For all its charms, Britpop was the Brexit of Nineties rock: a cultural wagon-circle telegraphing a monocultural vision of fin de siècle England. To his credit, Damon Albarn has shaped his post-Blur career largely as a border-crashing counter-argument – most successfully with Gorillaz, his hip-hop-centric “virtual” band. Presenting its radio-friendly fusions via animated characters, it’s among the most pop-savvy, and least cringe-inducing, rap-rock crossovers in history.
Which isn’t to say it’s always been consistent. Like the four previous Gorillaz sets, Humanz‘ selling point is the crazy breadth of its diversity, which skews refreshingly young this time: Vince Staples, Popcaan, Benjamin Clementine, D.R.A.M., Zebra Katz, Kilo Kish, Kali Uchis, Kelela, Danny Brown and Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth take the lead alongside more seasoned vets Mavis Staples, Pusha T, Carly Simon, Grace Jones, Anthony Hamilton, house heroes Jamie Principal and Peven Everett, and Gorillaz emeritus Posdnous of De La Soul. Even Albarn’s old nemesis Noel Gallagher turns up to sing a little (“We Got the Power”). This mix-and-match mob is never dull, but it yields magic just intermittently. When it does, however, it’s something to behold.
“Ascension” opens the set with a warped air-raid-siren tone, Vince Staples pleading “The sky’s fallin’ baby, drop that ass ‘fore it crash!” while a pickup gospel choir shouts “higher!” – at each other, the sky, maybe the ass too. According to Albarn, the pre-production prompt for Team Gorillaz was to make party music while imagining “how you’d feel if Trump won” – this months before the unimaginable came to pass. When Albarn’s processed voice declares “In these times of sedition/Well, nothing is dull!” like some dude wasted in his crib, spitting lines into his phone while the world crumbles entertainingly on the Twitter feed, it’s funny, infuriating and chilling all at once. Then Staples, changing the dystopian channel, delivers the K.O.: “This the land of the free/Where you can get a glock and a gram for the cheap/Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me/Be a puppet on a string hangin’ from a fuckin’ tree.” Apocalyptic booty-drop anthems don’t come more politically engaged.
“Let Me Out” is another timely bit of future shock, with Pusha T preaching (“Together we mourn, I’m praying for my neighbors”) through a censor’s bleeps, while “Mama Mavis” Staples instructs “Change is coming/Best be ready for it.” The most stirring moment might be Benjamin Clementine’s “Hallelujah Money,” a gospel-style paean to capitalism, power, wall-building and moral relativism sung in Clementine’s ravishingly strange Nina Simone-ish tenor, throbbing with muted sarcasm while the choir invokes “chemtrails.” Somewhere, Leonard Cohen is grinning.
Elsewhere, skits drag,
sluggish grooves beg for remixing, hot singers are underutilized on half-baked
material, and an inspirational anthem can’t quite rise to the occasion. Yet
Albarn’s curation is sharp, and he keeps things moving quickly, so the energy
rarely flags, even over 26 songs (on the deluxe edition). If it’s an uneven LP,
it’s fairly brilliant by mixtape standards, which may be the best way to
measure it – a meta party mix where Jamaica’s Popcaan rocks space-station
dancehall beats while Albarn rues dancing alone “in a mirrored world,”
selfie stick no doubt in hand. He claims to have 40-some additional tracks from
these session in various states of completion – including an Arabic version of “Busted
and Blue,” his haunting ballad about Lithium-dazed life “in the echo
chamber.” So keep it coming, pal – we’re going to be needing all the
empathetic jams we can get.