When we heard rumblings of a new Gorillaz album last year we thought we knew what to expect. Little did we know we weren’t just getting a new album—we got an entirely new Gorillaz.
Helmed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, the most successful virtual band in the world has been out of the limelight for about a decade now. The rare artist to make rap/alt-rock hits that hold up, Gorillaz’s formative years were defined by the lead singles from their first two albums, “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” (2010’s Plastic Beach was pretty chill too.) So when Humanz was announced, it was clear the Demon Days crew had a lot to live up to.
Humanz arrived last week after a six-year hiatus, but before we could even hear the music it was clear this was so much more than an album release—this is the launch of a new brand.
Much of that has to do with the band’s ambitious promotion cycle. First, the VR 360 music video for “Saturnz Barz” kicked off Gorillaz’s transition from 2-D to 3-D. Then there was the Sonos experience. And now there’s a Gorillaz TV show in development. This is what rebranding looks like; of course the success of Humanz will determine whether that brand has lasting market appeal.
But fuck all that (for now). Humanz has such a distinct voice, concept, and track list chock full of guests that not only does none of this detract from the overall experience; it reinforces the chaotic narrative Humanz is striving to tell.
When Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett were creating Humanz, they asked their guest contributors to imagine a world in which Trump had won the election. Look where we are now: a frightening ironic apocalypse, and this is our playlist. Humanz is a melancholy party at the world’s end.
More of a playlist than a traditional track list, Humanz delivers more on the promise of Drake’s More Life than Drizzy ever hoped for. There’s a cavalcade of diverse influences and attitudes on Humanz, but many of them come courtesy of the artists featuring on tracks, as Albarn and Hewitt act as a conduit for the personalities to coexist, throwing interludes into the mix every few songs.
So how does the apocalypse begin? With club bangers, of course. Vince Staples kicks Humanz off and immediately launches us into orbit: “The sky’s fallin’ baby, drop that ass ‘fore it crash” is the thematic hook of “Ascension,” the biblical anthem opener. Soon we’re chilling with Jamaican Popcaan on “Saturnz Barz,” a trending trap track with a killer self-depreciating chorus from Albarn. Even “Momentz” is a certified jam, despite its satirical play on the genre. But did you really expect anything less funny from De La Soul?
Then, right when you think you’re having a great time, Gorillaz hit you with somber reality through the guise of the chill-wave, indie-rock inspired “Andromeda” and its B-side, the depressing ballad “Busted and Blue.”
“Andromeda” is one of the tightest foot-tappers on the album, despite an underutilized feature with D.R.A.M.(which Albarn admits was simply to impress his daughter), while “Busted and Blue” is a stark reminder of the horror amid which Humanz rages on.
The spiritual conclusion leaves us strong and hopeful for tomorrow after the destruction of a nation. Benjamin Clementine is majestic on “Hallelujah Money.” A call to gospel not dissimilar to recent Chance the Rapper and Solange records, Clementine’s deep roots take the song to a beautiful, original place, where we hear Albarn sing, “When the morning comes we are still human.”
“We Got the Power” reinforces this notion with just enough brit-rock to make Blur and Bloc Party fans squeal.
There is such a wealth of riches on Humanz that you run into one of two issues on a listen, depending on how you consume your music. In one instance, you may have a great concept album that delivers on its idea(l)s, but contains a smattering of sub-par tracks (“Charger” and “Sex Murder Party” to name the two most immediately forgettable).
The other case for Humanz is that you should be able to shuffle through such a versatile and dynamic playlist, but the interludes make that a jarring experience. It feels like a record that demands to be played in a specific order, but when removed from that requirement Humanz is more adaptable, giving a little something to every kind of Gorillaz fan.
Humanz is politicized by its context. The gloom, the IDGAF mentality, the deliberate head-spinning diverse focus that verges on sense overload, it’s all part of a hellish allegorical landscape.
Dressed up in bright colors and pop music trends, Humanz is what would happen if America threw all caution to the wind. It’s a result of a community of musicians coming together at a time where collaboration and conversation is abjectly necessary.
Humanz is appealing enough as an album that holds an attitude and promotes a brand to see a future where the Gorillaz conglomerate takes over the world through a stimulating virtual reality scenario. Whether that alternate reality is captivating enough to expand beyond the scope of music is yet to be seen. But for now, despite how indicative this is as a career move, just enjoy the music. It’s doubtful a TV show will ever be this good.