Gorillaz

Humanz

Warner Bros.

Apr 28, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


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There are many reasons why Gorillaz are a fascinating band, foremost of which is the way they skirt the question of identity. From the beginning, their cartoon natures not only obscured the real people making their music, but threatened to discount it as pure novelty; a silly Saturday-morning-cereal band that made goofy hip-hop didn't seem destined to become one of the most singular pop forces within a decade. Yet here we are, with the release of Humanz, Gorillaz's fourth album and the one least removed from real-world identity questions.

Humanz, as is the norm for a band that is itself a concept, presents a high-profile narrative: what if something unthinkable happened, and it seemed the world might end, and everyone just threw a big cathartic party? Gorillaz mastermind, and Blur frontman, Damon Albarn has been direct about this concept in the press leading up to Humanz release, and obvious political implications notwithstanding, what's interesting about it is that this album, more than the others, is centered in the real world. As in Earth, where humans live and not whatever creatures the Gorillaz happen to be (are they actual gorillas? Are they aliens?). It's a new approach because each previous album, culminating in 2010's hyper-colored, wacky Plastic Beach, has been ultimately transporting. Listen to Beach or 2005's acclaimed Demon Days, and you're living in Gorillaz's world of dreamy dance, gritty hip-hop, and cartoon surrealism. That changes with Humanz.

 

When the album was first announced, Albarn and company came charging right out of the gate with the release of four singles. Two of them ("Ascension," with rapper Vince Staples, and "We Got the Power," with Savages howler Jehnny Beth) contained huge, song-dominating guest appearances, with Albarn (whose vocals are usually credited to the animated character 2D) barely making his presence known. One, "Andromeda (feat. D.R.A.M.)" is almost all Albarn, though this ends up being an outlier on the albumthe only track on the album to have no featured artists is the mournful, lush "Busted and Blue." Meanwhile, the official single, "Saturnz Barz (feat. Popcaan)," is the one that comes closest to the classic Gorillaz formula: a notable guest appearance balanced out by some of Albarn's classic melancholic vocals. This balance ends up being the biggest thing missing from Humanz. It can be jarring to put the album on in sequence for the first time; "Ascension" is almost 100% a Vince Staples song, and it's quickly followed by "Strobelite," an extremely danceable club number featuring a dynamo performance by Peven Everett. Again, Albarn barely shows up, leaving it feeling like Everett's own song rather than Gorillaz's. Stretches like this abound on Humanz's 14-song tracklist (19 if you have the deluxe edition).

 

To make matters even weirder, De La Soul officially becomes Gorillaz's most-collaborated-with artist on the fourth track, "Momentz," and boy is it strange. An enormous four-on-the-floor thump is the metronome to a collage of "Momentz!" chants, auto-tuned rapping, and eventually a cavalcade of synth layers. It makes Plastic Beach's goofy "Superfast Jellyfish" seem like a Top 40 hit. It's not that it's badin fact, after repeated listens, it has bounteous weird charms to offerit's just that it's so jarringly different. As the album rolls on, eventually things start to sound and feel more familiar, as the friendly warmth of "Andromeda" and "Busted and Blue" give way to lovely collaborations like "Sex Murder Party," featuring Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz, and Benjamin Clementine's better-in-context performance on "Hallelujah Money." But it's that jarring first listen that will probably stand out most to Gorillaz fans, because suddenly the music places us in that real human world, and the Gorillaz we know are just among the guests, like us.

 

While Humanz is the biggest departure Gorillaz has yet attempted, it is also their biggest grower. On repeated listens, the concept begins to sink in, and it starts to feel like Albarn is giving us a mirror. This whole time, we have come to Gorillaz to be transported to a cartoon world and see characters different than us. But in 2017, perhaps we need to see that that cartoon world is our world, and those bizarre cartoon characters are us. We are all human(z). (www.gorillaz.com)

Author rating: 6.5/10

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