Humanz is by far the weakest album Gorillaz have ever released. In a lot of ways it feels like an album that I should theoretically like. The collaborations are all with people that I enjoy heavily (Danny Brown, De La Soul, Vince Staples, Pusha T).
But instead of smoothly blending into the tracks or doing anything interesting, these collaborators mostly just blend into a disappointingly bland mixture of noise.
For almost 20 years, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett have been creating the multimedia experience that is Gorillaz. The band, which is virtual in their external appearance consists of four members, vocalist 2-D, drummer Russel Hobbs, guitarist Murdoc Niccals and bassist Noodle.
It offers collaborations between artists that one would typically never expect to see on the same album, let alone the same track.
The band exemplified social media marketing before Twitter or Facebook had taken off. Everyone had heard of the band from different sources, whether it was from their cartoonish shorts that aired between music videos on MTV or their equally playful yet sometimes bleak music videos.
Gorillaz were a seminal band in my upbringing. They are the first music project that I listened to that successfully mixed two of my loves, alternative hip-hop and indie rock. Demon Days was one of the first five albums I ever bought legally; I got it and The Killers’ Hot Fuss for $20 at a Walmart when I was eight.
The rollout of Plastic Beach around my freshman year of high school was a fully-fledged event for me; I poured through hints about the new album on their website in the weeks before the release.
So anyone could understand my disappoint last Friday as I sifted through each track only to find that the album didn’t really evolve past the quality of the first few singles.
Maybe that’s where the biggest element of my disappointment comes from, that the first singles Albarn and Hewlett released were the album’s strongest tracks (other than a handful of standouts here and there) on a crowded 20 song track listing, though that includes interludes.
Let’s start with what’s good with the album. Some of the songs really push the maniac attitude of the “post-election-night end-of-the-world party” concept that Albarn is trying to craft. The transition from the danceable and uncontainable energy of “Andromeda” to the sullen sounds of “Busted and Blue” helps make those songs two of the album’s best.
This end-of-the-world vibe can be felt throughout several songs on the album, like the opening skit’s lead-in to the fantastic song “Ascension” featuring great verses from Vince Staples. In terms of rapping, this song is the best on the album.
In fact, some of Vince’s strongest lyrics overall are on this song, such as the verse in which he raps: “I’m just playing, baby, this the land of the free / Where you can get a glock and a gram for the cheap / Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me.”
“Hallelujah Money” is another treat on the album featuring great spoken word verses from British artist Benjamin Clementine combined with great backing vocals that really sink you deep into the decadent despair that the track is surrounded in.
One of the biggest problems with the album, however, is related to the manner in which it was released. The band released five tracks as singles in the months leading up to the album’s release, and in my opinion, all five of these tracks were among the album’s best, to the point that the other songs felt bland in comparison.There’s also this overwhelming feeling that I get that the album, while strung along via the “end of the world party” theme, has no cohesive idea or voice.
This feels less like a Gorillaz album to me than a Damon Albarn & Friends album. Plastic Beach managed to get away with such a long list of collaborators but perhaps it would be better to shrink the circle a bit in the future.
This is without mentioning the vibe that some of these features feel phoned in, or out of place at points.
The Popcaan feature on “Saturn Barz” results in a crooning yet annoying vibe that makes the song one of my least favorite releases in the entirety of Gorillaz’s discography.
The Danny Brown feature on “Submission” is one I found myself looking forward to coming off the heels of Atrocity Exhibition, as well as his involvement on The Avalanches Wildflower. But it just comes across as flat and a bit uninspired.
The interludes are a mixed bag, coming across as either vital to the experience or pointless and contrived. The penthouse and talk radio skits in particular are rather void of much substance with the latter wasting a great opportunity for something better from the frequently underrated Ben Mendelsohn.
The biggest strike against the album is that the majority of the songs are just so forgettable. “Carnival”, “Charger”, “Sex Murder Party”, “She’s My Collar” amongst a few other songs just feel like loose tracks that are aimless in their intent.
If you listen to the album, make sure to grab the Deluxe Edition since the additional tracks are actually better than half the songs on the base album. “The Apprentice” is a great song with a strong chorus from RAY BLK and Rag’n’Bone Man.
The disappointment really set in for me when I realized that I had been waiting seven years for this album but it just wasn’t for me. There are great songs here that I’ll probably revisit quite a bit (“Andromeda”, “Ticker Tape” and “Busted and Blue” especially), but, for the most part, I won’t be listening to this album in full again.
At least, not without a good argument as to why I should revisit it. Who knows though, maybe this is a grower not a shower. Or maybe Damon and Jamie will come back in another seven years and make something more adventurous. I guess I’ll be waiting until then.