HUMANZ by Gorillaz
Genre: Electropop, Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Ascension (featuring Vince Staples),” “Saturn Barz (featuring Popcaan),” “Momentz (featuring De La Soul),” “Charger (featuring Grace Jones),” “Andromeda (featuring D.R.A.M),” “Busted And Blue,” “Let Me Out (featuring Mavis Staples and Pusha T),” “We Got The Power (featuring Jehnny Beth)”
After a deep, seven-year sleep, Gorillaz have returned from the depths of their virtual world bearing the gift of their fifth LP, HUMANZ. A self described “party album for the end of the world,” HUMANZ was built around Damon Albarn’s apocalyptic vision of a universe in which Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidency. Upon that actually happening, Albarn eventually edited out all references to Trump so to not “give the most famous man on Earth any more fame.” But that doesn’t mean HUMANZ is apolitical; in fact, it’s Gorillaz’ most reactionary album yet. And while the band’s sophomore release, DEMON DAYS, explored a post-9/11 world with dark and gritty band-oriented music, HUMANZ handles a post 11/9 world with danceable and empowered electronic tracks that put Albarn’s stellar production abilities front and center.
With that being said, it’s worthwhile to note that this album, in turn, suffers from a shortage of vocal appearances from Albarn, as high profile features dominate the tracklist. Yet, the genre bending instrumentation on HUMANZ provides the likes of Vince Staples, Danny Brown, Grace Jones, Pusha T, and many more, a perfect platform to flourish. And though the range of voices present on the album span across many different musical styles, the way that Albarn reigns them all into his overarching narrative showcases his mastery of crafting records as whole, cohesive pieces rather than a non-sequitur compilation of individual tracks. Every song on HUMANZ has its own unique identity, but the constant of Albarn as producer glues them all together for a record that, though eclectic, can only be described as a monumental dance epic.
“I switched my robot off and I know more . . . but retain less,” a sample from a NASA spacecraft launch echos. Cacophonous reverb begins to accrue until it cuts to a siren, with Vince Staples kicking off “Ascension,” an explosive gospel-hop dance song that buys into Albarn’s apocalyptic suspicions. “The sky’s fallin’ baby drop that ass ‘fore it crash,” Vince Staples repeats as a choir chimes in with a glorious “higher!” in between phrases. The rapid-fire instrumentation paired with Vince Staples’ politically charged lyrics produces a hellish and riotous atmosphere that, despite Trump references being edited, takes aim at the crumbling fabric of American Society. But unlike most pseudo-protest songs, it actually pulls the trigger.
“I’m just playing, baby, this the land of the free
Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap
Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me
Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree”
While “Ascension” is one of the most powerful tracks on the record, Gorillaz have no trouble keeping up with the high bar that they’ve set for themselves on the opening track. Songs like “Momentz (featuring De La Soul)”, and “Charger (featuring Grace Jones)” keep pace with the handful of singles that were released in anticipation of the album, even if in less poppy or “accessible” ways. “Momentz” sees the trio De La Soul rapping over a clunky, cut-and-paste beat that finds salvation in unpredictable vocal production that, though haphazard, is a refreshing experiment on the sonic boundaries of rap. “Charger” boasts an unorthodox fuzz guitar lead that straddles the line between obnoxious and brilliant, upon which 2-D eventually delivers a winding and elusive vocal performance. And while sure, the glittery pads and infectious leads in “Andromeda (featuring D.R.A.M)” may give the track more commercial appeal than the two aforementioned, the sheer amount of character that is injected into every each song—single or not—means that this album is jam-packed full of twists and turns that weave in and out of foreign musical territories.
However, “Busted and Blue,” one of the most rewarding tracks on this record, also happens to be the most conventionally Gorillaz. And even though Kelela technically provides backing vocals on the track, there are no feature credits in the title, suggesting that the spotlight is reserved for 2-D, whose melancholic crooning is lifted by a warm, ethereal synth pad arrangement. A testament to how far minimal instrumentation and good songwriting can take you, “Busted and Blue” is tangible evidence that maybe 2-D and the rest of the Gorillaz gang were underutilized on this album, but at what cost?
In theory, all of the instruments on this album are played by 2-D (Keys), Noodle (Lead Guitar), Murdoc (Bass), and Russell (Drums). But, with such an electro-centric instrumentation, it’s hard to believe any of them—asides from 2-D—are even present on this record. Dark and gritty electric bass lines have been replaced with buzzing synth bass, and there’s hardly any guitar on the record at all. While the drums on HUMANZ are booming and punchy in typical Gorillaz fashion, they’re also clearly the work of drum machines, which deprives listeners of the fat and booming sounds Russell normally slams out of an acoustic kit. And while musician’s styles change over time, it must have been an eventful seven years in Gorillaz lore to justify three of the band members undergoing such drastic stylistic changes. What’s much more likely to be the case is that Albarn used most of his creative britpop juices on Blur’s 2015 release, THE MAGIC WHIP, subconsciously forcing Gorillaz to distance themselves from the alternative rock sound he was so recently familiar with. As a result, HUMANZ isn’t a faithful Gorillaz record. Instead, it’s a risky evolution into new musical realms that, although unfamiliar at times, heightens the surreal and fantastical elements that the band bloomed out of.
If it weren’t for the cringe-worthy “Interlude: The Non-Conformist Oath,” I’d consider HUMANZ a near perfect album. From start to finish, the album is a gold mine, with each song bringing massive amounts of personality and flair to the table, even if they don’t completely align with Gorillaz’ past discography. “We Got the Power (featuring Jehnny Beth)” serves as a perfect bookend and celebratory foil to the title track “Ascension (featuring Vince Staples),” but this is a triumph that goes unnoticed on the deluxe edition, which tasks the listener with enduring an extra 20 minutes of okay B-sides. However, when taken in its abridged form, HUMANZ is a masterfully stitched-together dance opus that will drown out the sound of sirens as the bombs drop.