Beloved virtual band Gorillaz have re-emerged after seven years with a disco dystopia album ironically entitled Humanz. But are they still relevant in 2017?
Eccentrically postmodern, and supposedly anti-fame, Gorillaz was conceived as “a cartoon band” in the late ’90s with its core ‘members’ 2D (lead vocals, keyboards), Noodle (guitar), Murdoc Niccals (bass), and Russel Hobbs (drums). In reality, it was a multimedia side-project for Blur frontman Damon Albarn (aka 2D) and his sometime flatmate, comic illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Gorillaz’ music was poly-genre – Albarn, bored of Brit-pop, using it as a vehicle to explore hip-hop, electronica and worldbeat. Gorillaz pivoted on collaboration.
The ‘collab’ has long been customary in hip-hop, simultaneously repping legit creative exchange and astute cross-marketing. But it’s also common in dance music, with Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx all enlisting vocalists weird ‘n’ wonderful. Gorillaz, too, have made curation an art form. Indeed, the star of their 2001 eponymous debut was Cali MC Del The Funky Homosapien on ‘Clint Eastwood’.
It was with the blockbuster Demon Days that Gorillaz’ all-star cameos became their trademark – Neneh Cherry, Ike Turner and Shaun Ryder down for the ride. Plastic Beach followed the same paradigm, with Snoop Dogg, Little Dragon and Lou Reed. Gorillaz revived the careers of De La Soul (the hit ‘Feel Good Inc’) and Bobby Womack (‘Stylo’ with Mos Def). The cartoony Major Lazer owe Gorillaz big-time. Ditto The Avalanches of Wildflower. Crucially, because of Albarn’s involvement, Gorillaz wasn’t dismissed as a novelty. Nonetheless, the band’s future appeared murky when in 2011 a “greatest hits” surfaced. Albarn and Hewlett reportedly had creative differences. The unflagging Albarn presented a solo album, Everyday Robots, and facilitated Blur’s comeback. But, then, he and Hewlett committed to rebooting Gorillaz over drinks.
Humanz shouldn’t be compared to past forays but considered in the context of today’s shifting pop scene. Much of the buzz surrounding this fifth album concerns its fire guest roster – spanning acts both heritage (Gorillaz regulars De La Soul, Grace Jones, Mavis Staples) and, unprecedentedly, hipster (Vince Staples, Danny Brown, Kelela). Insanely, Carly Simon – do yourself a favour and seek her cult ’80s Chic-produced hit ‘Why’ – merely features on the Deluxe bonus ‘Ticker Tape’. Even more unexpected, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn is the album’s disembodied narrator.
Albarn has touted Humanz as a Trumpocalypse album – Gorillaz partying like it’s… 2017. When he commenced the enterprise, Albarn encouraged co-writers to speculate about what might happen the night Trump was declared President, never imagining that his unbeautiful dark twisted fantasy would be fulfilled. Later, the producer edited out references to The Donald.
The stand-outs here are the singles. Most compelling is ‘Hallelujah Money’ which, airing to coincide with Trump’s Presidential inauguration in January, was orphaned for being insufficiently Gorillaz-y. Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine leads a sublime gospel protest, lamenting not-so-allegorical walls.
Gorillaz’ vocalists ruminate on, not the political, but the psychological and existential ramifications of Trump. As such, Humanz lacks clarity. In the choral banger ‘Ascension’, the mercurial Long Beach, California MC Vince Staples – who himself dispelled the possibility of a Trump victory to Music Feeds last year – urgently raps: “The sky’s falling, baby/Drop that ass ‘fore it crash.” Yet, shedding the gangsta tropes of ‘Norf Norf’, Staples hones in on America’s entrenched racism. ‘Ascension’ could be twinned with the gospel-trap ‘Let Me Out’ which awesomely pairs former Clipse MC Pusha T and R&B legend Mavis Staples.
Unexpectedly on Humanz, Gorillaz tap into a new – and modish – deep house vein. Peven Everett elevates the future disco ‘Strobelite’. Even more lit, Chicago houser Jamie Principle joins rapper Zebra Katz on the queer anthem ‘Sex Murder Party’.
Some songs don’t click. ‘Saturnz Barz’, featuring Jamaican dancehall fave Popcaan, misses the trop bounce of Jamie xx’s ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’. And Grace Jones’ New Wave cool is shattered on the acid-punk ‘Charger’.
Like ‘Hallelujah Money’, Humanz closer ‘We Got The Power’ is unusually resonant for Gorillaz – the stylings of Savages’ singer Jehnny Beth ever soulfully clipped. Thematically, it evokes Savages’ own affirming ‘Adore’. However, ‘We Got The Power’ actually manifests unity: Albarn formally ends Blur’s battle with Oasis by having Noel Gallagher on backing vocals.
What is confusing about Humanz is the disconnect between Gorillaz’ music and animation, those old avatars now primarily serving the group’s digital branding. Beyond that, like so many urban albums in the streaming era, Humanz has too many guests, too many interludes and too many ideas. But, with its abundance of hot jams, who really minds? Humanz is a doomsday music festival, on record.
‘Humanz’will be released April 28th. Pre-order a copy here.