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Review: Humanz Proves Gorillaz Are Better With Damon Albarn Out of the Spotlight

Pop quiz: name the four members of Gorillaz. Nearly twenty years after their creation by Britpop war vet Damon Albarn and indie comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, the cartoon angle of the pop art project has never quite factored into the group’s fandom, which hasn’t stopped them from outselling Albarn’s previous band by millions of copies. A cartoon band wasn’t quite a novel idea—though one imagines what the Archies might have been like with Gorillaz’s star power—but Albarn did expertly anticipate the 21st century’s iTunes shuffle aesthetic/ omnivore producer trend with the project, finding peers with Diplo, Danger Mouse, Dr. Luke and Jack Antonoff. He could place rappers—be it De La Soul, Kano or Mos Def—in a pop setting without making them sound like sellouts. And unlike the old soul mausoleums erected by the likes of Joe Henry and Jack White, Albarn knew how to slot the likes of Bobby Womack, Ibrahim Ferrer and Ike Turner into a more carnivalesque setting.

Seven years since the iPad-made The Fall, Gorillaz return with the 20-track Humanz, and again their rolodex weighs a ton. A music festival in and of itself, the roster includes stars such as Grace Jones, Kelela, Mavis Staples, Pusha T, Vince Staples, Danny Brown, D.R.A.M., Savages’ Jenny Beth, Benjamin Clementine and Jamie Principle, who all lend Gorillaz their voices. (And, if it were uncertain just who won the Britpop wars of yore, Noel Gallagher winds up in a supporting role.) In the press rollout, the album is posited as an imagining of “an apocalyptic event — the election of Donald J. Drumpf — and the possible reactions to it,” and in emphasizing dance music more this go-round, foregrounds the dance floor as a meeting ground for the disenfranchised, “a positive thing in a quite grim world.”

But while Albarn the synergizer of pop, hip-hop, dance, soul and gospel remains intact, Albarn the forlorn vocalist is the weakest link here. On album standout “Let Me Out,” he nearly douses the cross-generational sparks between Pusha and Mavis Staples. Pusha pleas with lines like “Promise me I won’t outlive my nephew and my niece” and Mavis provides the profound refrain of “You got to die a little / If you want to live.” Then, there’s Albarn tossing in soggy bits like “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a shift in times/But I won’t get tired at all.”

As guests deliver some of their most bruising lines from behind the Gorillaz’s scrim, Albarn is there to dull the blows. Take Vince Staples’ turn on “Ascension”: “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.” So does the song really need a mumble rap from Albarn about “it’s slipping my mind / oh, when I’m drunk/ I’m spirited back” to counter Staples’s vitriol? Rather than strike a balance, Albarn only dilutes the anger, the aural equivalent of saying “All lives matter.”

For all the talk paid to how Humanz is Gorillaz’s dance album, the beats generally don’t quite scan as such. De La Soul return, but rather than deliver “Feel Good Inc. Pt. II,” “Momentz” is a low point for the storied trio and cartoon band both, their Auto-Tuned vocals and Dance Dance Revolution backdrop making for a forgettable moment. The D.R.A.M. collaboration “Andromeda” is named for an old soul club from Albarn’s youth, but the pitter-patter of the beat won’t soon translate to a dance floor.

While Gorillaz waste Grace Jones’s growl on “Charger,” they thankfully tap future R&B singer Kelela for the digital skank of “Submission,” as we await her Warp Records debut. And in recruiting deep house stalwart Peven Everett for “Strobelite,” Gorillaz come closest to the mark of making a club track. The beat is standard fare but Everett—who’s voiced numerous tracks for garage house master Roy Davis Jr.—lends his key stabs and soulful entreaties to the track, adding much-needed gravitas. He worries that as humans, we’re sliding irreversibly towards heartlessness and an obsidian public face. But he also sees a solution: “Slide the light off you/ You may find some peace,” Everett sings. It’s a strategy that’s worked splendidly for Albarn in the past, and when he stays away from the light and the mic, Humanz shines.