Friday, April 28, 2017

Gorillaz - Humanz Review

Sometimes the best way to enact social change is by putting it through song and dance. Ever since 2001, that's exactly what the Gorillaz have set out to do. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's mega cartoon creation always sidestepped society by poking fun at it, holding up the funhouse mirror that was 2D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel's world, reflecting back on our own twisted creation. In 2017, seven whole years removed from Plastic Beach, and the Gorillaz haven't let up on that goal. If you needed to know the inspiration behind their newest record, look no further than the title itself. Humanz. It's so telling, made all the more striking by the presence of our beloved cartoon characters in near-human form on the cover. No longer can Albarn's funhouse mirror work when the events transpiring today surpass even the silliest antidotes the Gorillaz have bestowed upon us. That's why they're humans now, as the cartoon debauchery of the group and America's recent presidential election, the main muse for Albarn, have become one in the same. It's a powerful realization, but one that ultimately finds our beloved Gorillaz losing sight of themselves. Humanz is an album for the people, by the people. The cartoon characters merely just a translucent facade.

Some might argue, with numerous, hard-to-debate sticking points, that the Gorillaz has never been about the Gorillaz. See to the tracklist of Plastic Beach, with external artists running the gamut, for proof of that. For as much as Albarn uses himself, he uses the carousel of musicians parlaying through his door ten times more. They are, after all, at the heart of why Gorillaz is so iconic; one sound isn't justified, genre-spooling has become the norm. On Humanz, that much is evident. Mavis Staples teams up with Pusha T, Grace Jones exists mere moments away from Danny Brown, and Vince Staples wrecks havoc before Peven Everett cools us off. The diversity on display can be seen visually too, as the depictions of our characters on the cover represent the four sides of Gorillaz' wide, wide range. 2D is Jack White (or Beck, or Bowie), Noodle is Bjork, Russel is Notorious BIG, and Murdoc is Noel Gallagher. No one artist explains the complexions of the group, but all four together do. Despite the similarities to Demon Days' cover, of which I'm a bit perturbed by, Humanz' visual face feels apt for the music contained within. Humans spill out from the creases, smothering every waking moment.

That doesn't take long either, as following Albarn's declaration that he "switch his robot off" on the intro (the only interlude here conceptually worth a damn) Vince Staples emerges; filled with venom, hatred, and centuries worth of pent-up rage. On 'Ascension,' the purpose of Humanz is made abruptly clear. For Staples, America's a place "where you can live your dreams long as you don't look like me, be a puppet on a string hanging from a fucking tree." That line, and this song, may be the biggest political firestorm Gorillaz has ever been apart of, and it makes for a stunning opener that paralyzes listeners both lyrically and musically. Unfortunately, the bulk of Humanz fails to live up to that assertion, maintaining the giddy Electropop pace, but losing the heated fury in the process. That isn't to say Humanz isn't political, the rife and turmoil laid across the 20 tracks is evident of that, it's just not as direct. Really, only 'Hallelujah Money,' the album's strange pseudo-lead single, compares to 'Ascension,' as Benjamin Clementine wallows biblically about the tragedy of capitalism, greed, and power. Both these tracks are persuasive, cunning in their polar opposite approach musically, but succeeding in every right. Humanz at its peak.

The same can't be said for the majority of the album however, as not since 2001's self-titled debut has a Gorillaz project been this inconsistent. For every high-note where a risk-taking feature amalgamates their own skillset with that of Albarn's, unifying under a concise code of concept, there's a low-note where the opposite holds true. One such example is 'Let Me Out,' which features two artists undoubtedly out of their element. The combination of Pusha T, Mavis Staples, and Gorillaz doesn't work whatsoever, and results in a diluted piece of misshapen ideas, fixated on two borderline stale verses from Push. Ironically, the opposite can be said for 'Submission,' which disappoints because Kelela and Danny Brown exist as if neither knows the other one does. For all the dynamic studio work Albarn puts in, it's a shame we got impassioned Kelela vocals impregnated with a phoned-in Danny Brown verse. Apart from that, 'Submission' really just feels like trendy Alternative R&B, as if Flume created the production. The same applies to 'Strobelite,' swapping in Disclosure, although the result's more pleasant. Pevan Everett really accentuates the funky, starlet vibe, even though he sounds nearly indistinguishable from Sam Sparro.

Elsewhere, a few tracks stumble not because of poor decision making, but a slew of uneventful ideas. The two-minutes of 'Carnival' are irritatingly indecisive, as if Anthony Hamilton stopped by to croon about that aforementioned funhouse mirror without ever elaborating on why he believes it to be so. The production seems to follow that same path too, counteracting Hamilton's slow mannerisms with a high octane punch, but one that doesn't care for meticulous structure patterns or enjoyable set-pieces. Along with that, 'Sex Murder Party,' if the title wasn't indicative enough, was a bad idea from the get-go. The genre-clashing represents Humanz quite well, but only does so because it defaults to the standard script. Plus, the immature topic doesn't meld well with the politics surrounding it, having been a much better fit on the backend of the loosely-formed deluxe version. Lastly, 'Saturnz Barz' doesn't feel impactful from a musical, lyrical, or conceptual standpoint. Much of this can be attributed to Popcaan, who, while fitting with the Gorillaz shtick (much like Roots Manuva on 'All Alone' or Bashy and Kano on 'White Flag') never entices me with his Reggae-like rapping. Along with that, Albarn thrives, a negative considering his appearance is minimal.

There's more problems to be had though, and that's in regards to the general scope of Humanz. Personally, I don't see a problem with Albarn's concept of a world-rattling event shaking humanities core, but many might. For me, the variety of opinions that result is one certain positive of the breadth of guest spots, as we find Staples screaming 'Let Me Out' while Beth declares that 'We Got The Power.' Each piece is individualized to give equal opinion to expected reactions, another reflection of our modern, globalized society. However, it makes for a jarring listen, especially towards the finale. 'Hallelujah Money' and 'We Got The Power' are two polar opposites, causing Humanz to feel indecisive on the message it intends to send. Therefore, an inharmonious relationship occurs at a crucial stage of the album, causing the entire project's concept to feel weak and insincere. For Gorillaz fans though, that much is secondary, as another lingering issue is the absence of the characters overall. It was intended, given the title, cover, and concept, but you can't help but feel there's something substantial missing. You know, like the gimmick of cartoon characters making music. 2D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel are but just ghosts here, and that's sad.

A shame because in every off-chance that Humanz feels like a Gorillaz album, the result is exquisite. The key example of this is 'Momentz,' which features the long-running tandem of Gorillaz and De La Soul. 'Momentz' immediately goes into the illustrious canon, feeling right at home alongside 'Feel Good Inc' and 'Superfast Jellyfish.' Wildly charismatic, filled with inspired energy, the House-like track is unashamedly fun, finding Posdnuos and an uncredited female vocalist, which I can only relate to being Noodle, teaming up to relive the past. Then there's 'Charger' and 'Busted & Blue,' two vastly different songs in regards to tempo, vibe, and mystique, but with one common factor; Damon Albarn. He is the main antagonizer on both efforts, and thanks to the vicious guitar and infinitely catchy singing on 'Charger,' and the melancholy strings and woeful hopelessness on 'Busted & Blue,' these Gorillaz-like efforts maintain that Albarn's talents haven't subsided, the ideas are just ill-fitting. However, with each passing listen, I can't help but be more excited when my favorite moments come zooming around Humanz' bend. Poor decisions and superfluous excess aside, the return of the Gorillaz can still be admired even if it's not in the same vein as its predecessors.

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