courtesy of Vince Staples that reflects one aspect of the aforementioned theme: trying to party and live it up in the moment before the harsh cruelties of reality come raining down on your parade. It’s a fun song, and Vince gets in some pretty clever lines reflecting his typical disdain for authority. A similar motif is found in “Momentz,” the album’s obligatory De La Soul collaboration, although it is less political and more playful, focusing on having fun with your closest friends. It’s an appreciable sentiment, but the beat is kind of obnoxious and not one of the stronger tunes on the album, overall. On the other side of the coin, the most political song on the album is “Let Me Out,” which is also easily its strongest song. The song features guest vocals from gospel singer Mavis Staples and rapper Pusha T, and the song focuses on Pusha’s anxieties and fears in the climate of Trump’s presidency, begging for some kind of solace from Mavis that he won’t die a tragic early death from racially-motivated violence. The music and vocals are dramatic and haunting, and Pusha T’s verses convey a legitimate sense of fear and anxiety, creating what is easily the biggest emotional gut-punch of the record.
Other songs focus on our ability to bond with others in different scenarios, such as “Strobelite,” a collaboration with soul singer Peven Everett. The quirky dance beat accents a song about how human beings need to overcome their hard-hearted nature and meaningfully bond with each other, and Everett’s vocal performance is fantastic, adding a soulful sense of sincerity to the message. “Submission” is another song in this vain about two lovers who are struggling to bond with each other through tough times, with it being an absolutely fantastic duet between R&B singer Kelela and rapper Danny Brown. You can really sense the drama and conflict between the two as they play off of each other perfectly, especially with Danny giving what is probably the best guest verse he’s ever done. “Andromeda,” another song about finding a romantic connection with others, is a more romantic track driven mainly by its spacey dance beat and by Damon Albarn’s vocals, although rapper D.R.A.M. does give some nice falsettos to accentuate the melodies. Another highlight is “Carnival,” a song with an intensely dramatic beat complimented by R&B singer Anthony Hamilton, about his involvement in a relationship that feels full of empty promises and hollow feelings, much like the experience of a cheap carnival.
Conversely, not every track is an immediate winner. The song “Hallelujah Money,” while well-intentioned in its critique of Trump’s planned border wall, is a musically clumsy song that kind of wastes singer Benjamin Clementine’s commanding vocal presence. It tries to go for a fairy tale vibe, but the beat’s various elements come together in an incoherent disorienting fashion. “Sex Murder Party” is similarly odd and underwhelming, having no obvious place given the intended ideas of the record and is basically just a filler song not worth mentioning.
While there’s plenty to like about the album, there’s some issues with the overall piece that feel hard to ignore, but they’re not apparent at first. The experience of listening to the album feels pretty good, with more good songs than bad songs, but when you zoom out and look at the intended big picture of Humanz, much of the album feels like it doesn’t fit together. I can see the different moods and approaches to the idea of humans bonding with each other working in a sort of musical anthology sense, but when looking at the whole, there’s a handful of elements that feel incongruous with everything else. “Saturnz Barz,” a collaboration with dance hall artist Popcaan, is a really cool and unique song on its own, but it doesn’t have any immediate place in the overall motif of the record. “Charger” is a similar example of a song that, while being good on its own (probably the strongest beat on the record), has no immediately obvious place in the record. Songs like this, along with the myriad of perspectives on the record, makes it kind of odd when it gets to the album closer “We Got The Power,” a call for love and unity among all human beings that is an obvious attempt to tie the various ideas together, but it almost doesn’t come together, although the song itself does grow on you after a few listens.
If there’s one other noticeable issue I have, it’s with the presence of Damon Albarn himself. While he’s a great songwriter and does deliver some solid work on this record, his presence has a tendency to feel diminished and diluted on Humanz. I get that his creative input is generally to come up with broad musical outlines and get all the talent together so they can go wild on his ideas, but the best Gorillaz material is an ideally balanced mixed of both Albarn and his guests. On this album, however, perhaps due to the massive number of collaborators featured, he has a tendency to awkwardly disappear into the background.
Overall, while the album is flawed and has some issues that can’t be ignored, I do think Humanz works more often than it doesn’t. While the big picture of the record can be a bit awkward and clumsy at times, most of the songs on their own are fun, dramatic, and emotional, with certain tracks being able to step toe-to-toe with Gorillaz’ best.
Verdict: Buy it. It feels good to have Gorillaz back, and I look forward to more from them in the future.
Humanz is available from Warner Bros. Records on CD, vinyl, digital download, and online streaming.