Gorillaz’ new album ‘Humanz’ features immense variety and deep social commentary

In Arts & Entertainment, Columns, Film & TV, Music
Seven years after their previous album, the Gorillaz are back in a socially and politically relevant way. (Courtesy of Parlophone)

Damon Albarn, the musician behind the four virtual members of Gorillaz, graced listeners with “Humanz,” the group’s first album release since “Plastic Beach” seven years ago.

Gorillaz snuck back into the spotlight during the months leading up to the release of “Humanz.” Six singles were slowly fed to famished fans starting Jan. 19, with “Hallelujah Money.” The singles served as a reminder that the only thing anyone can expect from Gorillaz is the unexpected.

The record boasts 19 tracks (not counting its 7 interludes), and no two tracks sound too much alike. That being said, “Humanz” maintains deliberate, overarching rhythm and flow as it moves from song to song. Albarn’s role in crafting this cohesive record was immense, but he often steps back from the spotlight.

Given the album’s various features throughout the tracklist, it feels like Albarn wasn’t aiming to craft another record with a singular distinct tone like that of “Demon Days.” With “Humanz,” Albarn has successfully used the Gorillaz name to give a multitude of artists, both large and small, a platform to perform in a new setting. The record jumps in and out of pop, hip-hop and other genres, and in doing so, “Humanz” carries dark and uncomfortable undertones of change with it.

The variety of features is immense, ranging from uplifting gospel singer Anthony Hamilton to the eclectic, dark rapper Danny Brown. Each song feels like it was created deliberately to showcase the different voices of each new feature, making the album title “Humanz” extremely fitting.

Despite the difference between the voices on the album, “Humanz” maintains an overwhelming sense of unity. Albarn has helped artists from all genres and walks of life converge within a single piece of work to make a statement.

A majority of the album sounds like Gorillaz was simply trying to create a fun and varied record, but upon closer inspection, there is heavy social commentary found on tracks like “Submission.” On this track, Brown acknowledges the all-important role of money in society and the futility of pursuing anything else with the lyrics, “All comes down to the mighty dollar, greed and lust, abusin’ power. Clock is tickin,’ hour after hour.”

On “Hallelujah Money,” Benjamin Clementine takes a more political approach to his commentary as he alludes to the shortcomings of President Donald Trump and continues to criticize the priority money has over basic human tendencies of compassion saying, “Ah don’t worry. It’s not against our morals. It’s legally tender.”

“Interlude: The Non-Conformist Oath” is more ironic and on the nose than Clementine’s brooding and introspective spoken word. The interlude features what sounds like a massive crowd repeating mantras about not conforming to those around them. The track “Strobelite” subtly criticizes modern attachment to electronics by referencing a New York City art campaign that encouraged people to look up from their phones.

It’s impressive that so many different voices articulate the same view so differently saying that society, as it currently stands, is fundamentally imbalanced and dysfunctional. While his physical presence on the record takes the back seat, Albarn deserves credit for successfully producing an album designed to spark conversation and deep thought.

That is not to say his influence isn’t tangible throughout. Albarn’s signature pop synths can be found on tracks like “Submission,” and the droning vocals of fictional band member 2-D are front and center on songs like “Andromeda” and “Charger.” There’s something oddly familiar and comforting about the funky basslines and backbeats on these tracks that remind listeners they are listening to Gorillaz while still hearing something new and engaging.

2-D sounds worn out though, and listeners may find themselves waiting to return to one of the more interesting features.

The record closes with “Circle of Friendz,” leaving listeners with a comfortable and optimistic tune to carry them out into the world saying, “Everyday, see the world brand new.”

The familiar, yet new and uncomfortable feeling throughout a majority of the album perfectly reflects Albarn’s intentions with “Humanz.”

“(Humans are) in transition. We’re turning into something else. The album kind of came from this dark fantasy … Just imagine the weirdest, most unpredictable thing happening that changes everything about the world,” Albarn said in an interview with Genius.

“Humanz” marks a similar unpredictable event for the Gorillaz that will take Albarn and his four fictional counterparts to compelling new highs and lows on future albums, continuing to adapt to today’s ever-changing society.

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