The collective known as Gorillaz have never been shy about their multi-media anonymity. Everyone knows who they really are, but the idea of the characters persists. On their latest, Humanz, Gorillaz return thematically and musically to their triumphant sophomore album, Demon Days. The cover of Humanz is clearly evocative of an update to the cover of Demon Days and the music feels quite the same. Humanz is a slightly more optimistic appraisal of things, however. Even though things have gotten worse, the importance of believing things can get better thru art, understanding and the fullness and diversity of human existence is front and center. The guest MCs articulate injustice with bluster. The singers sing from their souls about their souls. The beat makers feel like they are pushing us into the fight, into the streets, out of the dark, and into the light of revolution. There has always been an implied utopianism to the Gorillaz experiment. Bringing diverse instruments and artists together in an experimental way. Humanz may be the most diverse yet.
“Ascension” lets Vince Staples rhyme over a variety of beats that mystify to maintain tempo but do despite time signature changes. The tempo varies, but the energy doesn’t. Albarn’s chorus punctuates in typical Gorillaz fashion, grounding the song as he does on most. But the hook is as much in Vince pleading, “the sky is falling baby drop that ass before it crash” as it is in the chorus.
The hypnotic “Saturnz Barz” reminds me of the Gorillaz vs. Spacemonkeys remix project that fused the debut album with reggae remixes. The song is built on traditional reggae cadence infused with hip-hop that reminds me of the Nas and Damien Marley project, Distant Relatives. The “all my life” call and response chorus is the album’s most accessible and poignant.
“Momentz” has that 80s feel I’ve written about before that is all over the landscape right now, to varying degrees of success. “Submission” is at best an average Massive Attack B-side and at worst a sort of aimless bit of filler. “Charger” featuring Grace Jones is awesome. Featuring Grace Jones is really all you need to know. The avant-garde sensibilities are not without merit here. It’s a standout track that highlights Albarn’s talent for songs on the whole not just catchy hooks. It treads a little into the territory he was in on his latest solo effort, Everyday Robots. “Andromeda” is another song saved by Albarn from sounding too much like a house remix dance version of a throwaway Kraftwerk song.
“Carnival” featuring Anthony Hamilton sounds a lot like Gnarls Barkley, but it works. Mavis Staples and Pusha T lock it in on “Let me Out,” the highlight and centerpiece most reflective of Demon Days. The complexity of beats, the thoughtful precise bass, complementary arrangements, and Albarn’s gentle whispers prove the collective much more than studio beat makers. In fact, Gorillaz are taking the show on the road. More than ever, it’s evident on Humanz they are a BAND. They sound and function as well as any with traditional rock and roll instruments. The genius of Gorillaz is the sum of the parts. All are contributors. Guests are allowed to shine. If it gives the right feeling at the right time, and its right for the song, Gorillaz seem to find it, and put it right in place.