The world we live in is bleak. A business illiterate reality TV star is sitting in the White House, foreign policy is in the toilet and Rap Twitter is still beating the dead horse that is “Lil Yachty is ruining hip-hop culture.” The human race isn’t going down without a fight, but there are some days where most of us just wish the meteor would come a little quicker.
Damon Albarn and the amorphous group of musicians collectively known as Gorillaz are in that camp, though their fourth studio album Humanz isn’t nearly that pessimistic. The group—“fronted” by animated characters 2D, Russel, Murdoc, and Noodle—reappeared in March after seven long years of silence (outside of a mind-bending collab with André 3000 and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy) and dropped five singles that—true to the melting pot of genres that’s characterized their discography—spanned the musical Rolodex from hip-hop and reggae to disco and synth-pop.
When the handful of new material hit the internet last month, I called the group’s genre wanderlust the key to their success, and I’m happy to say that the album proper is an intergalactic party from start to finish.
Gorillaz’ albums have always had a playlist quality to them long before Drake’s turn at instilling life, but the music on Humanz—produced largely by Albarn, drummer Remi Kabaka, and DJ The Twilite Tone—is vast and immediate in a way that befits the album’s apocalyptic subtext.
Three Standout Songs:
"Ascension" ft. Vince Staples
Good God, I cannot praise this song highly enough.
After a brief intro, the clanging drum pulses and choir yelps of previously released single “Ascension” kick the album off properly. If this 20-track LP is a multi-tiered party, then “Ascension” is the doom alarm leading to our first steps up the tower.
Vince Staples thrives off of the spacious minimal production and his tale of racism and nihilistic sexcapades cuts through the instrumentation and chills to the bone. 2D’s (Albarn’s) vocals floating on the periphery is the icing on the meteor.
This is what I’ll hear before the stars crash to Earth. Holy matrimony.
"Strobelite" ft. Peven Everett
Now that we’ve all been rushed in, we might as well stay a while.
“Strobelite” is a pulsing house rhythm that can bounce off the blue-tinged walls of a steamy club backroom or is suitable just for dancing in your room. Either way, the coos of Chicago house legend Peven Everett make for a pensive groove: “Are we just too far, to be as one again? / Are we obsidian?” These are the questions we’d be asking if the pulse of that beat wasn’t a dancefloor killer.
This is one of a handful of tracks where Albarn lets his guest completely dominate the vocals, a tactic the band has used to great effect in the past and one that further proves their mettle as premier playlist curators.
“Strobelite” will be the sleeper hit of this album, mark my words.
“Busted and Blue”
“Busted and Blue” is the comedown moment to end all comedown moments; when nothing exists outside of the pit of your glass and your own self-reflection.
The fleeting synths and strings paired with 2D and an uncredited Kelela’s disembodied vocals paint a digital chasm that even love might not be able to cross. “Where do they come from? / The wires that connect to us / Weightless and fall on your body / 'Till we're invisible” is the desperate flailing for a connection that’s matched only by Kelela’s haunting chorus: “Be my love / Be my light.”
I’m reminded of the airy Little Dragon-assisted ballad “Empire Ants” from 2010’s Plastic Beach, both calls for a missed connection that might never be found.
During the recording of Humanz, Damon Albarn allegedly asked every guest on the album one question: “Imagine a night where everything that you believed in was turned on its head. How would you feel?”
You can hear it through Grace Jones’ defiant shouts over crunchy guitar riffs on “Charger”; in Popcaan’s triumph against all odds on “Saturnz Barz”; in Pusha T and Mavis Staples’ call-and-response to Black children on “Let Me Out”; in De La Soul’s Posdnuous processing memories through a structured Devo march on “Momentz.”
And you can even see it in Jamie Hewlett’s unsettling redesigns of the classic characters on the cover; the doom of Zion has leaked into the Matrix and turned the whole thing on its head.
If previous Gorillaz albums were informed by a creeping sense of dread, Humanz is the unfiltered freedom in the face of that armageddon. It’s a freewheeling kaleidoscopic experience with something for every kind of music fan, and in trying times like these, what more can you ask for?