"Humanz" is Gorillaz's first album that reflects the negative potential of such an ambitious project.
Yeah yeah, Gorillaz aren't strictly hip hop. Their new release, Humanz, might be the least rap-oriented album we've ever reviewed on HNHH. But you can't say that their previous three albums haven't had any impact on hip hop as a whole.
Gorillaz introduced a a new generation to Golden Age rappers Del The Funky Homosapien, Bootie Brown, and De La Soul with the singles "Clint Eastwood," "Dirty Harry," and "Feel Good Inc." They got mid-2000s kids listening to Deltron 3030, Hieroglyphics' 3rd Eye Vision, The Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II, and De La's 3 Feet High & Rising. My first introduction to MF DOOM came via Demon Days' "November Has Come." The first time I heard a British person rap might have been Roots Manuva's verse on "All Alone."
People who were older than 13 when Demon Days dropped are probably rolling their eyes at this. Why didn't kids seek out those classics and underground heroes before? There's also a racial argument to be made-- why didn't white kids like me pay attention to those rappers until a Britpop star packaged them up in hip, parent-friendly radio singles? Both are valid, and Damon Albarn's career has definitely benefitted from Major Lazer-style cultural tourism in one way or another, but despite whoever's on a Gorillaz track with him, it's always sounded like a Gorillaz track because of his distinct presence. Albarn himself doesn't wear too many costumes, metaphorically speaking, instead letting his various co-stars speak from points of view that he can't. Sometimes it's a goofy gem that only Del could produce, such as, "Get funkier than Funkadelic wearing Pampers." Other times, it's Bootie's "Dirty Harry" verse:
I'm filled with guilt from things I done and seen
Your water's from a bottle, mine's from a canteen
At night I hear the shots
Ring so I'm a light sleeper
The cost of life, it seem to get cheaper
But especially when they venture into political territory, Gorillaz take on the same type of rep that Run The Jewels has increasingly gotten: the fill-in-the-blank answer to the sentence, "I don't usually listen to rap, but I like ____." I've got a friend who'd never heard a Vince Staples track until "Ascension," and when he expressed surprise at how good it was, it was hard for me to suppress a "duh." But see, here I am being a hypocrite and calling out ignorance just like pretentious dudes ten years older than me probably did around the release of Demon Days.
Gorillaz occupy an interesting space on the fringes of hip hop, definitely not immune to critiques of vulturing and wave-riding, but also being an inclusive big tent where rappers appear side-by-side with Britpoppers (Shaun Ryder, Gruff Rhys, Noel Gallagher, Graham Coxon, Simon Tong), old school legends (Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, 1/2 of The Clash, Grace Jones, Mavis Staples, Jean-Michel Jarre, Ike Turner), indie darlings (Martina Topley-Bird, Little Dragon, Mark E. Smith, Tina Weymouth), and even actors (Dennis Hopper, Ben Mendelsohn). It's the Platonic ideal of the early music-sharing internet's desire to listen to everything and then hear it all mashed up.
Additionally, the opportunity of guesting on a Gorillaz album is not one that many up-and-coming rappers would turn down. For just a few recent examples, Father and Jay IDK have both called the band their dream collab, and D.R.A.M., who's actually on Humanz, recently said that he reacted to Albarn's call with a "Fuck yeah," adding, "Think about being able to pick the brain and catch the vibe of somebody you grew up listening to."
At best, Gorillaz's music can be the collaborative ideal, a group of diverse artists getting together under Albarn's direction to make albums that are bursting at the seams with life and energy. At worst, the whole project can seem like Albarn pressing shuffle on an unorganized gaggle of remixes he made himself. 2001's Gorillaz, 2005's Demon Days, and 2010's Plastic Beach all managed to veer closer to the first category, but Humanz is the group's first proper album to reflect the negative potential of such an ambitious project.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves-- Humanz still contains some great tracks and most of them feature young(ish) rappers and singers. The aforementioned Staples track kicks the album off with a jolt of energy and a thesis statement for the project's whole "party for the end of the world" theme-- "The sky's falling baby, drop that ass 'fore it crash." Popcaan's "Saturnz Barz" is a whirlwind of an autobiographical journey, and one of his best songs to date. Danny Brown and Kelela both have commanding presences on "Submission." D.R.A.M.'s part on "Andromeda" is a little easier to miss, but nevertheless, it's great and it actually sounds like a Gorillaz song (which is more of a rarity on this album). As a curator of up-and-coming talent Albarn's still sharp as ever, and it's always cool to see such artists elevated to new commercial heights.
But between subpar usage of other artists, the least amount of Albarn vocals to ever appear on a Gorillaz album, and loose concepts and sounds that totally unravel by the album's end, Humanz lacks the listenability and ear candy payout of past Gorillaz albums. The beats are mostly big and abrasive, a Kraftwerky, post-Yeezus clang that most of the featured artists are unaccustomed to. This makes the subtle beauty of some of Gorillaz's finest moments on record nearly impossible to achieve. "Strobelite" sounds super dated, De La's "Momentz" is interesting, but not nearly as infectious as their appearances on the past two Gorillaz albums (it also sounds quite a bit like RTJ, furthering the comparison), "Charger" is a slow-tempo slog that can't be saved by Grace Jones, "Sex Murder Party" is a jumbled mess, "She's My Collar" is breathy and creepy, and worst of all, closer "We Got the Power" doesn't seem to fit at all, playing like a busy, obnoxious credits sequence.
Many people have said Humanz fails because it's not as "cohesive" as past Gorillaz albums, but I don't know if you could accurately say that any of the group's eclectic projects conform to a single focus. Humanz is chock full of vagueness and thematic non-sequiturs, from Mendelsohn's bizarre interludes about elevators and elephants, to the track consisting of Popcaan's life story, to an overarching message about technology, power, and money that sometimes reads as simple as, "We've gone too far down this path. We're fucked." Gorillaz have always been given a bit too much credit for their album concepts-- Demon Days was very loosely about oil wars and global warming, but the most clear-cut example of that is a loopy parable read by Dennis Hopper; Plastic Beach was similarly about pollution and all things artificial, but maybe 1/10th of its lyrics could be read as relating to that theme, and that's being generous. These albums didn't need to have clarity and political agendas to be good, they were simply catchy and interesting and unpredictable. Humanz is definitely the third, maybe the second, but for a majority of its runtime, definitely not the first.
A Gorillaz album release is still a very exciting event, and it's still great to have Albarn keeping the project going. Where else are you going to hear Pusha T and Mavis Staples collaborate? How else do you foresee Vince Staples connecting with this big of an international audience? For all of its faults, Humanz is still far, far away from being a late-career Santana album or Timbaland's Shock Value in terms of throwing random collaborations at the wall and seeing what sticks. But one wonders how much longer Gorillaz can last, both because the whole anonymous cartoon band gag seems to be playing itself out before our eyes, and because of the sheer cost and labor involved in putting out a new Gorillaz album. According to Albarn, the six-minute "Saturnz Barz (Spirit House)" music video that accompanied the album announcement cost $800,000 to make. The bandleader sounds weary at the end of this marketing-heavy album release, calling it, "One more shot at the title, Rocky style." He hints that he "may come up with a concept like Creed in the future, but for right now," he says, "I’m still in my Rocky cycle."
Some will dispute that Gorillaz were ever a worthwhile project to begin with, but I think I'm correct in saying that a good portion of my generation valued their music at one point or another. Maybe current 13-year-olds are hearing something something in Humanz that I'm not, but because Albarn's even more of an out-of-touch geezer now than he was immediately after putting Blur on hiatus in 2003, I doubt it. The project came together when the music-sharing, genre-mashing possibilities of the internet were just being realized, and at that time, it made sense both as a vehicle for quirky pop-rap tunes and a mode of discovery for rock fans who didn't know shit about rap and vice-versa. There are brief flashes of this post-Napster utopian ideal on Humanz, but for the most part, the album suggests that its moment has died, and maybe the Gorillaz moniker should eventually die with it too.