More than one friend’s been heard to remark, of Damon Albarn’s now two-decade-strong Gorillaz project, that first hearing them was like being slapped rudely awake to the future of pop. They’re typically referring, these friends, to the halcyon spring of 2001 and the contact high copped from debut single “Clint Eastwood,” which telegraphed much of what was to follow on the self-titled LP: a seemingly absurd farrago of hip-hop, punk, funk, reggae, J-pop, a saucerful of Floyd, a smattering of what was then known as dubstep. And yet it felt of a piece, this batshit cross-pollination, united under an approximate key of what it must be like to ride the Tokyo subway all night in the year 2020, possibly (probably) while on acid. Classical nuzzled up to rap; a Cuban bolero nested on a sample from the guy who’d once written the theme for the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage. Just running down all the ingredients that went into this bitches brew seemed to anticipate the tab-poppin’ rabbit-holes of Web 2.0. And all this from a scrawny Londoner best known for helping, with Blur, to define Britpop, a retrograde style if ever there was one.
Sixteen years later, Albarn’s genre-jumping busyness is almost a punchline — dude wrote a Chinese opera, ffs — while the world his cartoon band more or less presaged has perhaps outstripped our own ability to forecast what it’ll come up with next. Gorillaz, meantime, proved a serial disappearing act, going silent for five years at a stretch before emerging again, always in the spring, with a kind of inevitable surprise. The infrequency has reinforced what appears to have been Albarn’s plan from the outset, that the project would operate according to discrete “phases,” enlisting new players (and producers) each go-round. Hence the hermetic polish of 2005’s paranoid Demon Days, the candy-colored tangerine dream of Plastic Beach (2010). But obscured by this stratagem, there’s another storyline: Across these releases, Gorillaz have seemed less and less predictive of some polyglot future Earth and more and more descriptive of the rather disappointing one we’re already living on.
Still, if Plastic Beach‘s dyspeptic fantasia pointed up a looming real-world cataclysm, it did so with enough great big shots of sugar to make the medicine go down. So: What of the new Humanz, which as you might guess from the title marks the next stage of this…evolution? The cartoon universe persists as a matter of course, but never has it felt so secondary to the work’s flesh-and-blood cast. Currency, or cachet, would appear to be the watchword this time around. Among the guests: Pusha T, Jehnny Beth, Vince Staples, Danny Brown. Among the things on their mind: how you get by — how you’re even meant to countenance something like love — while staring down a culture vast swaths of which regard a peaceable movement for fair treatment by police as a terrorist front. As Staples warns (or pleads) on “Ascension,” Humanz‘ first proper number, “Don’t be coming ’round Vince/On that batter-ram shit.”
He goes on to intone something like a mantra: “The sky is falling, baby/Drop that ass ‘fore it crash,” as concise a summary of the Gorillaz m.o. — to throw a rager in the face of Armageddon — as you’re likely to find. Or at least that’s been the m.o. since Plastic Beach, which Humanz shortly reveals itself as possibly aping (sorry) in other ways. In place of Snoop getting the party started, we have fellow Long Beach MC Staples. Gravity descends with “Saturnz Barz,” this LP’s “Rhinestone Eyes.” But if you were expecting a “Stylo” to ratchet matters up yet further, instead you’ll find that Humanz smash-cuts right to this album’s whimsical De La Soul feature. Later, there’s Roses Gabor and Kelela in roughly the roles Little Dragon played; Anthony Hamilton inviting you to a “Carnival” where Mos Def once barked for a shell game; and Benjamin Clementine subbing for the late, great Bobby Womack on a wistful penultimate track (Clementine is 28 but sounds several decades older).
To be clear, these are all good tunes. I’m particularly enamored, at the moment, with the spidery dancehall of “Saturnz Barz” and with “Charger,” the Grace Jones feature, which builds on a wobbly ostinato and braids her cryptic “I am the ghost/I am the sword” — no telling what she might mean, but it sounds badass — around Albarn’s stolid baritone. And after ten or so plays, others are starting to grow on me, as is always the case with detail-dense Gorillaz compositions. It’s just that, by mapping so readily onto the rubric its forerunner laid out, Humanz calls undue attention to those places it pales in comparison: no climactic heights on the order of “Rhinestone Eyes”–into-“Stylo,” no melody quite as sticky as “On Melancholy Hill,” no “Pirate Jet” gut-punch to send you home.
The closer here, in fact, is maybe the most unfortunate thing Gorillaz have released, a two-minute affirmation/headache much ballyhooed for featuring longtime Albarn rival Noel Gallagher (but is burying the Oasis bro with the low harmony really any way to bury a hatchet?). It’s called “We Got the Power,” and if I wanted to get cute I’d suggest that indeed we do — the power, in this day and age, to omit it from the playlist. What we’d be left with is a solid effort, maybe better than solid, just not the tour de force of previous Gorillaz albums. Bit of a shame, as their message has never been more timely.