Sound — 7
The recent years for Damon Albarn have shown a surge of reinvigorated output, though it took plenty of years of patience beforehand. After the work on his debut solo album, "Everyday Robots," took longer than expected to finish, Albarn was also in the midst of working on Blur's first album in over thirteen years. While initially, he was apprehensive about determining whether the album would be finished or shelved, the album, "The Magic Whip," got a proper release in 2015 to massive acclaim.
In the meantime, Albarn was also hoping to take the next step with Gorillaz, the virtual band he co-created with illustrator/animator Jamie Hewlett. The two may have had a falling out after the release of 2010's "Plastic Beach" and 2011's "The Fall," with Hewlett feeling that Albarn was phasing out the animated aspect of the project, but after burying the hatchet and plotting out what was next to come, Gorillaz have blueprinted a bountiful new phase, including their own music festival, Demon Dayz Festival, taking place this summer, a TV series set to be released next year, and of course, their fifth album, "Humanz."
Also being a concept album like "Plastic Beach," Albarn's direction for "Humanz" changed substantially from what he started plotting it out as a few years ago. Originally wanting it to be an upbeat and jovial album without any slow and sad songs, he later went with the concept of imagining a near future affected by an unexpected world-changing event. Coincidentally enough, Albarn's concept lines up with the real world today, but his musical response to that in "Humanz" intertwines the reactionary dismay with a sense of hope.
In terms of its sound, "Humanz" leans much more towards the synthetic than organic. With its long list of guest musicians mostly featuring hip hop talent, plenty of Albarn's instrumentals accommodate that style, heard in the contemporary hip hop production "Let Me Out" (which features Pusha T and Mavis Staples) and the bass-heavy, forlorn cut of "Saturnz Barz" (which features the Jamaican flair of Popcaan), but more than that, Albarn showcases his electronica side. He doesn't go full-on EDM, but from the hammering hard dance beat in "Momentz" (which features longtime Gorillaz contributors De La Soul), the touch of dubstep included in "Ascension" (featuring the fresh-faced Vince Staples), to collaborating with classic dance music artists like Jamie Principle (on the retro dance vibes in "Sex Murder Party") and Peven Everett (in the deep house sound of "Strobelite"), Albarn takes influence from a number of points on the dance music spectrum.
With all this, the sound of "Humanz" can feel pretty jumbled, and the album has its fair share of misses. Similarly to "Plastic Beach," some songs suffer from monotony, like the sedated slog of "Hallelujah Money" (featuring Benjamin Clementine) and the redundant guitar loop running throughout "Charger" (featuring just a smattering of vocals from Grace Jones). And related to Jones's miniscule contribution, other songs also fail to utilize their guest musicians to their best potential - D.R.A.M.'s role in the spacey "Andromeda" is faint, and while Kelela sings strong in "Submission," Danny Brown's rapping near the end of the song feels downplayed.
One could also apply that complaint of under-utilization to Albarn's own vocals (canonically singing as the virtual band's frontman 2-D), but his role still gets the job done even when being more reserved compared to other Gorillaz albums. Always coming from behind the lo-fi filter, Albarn's vocal moments in the album mainly portray a crestfallen mood, from his gloomy solo number in "Busted and Blue," to the downcast trippiness of "She's My Collar," among the other sad hooks he provides. But with that prevalent element of woe acting as the motif of dismay, Albarn's motif to counter it is a recurring usage of gospel choirs. Appearing here and there throughout the album (and sounding somewhat similar the choir melody from Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" in "Saturnz Barz"), the gospel element comes to a peak in the ending "We Got The Power," where Jehnny Beth (of Savages) leads an uplifting singalong to leave the album on a high note.
Lyrics — 7
Albarn had stated that he didn't want "Humanz" to be overtly political, but between his lyrics and all of the guests' lyrical contributions in the album, the degrees of political expression vary from song to song. Albarn sticks to being vague, going from being interested in rising dissent in "Ascension" ("In these times of sedition / Well, nothing is dull"), then being overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness in the allusive "Busted and Blue" ("I was asked by a computer / A shadow on the wall / An image made by Virgil / To rule over us all"), questioning the resilience of humanity in "Hallelujah Money" ("How will we know? / How will we dream? How will we love?") and quickly getting a grip back on the answer in "We Got The Power" ("I got my heart full of hope / I will change everything / No matter what I'm told"). With his lyrics actually covering the album from front to back, his ability to show an emotional arc throughout his words helps in the long run.
But in contrast to Albarn's goal of staying vague, the most memorable lyrics in "Humanz" are the ones that bask in their incendiary demeanor. Danny Brown goes after the corrupt wealthy in his verse on "Submission" ("All comes down to the mighty dollar / Greed and lust, abusing power"), Pusha T calls out Donald Trump in "Let Me Out" ("They say the devil's at work and Trump's calling in favors / You say I'm dangerous, I speak for the nameless"), and Vince Staples articulates his anger at a society continually unjust to his race with a lynching metaphor in "Ascension" ("I'm just playing, baby, this the land of the free... 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"). It just comes to show that if you want to send a message, it helps more to be assertive than coy.
Overall Impression — 7
In this long anticipated release, Albarn puts a lot on his plate with what he wants to accomplish, and there are numerous takeaways for "Humanz." As the next musical installment in Gorillaz's catalog, "Humanz" succeeds in being an album unlike the band's previous albums, as well as continuing to be an oddball alternative in the genres it practices, but it also suffers from a spotty output. As an album meant to address the current state of affairs, it doesn't shine a brilliant light on society as well as other, more politically astute musicians, but it still contains political gumption. All in all, "Humanz" isn't an awe-inspiring return for Gorillaz, but it works well enough.