Gorillaz deliver lackluster performance on ‘Humanz’

Unless you’re Phish, D’angelo’s “Voodoo” or Outkast, I’m always going to be skeptical if your album is over an hour long. It should most definitely not have a running time of an hour and 20 minutes, even if some of that is padded out by bonus tracks.

This isn’t to say that long albums cannot be well produced, as Gorillaz’s self-titled debut was an hour and 10 minutes, which still stands as their most intoxicating album yet. In addition, Outkast’s “Stankonia” is a blast for all of its hour and 13 minutes. But more often than not, longer albums have a tendency to feel bloated and derivative

“Humanz” falls into the latter category. Coming in at a whopping twenty-six tracks (although seven of them are interludes), this album completely overstays what should have been a warm welcome. Even worse, “Humanz” is filled to the brim with musical misfires from both Gorillaz themselves and from featured artists.

One of the biggest blunders on this album has to be Albarn’s insistence on sticking with his iPad to make the beats for this album. In my review of Gorillaz’ discography for last week’s issue, I wrote about their album “The Fall” because I thought it was an experimental gimmick album where Albarn purposely limited himself to his iPad to see what music he could make.

“The Fall” is not a good album. On that album of 15 tracks, there’s only one (one!) track that I consistently return to: the admittedly fantastic “Bobby in Phoenix” (which is well worth checking out).

There’s a very clear drop in quality from Gorillaz’ past projects when they either brought in guest producers such as Danger Mouse on “Demon Days” or when Albarn was far away from his iPad. Albarn isn’t a bad producer, but the iPad clearly hurts production value throughout the album, which is heard on the beat on the opener “Ascension.” This isn’t a bad track, but the production really limits this song from being a hiphop hit that the band’s past discography is filled with. There are way too many things happening. Instead of sticking with a consistent drum beat, Albarn switches among about seven different snares over the course of the track. The beat keeps on changing to try and accent Vince Staples’s verse. The song isn’t bad, it just feels very amateurish, especially when compared to some of Gorillaz’ earlier hip-hop tracks like “November has Come” or “Dirty Harry.”

This amateurish sound is typical for the record that it honestly starts to feel formulaic, with the guest-feature starting the track with an under whelming performance, Damon Albarn/2-D coming in with some vocals that always come from behind a compression filter and the beats are usually just a synthetic drum sequencer with synths arbitrarily slapped on.

The use of the filter on Albarn’s vocals really bothered me as well. Albarn has used this filter before to great affect on tracks like “On Melancholy Hill” or “Feel Good Inc,” but these were exceptions. Normally, he would deliver some great performances through 2-D. But for whatever reason, on “Humanz,” almost all of Albarn’s vocals have this filter attached to them that sounds generic.

The other misfire that plagues this album is the performances, which are all-around lacking. Why would you give Pusha-T, one of the strongest MCs in the game, a measly 17 lines on the track “Let Me Out”? Why would you put UK-punk artist Jenny Beth on a bubbly synth-pop track? Why does rapper Zebra Kat fall so flat on “Sex Murder Party” when he shines on the bonus track “The Apprentice?”

I am flabbergasted by this. Gorillaz used to be so good at bringing out the best performances from their featured artists, like Bootie Brown’s verse on “Dirty Harry” or any of Bobby Womack’s performances on “Plastic Beach.” However, on “Humanz,” everything just feels so ill-conceived. There were very few moments on this album where I wasn’t either debating whether I should skip a track out of boredom/foul taste or counting the minutes until one of the few highlights of the album came on, which still feel like they’re undercooked. The track “Andromeda” is a touching tribute to the late Bobby Womack, but the outro to the song just doesn’t land the ending and sucks up some of the emotional weight of the song. “Busted and Blue” attempts to be another world-weary introspective Gorillaz song, but the beat is so sparse that it doesn’t give any traction to Albarn’s (filtered) vocals like on “El Mañana” or “On Melancholy Hill.” I can’t be the only one that thinks “Busted and Blue” is utterly worthless without the synth line that comes in at the end of the track.

However, there are two tracks that I do think hit it out of the park. “Hallelujah Money” and “The Apprentice” are both stellar in the same vein as Gorillaz older songs, as they delightfully mix tone and musicality. They seem to be the only two tracks from this album that seem to work well with the iPad-production. The swooping beat on “Hallelujah Money” works really well with Benjamin Clementine’s dystopic sermon and the synth pings on “The Apprentice” feels adequately groovy.

I am disappointed with this album. Even when the Gorillaz had missteps in the past, I still felt like they were doing something original or stylistic. But “Humanz’” cardinal sin is that it lacks this stylistic edge: there’s nothing on this album that I feel sounds uniquely Gorillaz. But hey, the band Phoenix released a new track, “J-Boy,” last week, and it is stellar. So not everything in the music industry is bad.

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