When my grandmother bought a copy of Demon Days from Best Buy, she turned her quizzical eye to my palm and made me reassure her that it wasn’t devilish music. After seeing the “DARE” video on MTV2, I couldn’t guarantee it with a straight face, but there was no Parental Advisory sticker and I didn’t have the $15 on me otherwise. I’d never heard such a beautiful collage before that moment, and I’ve aimed to conjure the beauty of that record in my own work ever since. Gorillaz know how to strike any and every chord in one’s heart: the depravity we ignore, the truth we seek, and the consequences of our actions. Not to mention, they’ve given us some of the oddest (and best) rap verses to date, introducing a generation of kids to underground rappers and forgotten legends.
In celebration of VMP’s release of the Demon Days - an album very near and dear to my heart - I’ve decided to power-rank every guest verse across the Gorillaz’ studio albums so you don’t have to.
Big Snoop Dogg graced the intro of Plastic Beach on a bed of psychedelic G-funk that ended up much more form than function. While Uncle Snoop’s slick talk makes damn near anything sound good, his appearance in the Gorillaz universe is one of the rare times where he can come off corny to his detriment. He sticks to the grander themes of oceans and pollution metaphors - and it’s an intro, we can’t expect him to run off with the whole concept - but his images of smoking weed with pilgrims and a bubble bath just don’t work that well. But they still work so damn well that forgiveness is inevitable, even if he’s first on the beach and last on this list.
In the context of Plastic Beach, Bashy and Kano trade bars about discovering an island utopia to refresh and reframe their lifestyles, leaving the old world behind. It’s a testament to the sonic and stylistic collaging found across the Gorillaz catalog: two popular grime artists trading bars about paradise while being backed by The Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. The two sync perfectly in articulating the uncertainties beneath their wonder. There’s a funny reference to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and an image of Heaven’s VIP section, though the concepts aren’t the most fresh or expansive on typical ideas of an ideological safe haven.
One-part food-industrial complex critique, one-part music industry takedown(?) this record is a Surgeon General’s warning on a microwaveable breakfast box, disguised as the first stage of guilt during an acid trip. The bars are a bit more relaxed this time around, with some of the imagery leaving almost all of the message to the listener’s imagination. So much so, the jellyfish/breakfast metaphors get a little too lost in translation. Nonetheless, De La Soul’s long found a home on Gorillaz records to mesh their strange charms in matrimony; this tale of a radioactive sea and things that taste like chicken fits right at home with this lineage.
Mos came through with the juxtaposition of heavy imagery in only eight bars, managing to cover our dependency on technology to the point where we believe we can control the weather. Fitting in the track’s narrative of navigating love in an overpopulated world, love becomes electric as we seek the perfect source of energy to harness that love. But this everlasting journey is the very thing leading us to “overload,” echoed by 2D and Bobby Womack prescribing that love as a cure to the struggle. There’s not much rapping to be found, but Mos’s in-and-out functions to wrap the track in its own uncertainty, praying that a burnout is nowhere near as it appears we’re headed straight for it.
Over a frantic electro backdrop, Roots Manuva hits a mad-dash through a steady strain of non-sequiturs and self-reflections to paint the picture of a man ready to dive into whatever lies ahead. It’s an overwhelming listen that won’t guarantee any clarity even by the fifth rewind, but there’s a grave sense of escapism in Roots’ words, a pressure against the weight of past mistakes met with the strength to push forward no matter what. When his verse crescendos into a heavenly interlude for Martina Topley-Bird to call for our hands before setting us back down into the madness, the verse sits as one of the most underrated and satisfying moments on Demon Days.
This record glides along at a locomotive pace with Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) putting his shapeshifting expertise into overdrive. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble complement his repetition with a bombastic horn section as Mos repeats and remixes the game-show imagery. On its best day, it’s a distant relative of the “Mathematics” Mos spoke of over a decade prior, trading boom-bap for an instrumental clash that sputters and melts into itself by the fourth minute. It’s a deep cut that’s easily missed, but a diverse snapshot of all the best parts of Yasiin at work: relentless narrator, sage songbird, and unsettled commentator.
On top of being one of the most kick-ass singles the Gorillaz ever dropped, De La Soul’s presence on this record is iller than my teenage mind could comprehend when I first found 2D perched atop the windmill. It’s a dance song with the perfect dash of insidious intent, illustrating a city held captive in its mediocrity as the world passes them by. But fret not… De La came to save the day in eight bars as they enter the melancholy town to destroy the regime that’s holding our happiness hostage. While 2D mans the ship for most of the record, De La reasserts themselves as the captains towards the tail end by commanding the get down.
Let’s not erase the other Del feature from the self-titled Gorillaz album: the one that strips to the break with a few sample stabs, a flute, and the drum loop that brings ‘88 back on its own. He gives us three verses, the hook, and the bridge about surrendering oneself to the beat, lacing it with his goofy imagery (notably, the Funkadelic/Pampers reference) and one of the coolest voices in rap. It’s a nice reminder of how the political can boil down to the bump-and-grind in a basement and the headspin on a cardboard box. The method never fails and the rhythm never dies.
With Damon’s murky, mellow boom-bap lurking underneath, MF DOOM dropped two verses littered with breathtaking oddities that sounded amazing to the ear and to the backpacker living within me. They’re about everything and nothing - like many DOOM verses sprawling across the page - but it’s a demonstration of world-class technicality that’s so strange, it makes the Gorillaz keep up with DOOM’s tune rather than him stretching himself to fit whatever strange sounds they’ve curated. By the first kickdrum of this record, my perception of hip-hop was changed forever. My only frames of reference were the radio and the television; Daniel Dumile disposed of everything I thought rap could be.
For a record centered around the possession of a drummer, Del’s character on “Clint Eastwood” considers himself a messenger to guide us through the unknown and unseen. With an eerie harmonica tucked behind the percussion, and 2D’s occasional lamenting over his potential, Del maneuvers through the questions of life with a nimble technique and wicked self-assurance that could terrify any soul. It could be a spiritual connection, it could be the “sunshine in a bag” talking nonsense, but the ride is an unforgettable moment in the Gorillaz canon and a career-defining verse for Del in the hearts of hip-hop heads worldwide.
“Dirty Harry” places the voices of the hopeless youth over a glossy funk rhythm that makes room for an orchestra. When Bootie Brown drops in, he spits with the weight of the world on his vocal cords. He’s a soldier who’ll place you under the dirt and see you in his nightmares, never wasting a syllable without articulating the gravity of a world obsessed with war and peace. This song is an exemplification of everything the Gorillaz do well: setting the tone for an unsettling universe and casting their global political overtones over grandiose production without sacrificing the mechanics for an amazing song.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.
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