The stigma bore by comeback albums took a slightly different form in the matter of Humanz, the first full-length studio record from Gorillaz, the virtual brainchild of Blur frontman, Damon Albarn, and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, in seven years, and for several reasons. Given the extensive amount of time and resources that have been poured into previous studio albums from the animated four-piece, as to prepare both the audio and visual components of the project, a seven-year hiatus in between record releases is understandable, with previous Gorillaz albums having breaks as long as five years between their unveilings. Humanz does, however, still feel like a comeback album, albeit resulting primarily from Albarn’s occupation with other projects, particularly his debut solo album from 2014, Everyday Robots, and Blur’s own comeback album from two years ago, The Magic Whip. This is wherein the concerns of a Gorillaz comeback album lie, in the sense that, with Albarn’s prominent presence in the music world in recent years, the task of once again eschewing his real-world personality, as to create a wholly immersive experience into the virtual world of 2-D and the gang, is an arduous one. The extent to which past projects associated with the Gorillaz name were successful was hinged on both the quality of the music and the presence of the virtual band in this music and how they benefited it. Ultimately, the reason Gorillaz became such a prominent musical force in the 2000s was the fact that their universe was so vivid and Albarn’s blending of electronica, hip hop and rock, combined with his well-executed incorporation of guest artists, was so unequivocally definitive that the project essentially became the first virtual band to shake off the stigma of being disregarded simply as a novelty act. In doing so, the world of Gorillaz became even more deeply enveloping, to the point that the band is regarded with as much respect and appreciation as their most successful, non-animated contemporaries. However, the extent to which Albarn would be able to rekindle this sense of complete immersion into a virtual, apocalyptic world is cause for concern, especially given that Gorillaz’s previous studio album, The Fall, had already showed cracks in the project’s universe, coming across more like a minimal, lo-fi solo effort from Damon Albarn than a complete and cohesive Gorillaz record. As for Humanz, there are certainly numerous areas in which this album is successful, but very few of them pertain to the identity of the virtual band or play to the project’s strengths particularly. Undoubtedly, there are a handful of especially impressive songs in the tracklisting, although the strong presence of guest musicians, and resultant weak presence of the actual band, detracts from the appeal of Humanz as a Gorillaz record, rather coming across more like a selected playlist curated by Albarn. What’s more, in spite of Albarn traditionally proving himself very capable of accommodating features on Gorillaz songs effectively, many of the guest appearances on Humanz are woefully misplaced, whilst others are either overused or underused. Such missteps don’t bode well for the immersion of the listener in the album, nor does its somewhat disorderly pacing. This being said, given that there are several outstanding moments across the tracklisting, Humanz is perhaps better enjoyed as a compilation of individual songs, rather than the cohesive and immersive experience of past Gorillaz projects.
One of the more striking superficial differences between Humanz and previous albums from Gorillaz is the rooting of the narrative in real-world issues. Of course, it is to be understood that, with the band’s music being the brainchild of Albarn, the musician’s emotions and opinions are bound to appear on a Gorillaz album. However, with the group being fictional, in order to successfully convey his own beliefs without infringing on the potency of the world he has created, it is necessary for Albarn to ensure that such views are sufficiently manifested within the characters themselves and the universe they inhabit. The extent to which this is accomplished on Humanz, however, is rather limited, establishing a notable disconnect between the music on the album and the four fictional cartoon characters that are supposedly the musicians behind it. What’s more, Albarn doesn’t even come across as being fully committed to the overarching political themes of the record, meaning that Humanz is also limited in the extent to which it effectively tackles the artist’s concerns regarding American politics. This is perfectly exemplified in the fact that Albarn initially included several direct references to Donald Trump across the album, but later explained that he had removed all such remarks. The fact that overt comments on Trump would even be considered for a Gorillaz project in the first place is incredibly questionable, given that they would encroach on the canon of the virtual band by introducing a reference to the real world within their fictional one. Moreover, in cutting out the explicit references to the newly-elected US president, it’s still obvious to whom the majority of the album’s political concerns are directed, to the point that the narrative simply comes across as incomplete and, ultimately, not suiting the Gorillaz brand. The dogmatic and slightly dystopian portrayal of Trump’s America on Humanz is certainly compatible with the apocalyptic imagery of past Gorillaz material, so it seems that simply constructing a Trump-inspired antagonist within the band’s virtual world would allow Albarn to voice his political concerns, whilst nevertheless protecting the substance of his art under the guise of its embeddedness within his fabricated universe. Of course, the use of guest features gives Albarn a means through which opinions can be expressed, as they are presented as that particular musician’s own views, as opposed to the band’s, and this is indeed something that is taken advantage of, with the first full song on the album, Ascension, seeing Vince Staples take on inequality and racism. However, in making real-world references, directly naming everything from Obama to the Iraq war, and with the rapper’s dominance throughout the cut, Ascension comes across more like a Vince Staples track that Albarn produced, as opposed to a song that is in any way pertinent to the arc of the album or Gorillaz as a whole. Ultimately, in fully committing neither to critiquing politics of the real world nor creating artistic vehicles within the Gorillaz world that can be used to mirror real-world events, Humanz inhabits the worst of both worlds, in that it lacks both the immersion and the insight for the narrative to be particularly engaging for the listener in either regard.
Of course, the overarching political themes of Humanz only affect the listener’s ability to suspend their disbelief to a limited degree, rather the main issue it alludes to is the fact it deviates from Gorillaz’s traditional style. What’s more guilty of this, however, is the employment of guest artists across the album. Whilst one of the salient successes of the virtual band’s previous efforts has been Albarn’s ability to consistently assimilate outside artists into the world of Gorillaz by incorporating them into tracks that played to their strengths, on Humanz, the inclusion of guest appearances exhibits quite the mixed bag in terms of effectiveness. There are undoubtedly some remarkable highlights, with the aforementioned Ascension providing a dynamic, jittery, soulful beat that accommodates Vince Staples’ exuberant flow impeccably, whilst 2-D’s usual moody singing provides perfect counterpoint to the rapper’s vibrant performance. Similarly, the glitchy electro-funk of Strobelite is ideally suited to Peven Everett’s impassioned, R&B-tinged singing, just as the icy synths and sluggish beat of Let Me Out allow room for Pusha T, Mavis Staples and 2-D to convey a great amount of chemistry, as they constantly pass the vocal baton onto one another. Charger also stands out as a particularly good use of the angular eccentricity of Grace Jones’ vocals atop the song’s kooky, guitar-driven instrumental. All this being said, there are nevertheless a handful of glaring missteps on Albarn’s part when it comes to making use of the abundance of outside artists brought in to contribute to Humanz. There are perhaps no better examples of this than the musician’s inclusion of two of hip hop’s most definitive and quirky voices, Danny Brown and D.R.A.M., both of whom are put to use incredibly questionably. Brown appears on the soulful Submission alongside Kelela, who is brought into the fold rather well, but to have who is perhaps contemporary rap’s most idiosyncratic and bizarre MC appear on a syrupy smooth electro-R&B song is an obvious misuse of the rapper. This is even more true given that Brown’s verse is as impressive as one would expect of him at this point, but it comes across as rather clumsily worked into the track, and there are plenty of other cuts in the tracklisting that could have incorporated his freakish buoyancy with much more fluency. D.R.A.M., another one of hip hop’s most dynamic and unique personalities currently, is also woefully misused, but in a rather different manner to Danny Brown. Instead of simply appearing on a track that doesn’t suit his style, the rapper is instead made to sound almost unrecognisable on Andromeda in how subtly his sleepy singing is incorporated into the song, to the point where practically any singer with a similarly drowsy delivery could have been used in his place. On the other side of the spectrum, cuts such as Hallelujah Money see an over-reliance on their features, with Benjamin Clementine dominating the track (and the music video, for that matter) so much that it barely even feels like a Gorillaz song. Indeed, the incorporation of guest artists on Humanz certainly makes for quite the assortment of quality, with some of Albarn’s most and least successful inclusions of other artists on a Gorillaz project to date.
Specifically focussing on the production side of Humanz, it’s relatively easy to rattle through the album’s strengths and weaknesses, as both are exceedingly apparent. Like the last Gorillaz’s album, the vast majority of the mixing and production for Humanz was supposedly assembled on an iPad, and this notably hinders the success of many of the record’s more organic instrumentals. That’s not to say, however, that all these songs are complete failures — in fact, many examples rank amongst the most well-executed on the album overall — rather it simply highlights obvious means by which they could have been improved. The punchy, fuzzed-out guitar lick on Charger, for instance, would have benefited exponentially from a more potent low-end as to fill out the space left by the lethargic drum and bass groove. Momentz is particularly in desperate need of some instrumental revision, with the rubbery kick drum being far too overpowering in the mix, which is a crying shame, given that the rest of the song’s bouncy sub-bass, glittery synth lines and robotic vocal stabs, matched with a lively and always-welcome feature from previous Gorillaz collaborator De La Soul, are incredibly infectious. As it happens, although the production of Humanz doesn’t quite capture the vibrancy and sparkle of the arrangements, the instrumentals themselves are rather well-assembled for the most part, to the point that the glitchy goodness of tracks like Ascension, Saturnz Barz and She’s My Collar is undeniably enjoyable, even if such cuts could have been mixed as to more successfully convey their vitality.
Ultimately, Humanz is certainly successful as an album, but this has little to do with its status as a Gorillaz album or its place within the virtual band’s discography. Going into this album, I was largely looking to contextualise it within the broader scope of Gorillaz’s back-catalogue, but it soon transpired that I would have difficulty doing this, as it adheres to very few of the stylistic principles that initially anchored the project into its definitive position amongst rivalling electronic and hip hop outfits. Whilst the political narrative of the album is consistent within itself, it’s also somewhat at odds with the philosophy of previous Gorillaz releases, with many of its ideas clearly arising from Albarn’s own viewpoints, thus resulting in a record that feels more like an Albarn-led compilation of collaborations than an album from 2-D and his animated partners in crime. The strong presence of guest features contributes to this feeling, so Humanz is seemingly better enjoyed as such, rather than as the fully-immersive experience of albums like Gorillaz and Demon Days. When looked at like this, it’s a lot easier to get into the bouncy electronic beats and flashy soulful grooves across much of the record, but the overall lack of consistency and cohesion provides only limited replayability for the project as a whole, with only individual songs standing out as warranting revisiting. All in all, although we can be thankful that there is another Gorillaz album in existence, it’s nevertheless disappointing that it doesn’t feel more like a Gorillaz album.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10