Gorillaz are back, doing what they do best: pushing boundaries in media and putting out music that polarises opinion. After the quiet release of ‘Hallelujah Money’, featuring the voice of Benjamin Clementine, left many nonplussed, Damon Albarn and co have revealed four more tracks from the upcoming album Humanz, set to drop in late April. Here are our reactions to each of them.
Saturnz Barz (feat. Popcaan)
Critics have labelled opener ‘Saturnz Barz’ as a song that is quite simply not a Gorillaz track. This can mostly be attributed to the distinct presence of Jamaican rapper and DJ Popcaan – while Gorillaz are masters of collaboration, most don’t leave such a lasting and divisive impression.
Moreover, Albarn is exploring new sounds on Humanz. ‘Saturnz Barz’ is strongly connected to dancehall, and on top of that, Popcaan’s lyrics tell a very personal story - included in the verse are his fears of what the music industry will do to him and his annoyance at those who think they know him.
Meanwhile, the chorus is laden with autotune and fuzz, with the hypnotic hook “All my life”, reiterating the constant struggles of Popcaan’s upbringing. Without the glitches, countermelodies and samples, this might not have quite the impact it’s looking for – with it, it brings a familiar darkness in a layered tapestry of horror.
Albarn’s presence in the song is, as usual, subtle. While Popcaan is making all the headlines, he ties up all the loose ends in the background, with light melodies and lyrics inspired by dystopia and loneliness.
Other than this, several hallmarks of Gorillaz’ music – disturbing synth sirens, haunting gospel choir vocals – are present on the track. While it’s certainly unlike any Gorillaz song you may have heard, it’s no pastiche, and bound to grow on you with each listen.
Andromeda (feat. D.R.A.M.)
‘Andromeda’ takes you all the way back. Where to exactly is not certain: the sparse use of electronics at certain parts in the track reminds you of Albarn’s 2014 album Everyday Robots, while the chorus sits firmly in the realm of the spaciest moments of Plastic Beach.
It feels like a definitive Gorillaz track, which in itself works against it. It’s by far the calmest track released by the group, with the possible exception of ‘Hallelujah Money’. Its smoothness and familiarity, dominated by Albarn’s soft repetitions are warm to the ears of many Gorillaz fans. However, after a time, it does lose a little of its charm.
Ironically, considering that it’s set to appear on a 26-track album (including its six interludes and an intro), ‘Andromeda’ feels slightly underwritten, and could have explored the soundworld a little further. Furthermore, featured vocalist and rapper D.R.A.M. is virtually anonymous on the track. In the nearest thing to a recognisable Gorillaz track, you’re almost left twiddling your thumbs.
Ascension (feat. Vince Staples)
‘Ascension’ is short, not sweet, and is a perfect example of Gorillaz inhabiting the world of their collaborator. Long Beach rapper Vince Staples’ lyrics, which cover racial inequality and focus particularly on police shootings, come at you hard and fast at the same pitch on and on and on.
It seems that the Ascension in question could be Staples’ temper. Drones, screeches and beats at breakneck speed, along with more celestial choral vocals cram the track full of agitation, in a scatty rage. Surrounded by sirens, the intensity never lets up, whatever varied accompaniment is dreamt up, and the effect is such that it feels like Staples is stood a foot away from you.
Meanwhile, Albarn once again plays things small on the vocals, providing a quick interlude as 2-D, cutting away just before you really notice he’s there. As always, Gorillaz is Albarn’s chance to make a mountain of others’ molehill, while he adds a little bit of vanilla to tie it all together.
While ‘Andromeda’ could do with a little more exploring, ‘Ascension’ gives you so much in its two and a half minutes that you need to catch your breath at the end.
We Got The Power (feat. Jehnny Beth)
The mood is raised for the hopeful ‘We Got The Power’ – the pulse-clapping, quaver-driven beat is reminiscent of dreamy 80’s synthpop, as well as the punchy chorus of ABBA’s ‘Does Your Mother Know’. It’s a well-worn message, but always worth revisiting, while the additional aspirational cries of Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth add more to the feel-good atmosphere.
Out of the tracks 5 tracks that have been released so far, ‘We Got The Power’ is perhaps the only track that doesn’t feel quite like a Gorillaz song. If anything, the mood, beat and melody could have come off Blur's The Magic Whip. That isn’t to say that Gorillaz can’t make positive music, but without any of their trademark irony, quick cuts or samples, this really feels like a departure on a songwriting level.
Moreover, ‘We Got The Power’ is another song that just ends too early. Whether this will be more explainable within the structure of the album remains to be seen, but separate from Humanz as a whole, the track remains slightly alien and abrupt.
Hallelujah Money (feat. Benjamin Clementine)
Gorillaz’ first track in nearly 6 years could not have had a more understated release. Uploaded initially to the YouTube news and culture channel Uproxx (where it’s now not even publicly listed), ‘Hallelujah Money’ was a soft shot in the arm for anyone expecting ‘Feel Good Inc’ mark two.
A lullaby for the modern age, the track is unsurprisingly directed squarely at Donald Trump – money is the main subject of the song, but power gets a fair share too. It couples gorgeous choral backing with skittish synths and insecure drum patterns. New and old combine unstably, almost like one of Gorillaz’ earlier dystopian laments, but now breaking down even its basic structure in a kind of musical schizophrenia.
Clementine’s vocal, though not necessarily exploited for its full range and tone, is warm and friendly, while his distinctive wide vibrato is another reminder of songs of old. His reassuring tone is held right until an abrupt end, where he hollers the title of the song and cuts to a scene from Spongebob Squarepants.
‘Hallelujah Money’ is one of the stranger tracks to be released by Gorillaz in recent times. It’s difficult to pin down and interpret in most normal musical categories. What it does contain is a memorable hook, a huge amount of layers and a delicious irony that comes only with the best of Gorillaz’ work.
1. Ascension feat. Vince Staples
2. Strobelite feat. Peven Everett
3. Saturnz Barz feat. Popcaan
4. Momentz feat. De La Soul
5. Submission feat. Danny Brown and Kelela
6. Charger feat. Grace Jones
7. Andromeda feat. D.R.A.M.
8. Busted and Blue
9. Carnival feat. Anthony Hamilton
10. Let Me Out feat. Mavis Staples and Pusha T
11. Sex Murder Party feat. Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz
12. She’s My Collar feat. Kali Uchis
13. Hallelujah Money feat. Benjamin Clementine
14. We Got The Power feat. Jehnny Beth
15. The Apprentice feat. Rag’n’ Bone Man, Zebra Katz, and RAY BLK
16. Halfway To The Halfway House feat. Peven Everett
17. Out Of Body feat. Kilo Kish, Zebra Katz, and Imani Vonshà
18. Ticker Tape feat. Carly Simon and Kali Uchis
19. Circle Of Friendz feat. Brandon Markell Holmes