Gorillaz is one of the coolest bands on the planet—specifically because they don’t really exist. The dream-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlitt, Gorillaz consists of four animated characters who each, with their elaborate back stories, make up the members and sounds that the band’s music creates. 2D (the lead singer), is basically Damon Albarn, Murdoc (the bassist), is based off of a young Kieth Richards, Noodle (their background singer and main guitarist), adds a childlike quality to the group as well as female vocals, and lastly, Russell (the drummer), is voiced by famous Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka Jr., and provides the hip-hop influence to the group.
On their debut, self-titled record, the group discovered their futuristic yet rustic sound that was later expanded on and solidified on Demon Days, where the band really came into their own. On Demon Days, the Gorillaz really felt like a band. Damon Albarn’s character 2D really took on his unique vocal sound, and their music sounded unlike any other when it came to dark, upbeat pop music. Their music also occasionally featured classic hip-hop artists such as De La Soul and MF Doom, who were introduced by their drummer Russell becoming possessed by hip-hop’s ghosts coming out to speak.
On their third record, Plastic Beach, Damon used the Gorillaz moniker/band to collaborate with other popular artists. The introduction was done by Snoop Dogg, and Mos Def, Bobby Womack, and Little Dragon were each featured on two songs, respectively. Similar tropes were used, such as Russell becoming possessed by De La Soul, and even the sound of the group seemed more mature and evolved around the concept of the “Plastic Beach.”
Plastic Beach was released in 2010 however, and with Humanz arriving seven years later, there was a lot of speculation about what the Gorillaz had been up to ever since. Paying homage to Demon Days in more ways than the album artwork (which originally cited Let It Be to say that this virtual-band was as much a band as The Beatles), the idea of Humanz is that of all social and political anxieties colliding at a party at the end of the world.
Clocking in at 26 tracks (68 minutes), it’s a highly ambitious record, especially when tied in with their VR campaign and updated artwork/PR. They also incorporated more collaborations with artists than ever before, with Damon Albarn citing that “the nature of Gorillaz is collaboration” on Song Exploder. Fun fact: most of the features were picked from artists Albarn’s daughter liked so that he could impress her. Apparently she really likes Vince Staples (on the intro), and Danny Brown (on one, horribly placed feature).
Vince Staples plays a similar role as Snoop did on Plastic Beach, introducing the listener to the sound and storied-focus of the new record, but it’s very interesting how long it truly takes for any recognizable Gorillaz member to actually appear. I really enjoy Vince’s intro, and even a bit of De La Soul on “Momentz,” but Humanz’ beginning feels so coldly un-Gorillaz. If anything it functions as a compilation record of songs Damon has produced by other artists under the “Gorillaz” moniker. Throughout the entire record, I don’t know if Noodle’s character ever actually appears, and even Russell’s De La Soul possession doesn’t sound as ghostly as it had in the past to help enhance the story of the group.
On Humanz in fact, there really isn’t a story. A party for the end of the world is nothing that wasn’t already scratched at on Demon Days, and with only a sparsity of actual Gorillaz members incorporated onto the record, the narrative falls away almost completely. Damon Albarn’s voice doesn’t even appear until track four and it honestly even sounds like he’s featuring on a Popcaan record, not the other way around.
It’s interesting how the large amount of features really just ruin this record, as no one seems to fit with the song written, not even Damon as 2D. There also exists on this record some widely known artists like D.R.A.M., Vince Staples, Danny Brown, etc., who really stand out as features and not Gorillaz members. Early on Demon Days and Plastic Beach, some of these unknown features could be disguised as background vocals from Noodle or Murdoc, but not anymore. Now it feels like 2D went all Adam Levine and dumped the band for a pop party with famous collaborators.
Humanz does still have some great moments, such as the back-to-back “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue,” two 2D led tracks (and some of my favorite songs this year thus far) that really feel like what Albarn wanted the new record to sound like: ambient, dark, futuristic jams—like a galactic Demon Days.
The sheer length of the record as well is exhausting, especially with such a diverse cast of collaborators and no real narrative to stay tuned in to. If you ask me, Humanz could have been a great record if you cut it half, just down to the best tracks. As I’ve done in the past, this is how I listen to Humanz:
- Intro: I Switched My Robot Off
- Ascension (feat. Vince Staples)
- Momentz (feat. De La Soul)
- Interlude: The Non-Conformist Oath
- Andromeda (feat. D.R.A.M.)
- Busted and Blue
- Interlude: Talk Radio
- Carnival (feat. Anthony Hamilton)
- Let Me Out (feat. Mavis Staples & Pusha T)
- She’s My Collar (feat. Kali Uchis)
- We Got the Power (feat. Jehnny Beth)
- The Apprentice (feat. Rag’n’Bone Man, Zebra Katz and Ray BLK)
- Circle of Friendz (feat. Brandon Markell Holmes)
Under the edited tracklist, you get all the best parts of Humanz, and somewhat of a complete narrative, as well as a larger Gorillaz band feeling (well, at least 2D). It doesn’t do much for the overall review however, other than to say that Humanz was a let down that strayed so far from everything that I loved about the Gorillaz that it’s hard to even consider a real Gorillaz project and not a “Damon Albarn impresses his daughter compilation record.”
Had Albarn broken the record down into the thirteen tracks above, I would have thought differently. Honestly, the above Humanz edited tracklist is a really good record, but sadly the real Humanz isn’t only these great thirteen tracks—it’s got another thirteen lousy ones throughout as well.
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That was a really well written post, I really like how I learned something about the group itself, as I hadn’t known anything about them previously. Great read and good job!