We should all be honest and accept that this record was never going to match the expectation that preceded it. Gorillaz have been a reliable stalwart for over a decade now and their brand of politically motivated electronica and hip-hop has consistently delivered. They’ve soundtracked environmental decay, an Iraq war, and a recession and now, with a despot in the white house, it’s unsurprising that Damon Albarn chose this moment to return. What is surprising though is how limp and muddy it feels. Humanz is not the record it could be. It’s unfocused, messy and, worse still, pedestrian. A guest list featuring De La Soul, Danny Brown and Grace Jones needs to amount to more if this is to be the soundtrack to a new fresh hell.
The initial lyrics are rather pertinent: “I switched my robot off and I know more but I retain less”. A dependence on technology and the knowledge it brings has left us with a glut of knowledge, but no means through which to use it. Sadly, that’s a rather succinct definition of this album. There a staggeringly high calibre of artists in this roster, most with a storied history. Previously, Gorillaz had an ability to give guests an immovable base to deliver their message. Here though, Albarn can’t find a way to make his disparate collaborators coalesce. So much of this record feels as though he’s using these guests as a crutch to prop up his songwriting. Most are bringing their A-game but are let down repeatedly by a languid streak in the music. This is one of their shortest records and yet it feels overlong.
The album is notable for leaving one colossal orange elephant out of the discussion. The GOP’s commander-in-chief is pointedly absent from Humanz – likely a deliberate move to avoid giving the frog-faced fuck any more publicity. Unfortunately though, it hobbles the direction and message of the album. There’s an unshakeable sensation that every performer wants to say something more profound. Yet they’ve been clipped by their ringleader and his misguided aims. Without a real target, much of the muted vitriol that made them so compelling is neutered. Without a direction, things shudder to a halt time and time again. This is emphasised by the awful sequencing. Rather than build to a proper climax, it flutters between the petty and the polemic. Worst still, the album commits the egregious sin of having skits. This isn’t the 1990s or ‘3 Feet High’, lads. Three decades of “jokes” have soured any hint of good will we had left. These interludes don’t add anything, they break up the flow and do nothing but derail the album.
With all this said, this is the Gorillaz and there is, after all, a reason that the hype has been building. When this LP is good, it is bloody brilliant and that is an undeniable, pure and simple fact. The ADHD rage of Vince Staples ‘Ascension’, the De La Soul gospel trap of ‘Momentz’, Danny Brown’s anarchic verse on submission. These are all stellar cuts, representing some of their best work. There is also the fist in the air finale of ‘We Got The Power’, a great closer that utilises Savages‘ Jenny Beth to her fullest.
But the two real stand out here are ‘Charger’ and ‘Let Me Out’. The first fuses Grace Jones’ power and menace with industrial techno in a moment of true genius. The latter then is easily the most cohesive point in the collection. On the one side is Mavis Staples‘; her heavenly soul vocals representing a previous era of the black experience, wise from years of subjugation and terror. On the other is Pusha T, a young man trapped in a cage with the figure of death constantly looming. Really though, it’s only in these moments that the record comes alive with purpose and meaning. A politically minded, gospel-infused hip-hop and dance record is what we need. Sadly, this isn’t one. Will Murphy