If you remember middle school, you might remember the insurmountable pressure caused by thinking your world was surely ending. For a lot of us, those pesky three years of sub-adulthood are wrought with emotional betrayals, the mounting expectations of our parents, and if we’re particularly unlucky, our first suicide attempts. The gist here is that depression manifested itself in me the same year as my passion for music, and at the center of all that was Gorillaz' apocalyptic, self-titled record.
Now, here we are, 16 years later. The desperation of the world has reached comical levels with a Donald Trump presidency shoving its way into global conflict. War and catastrophe are on America's mind again; it’s feeling an awful lot like the end of the world again for some of us. The primary difference is that this time I’m laughing all the way through the blossoming mushroom cloud of my nightmares while a recording called Humanz plays endlessly in my car.
Humanz is a remarkably danceable record. It’s as well suited to your house party as the most recent DJ Khaled mixtape. It could also be the accompaniment for an apocalyptic danse macabre. The album opens with a real banger called “Ascension” featuring Vince Staples. With hardcore lyrics which immediately arouse sensitive American politics, Staples invokes the image of a lynching tree before the first five minutes of the album are even up. While things never get quite that aggressive again over the course of the record's 50 minutes, a discourse of danger and disappointment extends across the album’s entire tracklist.
Those dark notions are painted into individual soundscapes, using Damon Albarn’s usual bag of sonic witchery. There’s a distinctly hip-hop-minded production method at work with the casual use of warped samples and carefully compressed vocals. Damon mostly mutters his lyrics, while a series of bombastic guest artists deliver booming, magnetic performances in response. While not every guest spot packs the same punch, there are more than a few moments of golden synergy which help to elevate the weaker parts of this record.
In particular, Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan’s gripping, slang-riddled verse on the track “Saturnz Barz” demonstrates Gorillaz’ musical mastery at its best. This track carefully crushes genres together with nothing but confidence, creating a similar memorability to other timeless Gorillaz' singles like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” Other experiments, like the Benjamin Clementine joint “Hallelujah Money” deliver the same boundary-pushing, experimental pop music which Gorillaz has been charged with delivering since the millennium rushed past.
Humanz is a chimera of disco, hip-hop and apocalyptic grief. The album furthers and adheres to a current trend in pop music postmodernism, with flagrant disregard for typical genre tropes and challenging, intellectual commentary sewn into its tracks. The record’s catchiest, highest points might miss the mark nailed by Albarn’s earworms of yesteryear, but the new sounds present a meaningful evolution in the virtual band’s ever changing sound. Whatever crisis tomorrow brings, I expect Gorillaz to deliver the soundtrack.