One of the many admirable things about Damon Albarn is that he’s always evolving, and rarely content to repeat himself. Even his failed experiments, like the last Gorillaz album, 2010’s The Fall, which was recorded on an iPad (which remains the most memorable thing about it), are still experiments. In the 21st century, he’s emerged more as a creative rival to Thom Yorke than to the Gallagher brothers (one of which, Noel, appears on Humanz). He’s a Britrocker who’s figured out how to not-awkwardly assimilate into the rap and electronic world, without fully abandoning his roots either.
In the time since The Fall, Damon Albarn hinted that Gorillaz would be done for good and he released his first song-based solo album and the Blur reunion album (among other projects). Even on the latter, he showed little to no signs of reliving that band’s glory days. When he finally revealed that Gorillaz would in fact return, the anticipation was — needless to say — very high.
The Fall aside, the last major Gorillaz release was 2010’s Plastic Beach, which marked the moment this cartoon band started feeling a whole lot more like a “real band.” Their tour supporting that album had live musicians on stage, not masked by holograms. And Plastic Beach is probably the Gorillaz album that Blur fans like best. It still has guests, but it’s the band’s most natural-sounding pop album and the one where Damon Albarn is the star. For Humanz, he once again turns the spotlight over to his guests.
A handful of these guests rise to the occasion. Vince Staples, who, for my money, is one of the best young rappers around, kicks the album off with a bang on “Ascension.” As on many of his best songs, he’s rapping about the racial injustice in America that our current White House Administration is perpetuating on a weekly basis. In the futuristic fantasy world of a Gorillaz album, “Ascension” is some real shit. (Damon apparently told his collaborators to imagine a future where Trump won the election, before that actually happened, but no one else goes in like Vince does.) On “Let Me Out,” soul legend Mavis Staples sounds as timeless as ever and Pusha T delivers some of the album’s rawest verses. On “Submission,” Kelela offers up a solid dose of alt-pop and Danny Brown aids the song with his wacky-as-ever flow. Damon Albarn excels as a producer throughout Humanz, but by taking a backseat as a vocalist, the project plays out more like a playlist than an album (maybe that’s just Damon staying up to date).
On paper, that makes Humanz a little more like Demon Days and Gorillaz than its direct predecessors. The problem with Humanz, then, is it lacks a clear hit. Gorillaz and Demon Days are carried by songs like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc,” songs where idiosyncratic rappers like Del tha Funky Homosapien and De La Soul paired multisyllabic rhymes with Damon’s hazy, addictive choruses. De La Soul reprise their role on Humanz, on “Momentz,” a song that acts more as an eccentric nugget than a could-be hit.
Songs like “Momentz” are typical of Humanz. The legendary Grace Jones shows up on the off-kilter-yet-subtle “Charger.” House OG Jamie Principle and outsider rapper Zebra Katz give the album its creepiest song with “Sex Murder Party.” Soulful UK singer Benjamin Clementine shows off his vocal chops but holds back his star power on “Hallelujah Money.” Dancehall artist Popcaan, who aided Jamie xx and AlunaGeorge on recent bangers, is clouded by auto-tune here for a decidedly non-banger, “Saturnz Barz.” Jehnny Beth of Savages ditches her usual post-punk and gives Humanz its most uplifting song with “We Got the Power” (which you shouldn’t confuse with Arcade Fire’s recent single “I Give You Power,” which features Mavis Staples, who, as mentioned earlier, is also on Humanz). These lower-key songs make up the bulk of the album, and maybe the goal this time was to release a collection of less immediate material. After all, that’s one way for Gorillaz to not repeat themselves.
Humanz officially comes out this Friday (4/28) via Parlophone, but they streamed it last week and also performed it in full at a London show in March. Maybe they’ll play it again at tonight’s ridiculously small Rough Trade NYC show (4/25).
If, like most people, you couldn’t get tickets for the Rough Trade show, you have a more likely chance of catch them in New York at this year’s Meadows festival. They also play other shows/festivals, including Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful, San Francisco’s Outside Lands, the band’s own Demon Days festivals in Chicago and the UK, a Red Rocks Amphitheater show, and more.