Back when Gorillaz first burst into the public consciousness, it made a sort of sense to play along and acknowledge that the band members were, in fact, 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs, and Noodles. These creative fictions – the product of Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl co-creator, Jamie Hewlett – were just as real and genuine as the stage personas affected by many artists. They were just as vital and ingenious as those the audiences adored and longed to replicate. And, by virtue of being ‘virtual’, they seemed somehow less contrived in their construction than the flesh-and-blood performers they were parodying.
A decade-and-a-half-later, the multimedia project has released its fifth album, Humanz, a sprawling record so laden with guest artists that it’s difficult not to think of Gorillaz being renamed ‘Damon Albarn & Friends’. Seriously, there are 16 featured guest performers on the standard release’s 14 tracks (17 if you count Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn’s contribution to the interludes that punctuate the album), and 6 guests on the deluxe edition’s additional 5 songs. This musical expansionism is what led to a rift between Albarn and Hewlett leading to the project’s hiatus in 2012, so it’s odd to see so many artists involved with Humanz.
Musically Humanz is an electronic and hip-hop album, elements that have always been present in Gorillaz’ music, but there are barely any hints of the alternative rock and upbeat vibes that marked the early music of the band. Ascension, featuring Vince Staples, is the album’s catchy opening track, and the politically charged lyrics set the tone for the record. De La Soul sing over big, fuzzed-out, beats on Momentz, while Albarn has created a vocal collage from Grace Jones’ 4-hour studio session for the standout Charger. The subdued Andromeda, with its ‘80s synth-pop vibe couples well with the downbeat and atmospheric, Busted and Blue.
Mavis Staples and Pusha T provide a powerful punch to the brief, and minimal, Let Me Out, which juxtaposes with Sex Murder Party – a track that leaves the listener scratching their head in befuddlement – and the almost avant-garde Hallelujah Money. As an album, Humanz – especially in its deluxe release – manages to feel both overlong and constantly refreshing. Humanz is best experienced firsthand, as it defies easy explanation, and while it isn’t a great or perfect album, it does reward those willing to immerse themselves.