Basement Dwelling: “Humanz” by Gorillaz

It’s bothersome to hear people talk about Gorillaz. Sure, Gorillaz are a widely loved and celebrated act, and they have been for nearly 20 years now. But one of their greatest strengths is also one of their biggest setbacks.

It’s idiotic to me that the animated world of Gorillaz, co-created by legendary underground comic artist Jamie Hewlett, and which serves as the stylistic umbrella for a global and multigenerational collaborative music project, proves to be such a turnoff for people.

I often hear, “I’m not in the mood to listen to a new Gorillaz record.” Or, “I haven’t listened to Gorillaz in years,” said with an uppity, I-have-no-time-for-this-kids-crap kind of pretension. I hear it all the time. But the worst is when I simply hear someone say, “I hate them.”

These all translate to, “I don’t want to listen to something that my anime-watching, comic-reading coworker listens to.” It’s bullshit and it totally exists — don’t deny it. It’s a very lazy argument, and I’d say that even without my personal bias. Gorillaz is a project that represents artistic unity and bridging gaps to deliver a message that we as a people desperately need, especially in our current turbulent dystopia. This is the point of Humanz’ entire existence.

Gorillaz are no strangers to concept records. Their 2005 record, Demon Days, is about living in a post-9/11 world, and 2010’s Plastic Beach is about environmental danger and our ecological footprint. In creating the new record, main Gorillaz spearhead Damon Albarn asked his collaborators to be in the mindset of creating a party record that reflects on a possible presidential win for then presidential candidate Donald Trump.

That’s the concept of Humanz: being positive and full of hope in the face of adversity. You can hear this influence throughout the album. Stylistically, this thing sounds like an album full of ambition and life, but with a nagging leech attached to its back that’s sucking the life out of it and making it hard to let go of its worries. It’s compelling as hell and so fitting right now; a record that truly captures a feeling.

Putting together what I just said about Gorillaz in the last two paragraphs is hilarious to me, and it has been since I saw that the title to this project was Humanz (with a ‘z,’ of course). The title feels like a direct jab at those who won’t see this album, and what the Gorilaz project is, as the very human expression of art via humanity.

This new record touches on so much of that via its 20 tracks, from serious matters such as the struggles of being black in America with “Ascension” and “Let Me Out,” to the death of loved ones with “Andromeda” (which was written about the death of Albarn’s mother-in-law Ethel and his friend and collaborator Bobby Womack). Other themes include being screwed over by the government and living in a “President” Trump-fronted administration with “Hallelujah Money,” pure lust and need in “Saturnz Barz” and “She’s My Collar,” and technological reliance in “Charger.” No matter the subject matter, the themes of Humanz always hit close to home. Their last couple of albums focused more on the world at large, but this album includes more direct examples that affect those we know, making this Gorillaz’ most personal record to date.

But enough about the themes and concepts. While Humanz has a lot to say lyrically, it has even more to say with its music, which includes prime, grade-A jamz that we’ve grown to expect from Gorillaz. Throughout their discography, Gorillaz have put forth a style that fuses rock, hip-hop, and electronica into a Frankenstein-esque monster. Humanz goes in more of an electronica route, particularly house music and contemporary electro-pop.

Opening with the drum-n’-bass-influenced “Ascension,” this is a sonic napalm of an opening with a groovy instrumental that’s still hard as hell. But it’s made even better with Vince Staples spitting over the track. “Ascension” makes for a highlight right from the get-go, and it’s also one of 2017’s best singles. Humanz is full of tunes that can be lumped into these lists. “Momentz” with De La Soul and “Charger” with Grace Jones are total bangers. “Andromeda” is really pure and a good example of 80s pop music worship (actually having been written with the intention of sounding like a cross between “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and “I Can’t Go For That” by Hall & Oates). “Hallelujah Money” remains just as haunting a gospel ballad as it did when it was dropped intentionally before “President” Trump’s inauguration day this January.

Humanz is as characteristically diverse and stylistically wide as one would expect from a Gorillaz record. It also features an impressive guest list, including Kali Uchis, Danny Brown, Kelela, and Jenny Beth, just to name a few. All of these artists are allowed proper moments to shine and showcase exactly what makes them so great. The best example of this for me would be “Submission,” which features Kelela showing off her absolutely stunning vocals before allowing Danny Brown to work his magic seamlessly with his depressive scatterbrained rapping style.

Another major highlight is how incredibly well the pairing of Pusha T and Mavis Staples is on “Let Me Out” (which is also worth mentioning solely for how big of a smile it puts on my face to hear King Push refer to Staples as “Mama Mavis”). This track is the kind that always makes the release of a new Gorillaz record a cause for celebration and a music nerd’s utopia, because you will most likely never hear collaborations like this anywhere else. You wouldn’t even imagine pairings like some of the ones you find on this record.

In comparison with previous Gorillaz records, I wouldn’t really put Humanz over anything that came before it. If there’s anything I would say is a detriment to Humanz, it’s that as a full piece of art it feels slightly under-cooked and its concept doesn’t flow together as well as the two records that preceded it. Also, while the songs on Humanz are strong, when stacked up to their other records, the songs here just don’t hit the same level of genius pop sensibility.

Other than these minor gripes, there’s not much else negative that I can say about Humanz. It’s a thoroughly addictive, masterfully-crafted pop album and a gem in an already near-flawless discography. This is a release that is totally necessary and vital for this year, and potentially many years to come.  

“Take it in your heart now lover…”

8.5 out of 10

— Dan Fiorio, Music Blogger

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