Gorillaz hold a special place in my heart. They served as my introduction to the virtual band when “Demon Days” released way back in 2005 as well as for millions of other young anime-heads. The grim combination of rock, electronica, and hip hop was something my little 11-year-old self had never heard before. It was bizarre new territory, which is what Damon Albarn, the mastermind behind the band alongside artist Jamie Hewlett, will argue is the point. Each subsequent Gorillaz release since the self-titled record back in 2001 has been a testing ground for new sounds and styles.
“Humanz,” the first project under the Gorillaz name since “The Fall” in 2010 and “Plastic Beach” earlier that year (the most accomplished Gorillaz project to date), continues the experimental and exploratory idealism Gorillaz has always stood for. This time around however, our virtual band members we’ve all come to know and love: 2-D, Murdoch, Noodle and Russell, have been set on the sidelines. The fully electronic production of “Humanz” marks a drastic shift from the consistent rock sound the band has always had. A massive number of collaborators helm a majority of the songs as well rather than keeping Albarn’s vocals as 2-D front and center. This decision is likely be to divisive to many. The album feels less like a project by a band, fake or not, and more like a house party DJ’d Gorillaz alongside friends. The result is not as strong as past Gorillaz albums have been, but includes a good handful of highlights, and is enjoyable enough for what it is.
The large number of features on “Humanz” fits within a theme, a focus on humanity in times in turbulence. Politics has always been a mainstay in Gorillaz music, but rarely does it face the bleakness with such exuberance, as if barreling towards the end times with a beer in hand and a hard beat. Many of the songs on “Humanz” are undeniably catchy and dance focused. However, they are very hit and miss. One of the lead singles “Satrunz Barz” features excellently dark Chicago House production, with Popcaan’s famously incomprehensible, Jamaican-accented vocals on top. The production feels dense, the bass is loud, and Alburn’s 2-D vocals really shine through on the hook.
“Momentz,” a dementedly jolly electronica/rap track which features the return of De La Soul (famously featured on “Feel Good Inc.”), is another highlight. Pusha T and Mavis Staples are in peak form on “Let me Out” on top of a crisp and finely crafted boom-bap beat. One of the weirder cuts on the record, “Hallelujah Money” featuring the unconventionally full-throated vocals of Benjamin Clementine is fascinating in that it veers from the dancey electronica of most of the record for something more eerie and unsettling.
Where “Humanz” ultimately suffers is the inoffensiveness and lack of realization on many of its tracks. Songs like “Strobelight” and “Charger” are, bluntly put, boring and forgettable vanilla electronic tracks. If it weren’t for Albarn’s vocals it would be difficult to tell if they were Gorillaz at all. Others like “Sex Murder Party” and “We Got the Power” are not only forgettable, but unenjoyably hammy as well. The album also struggles to find a place for many of its features. So many features feel undercooked, such as Danny Brown on “Submission” and D.R.A.M on “Andromeda,” who, if it weren’t written right there next to the track name, you probably wouldn’t even know was there. What few Albarn/2-D dominated tracks there are, like “Busted and Blue” and “She’s My Collar” are enjoyable enough but don’t particularly stand out of the shadow of past Gorillaz work.
The nature of experiments is that some will work and some will not. It comes with the territory. For the most part, “Humanz” works, but just narrowly. The album features enough enjoyable creativity musically, both in its traditional side and more experimental side to make for a nice listen. However, much of what Albarn wanted to do on this record could have used a bit more time in the oven, a disappointing flaw considering the wait for “Humanz” spanned nearly seven years. Still, “Humanz” features some nice inclusions to the party playlist, and enough bleak hijinks to keep most Gorillaz fans loyal.