For the virtual band brainchild of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, Humanz is the least Gorillaz-y Gorillaz album yet. Maybe that’s what the album’s title alludes to, but maybe not. It’s not that it feels like a Damon Albarn solo project either – it’s just that on their fifth studio album, Gorillaz seem to be far from the forefront of Humanz, losing so much of their distinctive charm and style. Humanz is the comic collective’s most pop and dance oriented project so far, and although it’s a solid album with a number of great tracks, this sudden loss of versatility leaves much to be desired for longtime fans of the band.
This latest project sees Gorillaz depart even further from the alternative hip hop, trip hop, and lo-fi stylings of their earlier material, instead opting for a much poppier and dance influenced sound, infused with tinges of alternative R&B and hints of UK bass. There’s spacey synthpop on tracks like Andromeda, electronica tinged dancehall on songs like Saturnz Barz, and then moments of house music on Strobelite or Sex Murder Party too. Humanz is much less lowkey and far more high octane than Gorillaz have ever been before – even hip hop tracks like Ascension or Submission are massive departures from the lo-fi, more alternative influenced sounds of their earlier material on Gorillaz or Demon Days.
Humanz is Gorillaz and friends, with emphasis on the friends part. Old friends De La Soul return once more for Momentz, but the rest of these collaborators are fresh, more modern artists like D.R.A.M. and Vince Staples. Only one of Humanz’ non-interlude tracks has no features (including the five bonus tracks), and seven of them have more than one. Plenty of features isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when an album becomes swamped by so many different voices it’s hard for Gorillaz to retain their identity, and it definitely shows. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The familiar voice of cartoon frontman 2-D is too often drowned out by the myriad of others – in the six years since 2011’s The Fall, it feels like Albarn has almost forgotten who his characters are.
It might be their most straightforward album, but Humanz is also Gorillaz’ most directionless one. A number of interludes (narrated by Ben Mendelsohn) seek to build some sort of unifying narrative for the album, but it’s loose at best. Most of what binds this collection of tracks together is the politically aware angle and the very modern sound Albarn seeks to emulate. Somehow though, it almost feels outdated, as if the band that rides on creativity and timelessness has fallen into an artistic slump. Humanz feels less like an album, or a unified project, and more like a temperamental 2017 playlist or postmodern psyche rollercoaster ride – once again, not that it’s a bad thing, but it’s a flimsy and wonky sort of framework to focus an album around.
Humanz might be a 26 track album, but not every track is created equal. There are ups and downs, but the ups are most definitely ups, and the downs are most definitely downs. Opener Ascension is an energetic and unrelenting start to the album, with satisfying vocal performances from both feature Vince Staples and 2-D, sticking to the mantra of less is more. Well composed tracks like this mean so much more when sharing a tracklist with far weaker songs like Momentz, where an unnecessarily autotuned De La Soul coalesce imperfectly with some of Albarn’s most obnoxious songwriting. Too many of these tracks fall into one of two categories – abrasive and overproduced, or samey and boring.
Despite this, there are heaps of really innovative and enjoyable moments on this project. Andromeda, with a barebones but still interesting background performance from D.R.A.M., is an ethereal and dreamy synthpop standout. 2-D’s vocals take center stage over a captivating space-pop groove – and the result is one of 2017’s catchiest singles. Submission sees Kelela and Danny Brown join forces once more, giving just as hectic a performance as on 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, while Mavis Staples’ soulfulness and Pusha T’s lyricism work wonders together on Let Me Out. Gorillaz give their only lone performance on the moody and melancholy Busted and Blue, a stark but inviting contrast to the raw aggression and powerful energy delivered in their duet with Grace Jones on Charger. Penultimate track Hallelujah Money, a trippy yet heartfelt political commentary, feels much better here than it did when released alone months ago, especially shining when compared with the disappointing closer We Got The Power.
Humanz is Damon Albarn at his most gratuitous, and Gorillaz at their most un-Gorillaz like. It’s a perfect snapshot of modern pop, but at times this same dedication to homage is what drags it down. Sometimes it feels rushed, sloppy, or unfinished, while other tracks glow. Humanz is, not unsurprisingly, Gorillaz most human album yet – and this is both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness.