WARNER BROS. RECORDS
WARNER BROS. RECORDS

★★★☆☆

When the British virtual band Gorillaz began recording its fifth studio album, “Humanz,” in 2016, its creators, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, invited collaborators to join them in celebrating a “party at the end of world where [Donald] Trump has become president.” Albarn and Hewlett hoped that their album would resonate with listeners in light of the divisive political landscape, and they used Trump’s election as a source of thematic inspiration.

Although “Humanz” certainly achieves this desired effect, it fails to capture Gorillaz’s distinctive electronic alt-rock sound, instead largely consisting of features from popular musical talents that fail to mesh and create something more than the sum of their parts. The laundry list of guest artists featured on “Humanz” is both the album’s highlight and its greatest flaw. The effectiveness of each song ultimately relies on how well the featured artist fits within the Gorillaz virtual reality world.

The opening track, “Ascension,” features Vince Staples, a rising star in the rap industry, racing over a menacing and breakneck dance beat. Despite the track’s tempo, Staples is able to keep pace with Gorillaz, skillfully delivering his trademark macabre yet clever lyrics as he raps, “I’m just playing, baby, 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, hanging from a f–king tree.”

Although the instrumentals and featured artist vocals create a cohesive sound on “Ascension,” the same cannot be said of other tracks on “Humanz.” On the fourth song on the album, “Saturnz Barz,” Jamaican singer Popcaan sounds completely at odds with the trap-flavored beat, each making the other sound worse.

What keeps “Humanz” from sounding like a playlist of random artists is the production and vocalization of virtual member 2-D, who consistently reminds listeners that this is, in fact, a Gorillaz album. That being said, the instrumental and vocal tracks both suffer from a lack of variation that tends to get stale over the course of the album’s 20 songs.

The instrumentals are generally a combination of 808 drums and bleak synths that are sped up to a frenzied rate, often making it difficult to discern whether a new song has begun or if it is simply a different guest artist singing. Yet there are times when this recipe works to perfection, such as on the second track, “Strobelite,” where Chicago singer Peven Everett’s powerful vocals combine with the rapid funk synths to create one of the few feelings of warmth and optimism on the album.

Unfortunately, 2-D’s vocals are affected by this same problem. He is the only virtual member of Gorillaz who sings; though the extent of his contribution varies from track to track, he essentially sounds the same throughout the album, bringing little depth or range to the music. His vocals are at times flat and muffled, sounding as though they could be copied and pasted from song to song. The eighth track, “Busted and Blue,” is the only one without a featured artist, putting 2-D’s weak vocals on full display. The five-minute ballad features 2-D crooning over grand string sections, yet has the slowest tempo on the album, with little excitement or build-up.

The crown jewel of “Humanz” is its 14th track,  “Let Me Out”, a trip-hop song with a sound reminiscent of the band’s biggest hit, “Feel Good Inc.” The track features rapper Pusha T and gospel singer Mavis Staples crying out against the evils they foresee in Trump’s America, with the best 2-D bridge on the album by far. The instrumental contains minor-key piano arrangements over crashing EDM drumlines that keeps the dance feel powerful, yet still fun. Most importantly, the track’s politically charged lyrics remain emotional and insightful without becoming too divisive, which is a delicate balance to maintain. In a standout verse, Pusha T raps, “Tell me that I won’t die at the hands of the police / Promise me I won’t outlive my nephew and my niece / Promise me my pastor isn’t lyin’ as he preach / Tell me that they’ll listen if it’s lessons that I teach,” reminding listeners of Gorillaz’s overarching message. It is the song that perhaps best embodies the original concept behind the album.

The other politically inspired track, “Hallelujah Money,” fails to reach the same success. It was the first single from the album, but easily its most abstract, disjointed song. An odd combination of electronica and gospel, the track sounds as though it is building up to a climax that it never reaches. Poet Benjamin Clementine contributes two compelling spoken word verses, criticizing the values of capitalism in our society; the final product, however, is an unsettling gospel sermon rather than a song fans will enjoy.

“Humanz” is the greatest deviation from the Gorillaz identity, trading the band’s signature futuristic pop sound for a dystopian dance performance with many new characters. The endearing charisma of the virtual band takes a back seat to the near-endless list of guest artists, only some of whom capture the magic of the Gorillaz’s quartet of cartoon characters. For example: It only takes one second of listening to Danny Brown’s oddly pitched voice on “Submission” to instantly visualize him performing in computerized glory with the members of Gorillaz, but Grace Jones’ rock vocals of last century in “Charger” clash with the electric guitar riff to create an unpleasant mess.

To Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s credit, every “party” has its ups and downs, and a dystopian political celebration would, quite likely, be no different.

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