The rollout campaign for Gorillaz' new album Humanz has truly been unlike any other in recent memory. Traditional methods such as the announcement of their first North American concert in years, exclusive interviews and not one but four singles and a music video dropped ahead of time were just the tip of the iceberg. There was a secret concert. They organized a live interview (perhaps a first for a cartoon band). There was the announcement of an impeding TV series. There were two augmented reality phone apps released, one of which powered solely by the color magenta. They unveiled plans for a festival. There was even a traveling exhibition that recreated their new music video with an immersive show room and virtual recreation. Suffice to say, it was all a bit much.
And though it should not bear the brunt of a critical appraisal, such a staggering build-up would inevitably play a role in an album that was already one of the most highly-anticipated of the year. Unfortunately, the result is not a positive one. Humanz overall is a fun ride of an LP, but it is both staggeringly dense and highly uneven.
But let's start with the good. In the six years since their last full-length, the incredibly misguided The Fall, Gorillaz have dramatically expanded their sonic palette. The quaint---if antiquated---synthesizers that marked their previous work have been replaced with beats that are razor sharp in their execution. The overarching trends of this past decade, from rave-rap to dancehall to witch-pop, have all been absorbed into their aesthetic without it ever feeling too forced. This integration is not seamless in every track, but it is to the band's credit that when it does work, it really works.
The album starts out strong with "Ascension," a rapid-fire, hyper booty-shaking jam that is sold in earnest thanks to featured rapper Vince Staples, particularly in his delivery of the record's most memorable couplet "The sky's falling baby / Drop that ass 'fore it crash." "Saturnz Barz" is another highlight, featuring a stellar vocal turn from Popcaan paired with laser-pointed industrial synths that recall the most abrasive tracks on Kanye West's Yeezus.
But the clear standout from the work is "Andromeda," a hazy track that functions as both bittersweet love song and mellow club jam. The beat is comprised of just a few simple elements---a precise, clockwork beat, a clipped bass line, and a few healthy layers of rich syntheszier---yet it effuses a sophistication that isn't found anywhere else on the album, naturally progressing from the sounds of their last great full-length (2010's Plastic Beach) without ever feeling like a call-back. And in a record that carries a traffic jam's worth of guest spots, it is the only one that feels wholly belonging to Gorillaz; D.R.A.M. is featured here, but his earthy baritone is woven lightly into the backing vocals, adding a piece of its texture without once coming close to turning the spotlight away from the band. It is truly a gorgeous track, and will easily rank among the best pieces of their career.
That tracks like "Andromeda" shine so bright serve to undo the rest of the record, which seems to suffer from a serious identity crisis, an issue that a band with a now 20 year career should not be having. IRL singer/songwriter Damon Albarn reportedly asked the full stable of guest artists to "imagine a world where Trump became president" as they recorded Humanz last year in his goal to craft the record as the sound of a "party for the end of the world." This was achieved, but as Albarn's moodboard eventually became reality, he chose to remove all direct mentions of any political power players on the album. The result is sloppy; spaces in songs that are clearly referencing people like Trump are replaced with obnoxious sound effects. In going part of the way with his political message, Albarn's thesis is criminally half-baked.
Even worse is that Humanz isn't quite sure what it wants to do musically either. Unlike Plastic Beach, which used its guest list with thought and precision, this album is all over the place. "Charger," a collaboration with the actual goddess Grace Jones, had the potential to be a real mammoth of a track, pairing old world royalty with Gorillaz' new school sound. Instead we get a track that hardly has a melody and features Jones mumbling under a mess of guitar chords. "Submission," featuring Danny Brown and Kelela, and "Let Me Out," featuring Pusha T and Mavis Staples, suffer a similar problem; both contain hints of a good song hidden away, but as the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth.
Because these issues are so prevalent and so embedded within the structure of the record itself, Humanz can never be a good album, at least not in the way that their previous full-lengths Plastic Beach and Demon Days are. But that said, it will never be a truly bad album; the amount of fun and sheer oddity that the world's most reliably wonky cartoon band create is still within a league entirely their own.
Check out our exclusive interview with lead singer 2D right here.
For more of our reviews, click here to read our take on Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN.'