Gorillaz is a virtual band who has just released a very real album about the current state of humanity, titled “Humanz.” The animated band members were envisioned in 1998 by musician Damon Albarn (of “Blur”) and artist Jamie Hewlett (creator of “Tank Girl”), and they’ve been a delightful experiment. I remember seeing the music video for “Clint Eastwood” on MTV when I was in the first grade. We weren’t watching it in class, but that should give you an idea of how old Gorillaz are and how young and handsome I should look. That music video was also my first exposure to Del, The Funky Homosapien’s voice, who might be my favorite artist. Although Del doesn’t make an appearance on the latest Gorillaz album there is still some very strong hip-hop recruitment. Before this album released I was fairly certain the subject matter would pertain to President Trump (which may have been intended at one point). This is a pop album that knows you’re trying to escape from our warped reality by listening to it, but it won’t let you get away.
When the music video for “Hallelujah Money” released on January 19, 2017, it was perfect timing to play on our global feelings of despair. For me, this is the most satisfying track on the album if I had to pick one. Before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who maybe should’ve done more research, Benjamin Clementine’s chilling verse summarized that the USA effectively revoked their humanity for Trump’s false promise of a paradise free of immigrants, thereby granting us more money and safety. Damon Albarn’s animated role as the vocalist 2-D pleads the question “How will we know, when the morning comes, we are still human?” if we elect a leader who ran a campaign platform built on fear and selfishness and turn away refugees who could otherwise be killed if they remain in their country? We haven’t forgotten about it, the prospect of nuclear annihilation just took priority, that’s all.
Some of the songs originally released as singles on March 23 were also indicative of American hopelessness. “Ascension” gives Vince Staples an excellent opportunity to weigh in on the increasingly possible idea of an apocalypse. Vince votes we do what we want and party before the end, because why be miserable when we don’t know if fun exists after death? Vince really nails it here and his chorus encapsulates his plans for the end times in a fun way. It’s one of the liveliest song on the album. By contrast, “We’ve Got the Power” ends the non-deluxe version of the album on a hopeful note, promising that we’ll learn to love everyone so long as we don’t let hate win. It sounds cheesy, but I’m all for less hate so let’s get nice on each other. The song does have a triumphant and convincing melody, so convincing that I might just feel a little happier afterward.
Very few songs on this album exude happiness. Even the songs that aren’t direct commentaries on America are less than cheery. “Saturnz Barz” has a mysteriously mournful tone and message. It’s admittedly quite difficult for me to understand Popcaan’s verse so I had to look up what he was saying. It still wasn’t enough to draw a concrete conclusion on what this one means. The lyrics are perplexing and I’ll have to check Genius in a few weeks and hope those monks have deliberated on the meaning of some of these bars. Even upbeat tunes such as “Strobelite” and “Andromeda” are a little mellower than one would expect. There’s always a prevailing uncomfortability weighing on the sound of each song even when that’s not the point, as if something isn’t right. Just like how I go through every day thinking about nukes and famine while trying to focus on my own aspirations in the meantime. This album feels like an emotional comparison to the typical modern human. And even the songs that don’t blatantly pertain to current events still don’t completely focused.
“Momentz” is fascinating in that it seems to imitate the banal subject matter of too many modern pop songs. Describing the small moments that make life enjoyable, the high pitch of the chorus repeatedly yelling “plastic on the ceiling” combined with De La Soul’s sing-song lyrics and an industrial beat make this sound like a pop mimic right off the assembly line. “When it’s time to get ill we be so ahead of time” is just the right blend of corny and clever. Just when you think you’ll be free from any bad vibes, an ending sample mentions the Kool Klown Klan. This is effective in reminding the listener that racism is not only alive and thriving, but that racists were emboldened by a man who would be ridiculous if he had no power. It could also be a comment on how many people discuss things like Trump and the KKK with a sense of humor in order to suppress our concerns and make them less threatening. This album provides no escape from our sometimes cruel, lately unbelievable existence. “Let Me Out” is also lyrically relevant now more than ever. Pusha T references the desire to depart from a bad living environment. This song isn’t strictly talking about the infuriating number of black people who have been wrongly killed or brutalized by police officers. 2-D’s chorus and Mavis Staples’s portions provide a desire to leave the USA for an easier life. This brings up a conundrum. Do we stay in the states and try to cure the many overwhelming problems in our society, or do we dip to Canada if we’re able? Obviously the best choice is to stay and change things for the better, but it is tempting to want to leave when the going gets tough. The inclusion of hip-hop artists in Gorillaz music has always sounded like a dream to me. Gorillaz has always had an intriguing sound due to the features populating their discography. It’s the perfect vessel for artists to experiment without risking an album that their fans will complain about.
“Humanz” has a generally cosmic vibe befitting of our desire to be as far away from Earth as possible right now. Synthesizers are a driving force on this album, and most of the guests handle themselves swimmingly in unfamiliar territory. Kelela bolsters “Submission” with her beautiful voice as she pleas for a functional relationship with her significant other, Danny Brown in this case. I like Danny Brown, but I feel like this song could be stronger without him on it. This is just my opinion, but the beat doesn’t sound like something he excels on, if that makes sense. “Charger” is a weird one, but a good weird if you ask me. The interludes include clever skits, the first opening with the statement “I switched my robot off, and I know more, but retain less,” commenting on the belief that technology has been enhanced to an astonishing degree, but so many of us are ill-informed or do stupid things despite our capacity for knowledge. That’s a pessimistic attitude, but it feels that way sometimes. I’m also a fan of “The Non-Conformist Oath” and “Talk Radio.” The deluxe version of the album features another interlude called “Interlude: New World” and five additional tracks that all emit a more experimental vibe to me. Out of those five, “The Apprentice” and “Out of Body” are the two that I really dig, but they all sound like an after-party jam session if that’s your thing.
It’s impossible to ignore how directly associated this album is with the USA’s 2016 presidential upset, which isn’t a completely bad thing for the album. The music is solid and somewhat groovy, but it’s very interesting to think about an entire album capturing the ever-present national depression that many of us are trying to shake every day. It’s numbingly frustrating that there are bad people in positions of power preventing our ideal world, so most of us either get depressed or look for an escape from reality, such as music. “Humanz” is a diary entry for humankind for the time we let Donald drive; a time when some of the whitest Americans displayed some pretty unreasonable behavior, while individually we each tried to escape our fear of an uncertain future without fully neglecting the elephants in the room, and the big one in the White House. The addition of the hip-hop features here lend powerful contributions to this album. It’s not new for Damon Albarn to work with hip-hop artists, but the pure expression achievable by hip-hop seriously strengthened “Humanz.” Racism has been given more attention in our world lately, and hip-hop is the perfect approach to this phenomenon. This is truly pop music, but unlike most pop music I can play as background music when I need to be distracted, it’s like the music itself is looking for a way out too. Leave it to an animated band to show us how baffling reality can be.
“Humanz” released on April 28, 2017, but I’m going to remember these emotions for the rest of my days.