Virtual band Gorillaz, the brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, return with their highly-anticipated album Humanz, which features an impressive list of guests and stands as their first full-length studio album since 2011. The future of the band seemed rocky up to this point and Hewlett made his displeasure known with the decreasing role of his art in the band’s overall presentation, while Albarn turned his focus to other projects including his own solo work. Albarn describes Humanz as “an emotional response to politics”, yet he made sure to edit out anything that could be read as pointing to a specific individual or situation, making his musings rather surface-level.
In the aftermath of all of this, one might understand how Humanz ultimately registers as an inconsistent step down for a band previously touted for their creativity. There are still some absolutely spectacular musical moments on here, coming in the rare occasions when a guest is used to their full potential, but Humanz feels empty – like anything but human.
Gorillaz continue to be as genreless as they have ever been, running through hip-hop, soul, EDM, dancehall and many other sounds depending on the guest of the hour. If one running thread can be identified, it is likely Albarn’s funky synth melodies which serve as a driving force for most of these tracks. A wealth of guests obscure, rising and legendary appear here, giving us a world where a collaboration between Mavis Staples and Pusha T is a reality. They are joined by indie darlings such as Vince Staples, D.R.A.M., Danny Brown, Kelela and Kali Uchis, while fully established artists such as Peven Everett, De La Soul, Anthony Hamilton and Grace Jones bring a veteran presence.
Almost all of these guests deliver a fantastic performance by their own standards, but the instrumentation around them, or their placement in the structure of a song, often lets them down in a recurrent theme. Albarn’s vocals are largely relegated to a supporting role, but when they take center stage they are as equally parts charming and menacing as they’ve ever been, often providing great contrast.
In an interlude, actor Steve Martin implores a crowd to repeat “The Non-Conformist Oath”: “I promise to be different! I promise to be unique!”. Gorillaz certainly follow their own advice here, to varying degrees of success. However, there is no doubt that they are making music that sounds like absolutely nobody else right now. “Saturnz Barz” features Jamaican artist Popcaan, perhaps marking the greatest departure in sound Gorillaz have ever made, and it stands out as one of the album’s greatest tracks. Albarn’s lower-key epilogue to the slowly creeping, slightly dancehall instrumental which houses Popcaan’s up-front vocals contrasts nicely.
However, it is Chicago soul legend Peven Everett who is helped most greatly by the instrumental around him on “Strobelite”, which features a rattling beat and infectious bassline which gives way to his soaring chorus. His vocals throughout are characteristically impressive and should fill dancefloors all year. Some of the hip-hop tracks here stand out above the rest, as the energetic instrumentals seem to bring out the best in a rap feature. Vince Staples, Danny Brown and especially Pusha T do their best to take control of this anarchic end of the world dance playlist.
Unfortunately, it feels at times almost as though Albarn has lost the magical X Factor that made Gorillaz’ sound so special, putting less effort into making sense of the frenetic chaos that surrounds a typical Gorillaz song and leaving it to run rampant across these tracks. A few of these songs simply have way too much going on. Tracks like “Ascension” and “Momentz” are driven by rapid-fire breakbeats and abrasive synths which never quite click together. “Momentz” in particular is an absolute mess in this regard, as a heavy-handed electronic beat, falsetto vocals, a bubblegum pop bridge, rap verses and WAY too much layering collide painfully. In addition, a general lack of dedication is shown further on tracks that are blatantly underwritten, with repetitive and meaningless lyrics and long musical stretches where it sounds like something else was supposed to exist that never materialized. Can someone please explain to me what in the world “Sex Murder Party” is even supposed to be?! Description of a song hasn’t evaded me quite like this one in a while.
The biggest problem that plagues this project, however, is the misuse of guests. Even when they deliver a good performance, the relegation of someone like D.R.A.M. to background vocals on a track clearly tailored for him, the tacking on of a Danny Brown verse on a song where it didn’t belong, and placing punk-rock band Savages’ frontwoman Jehnny Beth on the most egregiously poppy song here, among other decisions, make no sense at all. It just continues to show the lack of polish placed on a project 6 years in the making.
Damon Albarn is an undeniably talented artist, and he continues to show the inner workings of his mind in an entertaining way throughout Humanz. However, the logistics of this album fall flat in every way they possibly could have and then some more on top of that. Please, don’t let this be their final album.
Favourite Tracks: Strobelite, Carnival, Let Me Out, Saturnz Barz
Least Favourite Track: Momentz