Humanz - the first Gorillaz album in seven years - elevates from the group’s previous projections of an approaching dystopia to a colorful meltdown that’s dangerously close to fulfilling its own prophecy. It spends its whole time scatterbrained, stopping to flash moments of genius and others of underwhelming disappointment; ergo, it’s an imitation of the world it’s born from. Though the 45th President goes unnamed (and intentionally censored) Damon Albarn’s been open about curating this release with these terrors in the backdrop, prompting every contributor to speak life into their joys and anxieties as if everything seemed to change in one moment. The final product runs like an escapist mixtape, pouring the rhythms of the world into an apocalyptic gumbo served at the end of the world: while the flavors mostly work together, some get lost in the mix.
The 49 minutes sprawl out over 20 tracks (without bonuses) is tied more thematically than by a narrative driving Albarn’s overarching prompt. The former makes the brief interludes feel unnecessary or uninspired from jump, feeling like half-baked excerpts of what could’ve been another chapter in the Gorillaz folklore. Opener “Ascension” drops us into Vince Staples’ warning words over an elongated siren and glitchy synth-pop, setting the scene for a maniacal ride by imploring you to drop your ass like the world’s about to. Sonically, Humanz charges along in a clubby-yet-aggressive overdriven fashion, rarely giving an idle moment to rest. Always engaging and engrossing, it’s best to remain on a pivot, as some songs dash erratically by the listener, threatening to leave them stranded in a worldly mess if they can’t keep up.
While diversified and extensively-curated to throw every emotion at the board, the Humanz universe is chock full of talented voices, with too many going underutilized or falling victim to expectation. The Staples verse, an impassioned start to the fire, feels underwhelming and oddly typecast like previous singles efforts in electronic territory. The same goes for Danny Brown on “Submission,” his high-pitched pain feeling a little subdued for his character. On “Charger,” Grace Jones gives a haunting presence to the Thunderdome-esque rock landscape, but her voice spends far too much time playing the background for Albarn. “Sex Murder Party” falls to this as well, Albarn’s lyrics coming off as a mismatched abstraction next to Zebra Katz’s spot-on discontent for a drugged-out failed romance.
When the features get their just due, they’re infallible assets to the universe. On “Saturnz Barz,” Popcaan seizes the end of the world by the throat and basks in his own glory with a furious, dark dancehall backdrop. “Let Me Out” curates an intergenerational dialogue between Pusha T and Mavis Staples; so much so, Pusha doesn’t even swear in his verse, but asks the questions Mother Mavis answers with an earnest concern that believes in itself when she speaks of change coming, for better or worse.
Albarn clearly left the gear in maximum overdrive, but Humanz’s best moments come in the quieter reprieves from the last party on Earth. Popcaan’s “Busted and Blue,” the album’s only solo effort, exemplifies this by giving way to a spacious aura as Albarn whines about technology’s vice-grip on society. Add Kelela coating her background vocals over the natural sounds, the record feels like the silver lining of beauty in a chaotic evening, and the very lining needed to save the album from itself. Paired with D.R.A.M.’s spacey textures in the upbeat downtempo of “Andromeda” and Benjamin Clementine’s gentle meltdown of brilliance on “Hallelujah Money,” Humanz gives the listener some pivotal chances to soak in the cavalcade of complications around their incoming turbulence, leaving one pining for more like them.
With all this vibrant darkness, “We Got the Power” - a collaboration with Jehnny Beth and Noel Gallagher, longtime-nemesis of Albarn - feels like a sudden, cheap means-to-an-end to reinforce a message of strength and togetherness. While the not-so-happy ending’s almost expected - nearly a necessity - was it a missed opportunity? Aesthetic choice aside, it’s reflective of where Humanz leaves Gorillaz in the pop landscape: an updated take on the potpourri blueprint that reappears whenever it feels necessary, every album recruiting the brightest to forecast the trials of our times. Crisis always needs a soundtrack; in time, Humanz will likely prove as fun and worthy its predecessors, standing as a great work that overcame its shortcomings and stood its ground to reflect the first etchings in another global moment.