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‘Humanz’: How Gorillaz Evolved With Their Apocalyptic Fifth Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Humanz’: How Gorillaz Evolved With Their Apocalyptic Fifth Album

With a guest-packed premonition of a Trump-run dystopia, Gorillaz’s fifth album, ‘Humanz’, reflected a world on the brink of turmoil.

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Despite being a virtual band, Gorillaz’s music has always been deeply rooted in reality. Founded by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlett, the cartoon-fronted group’s fifth album, Humanz, re-established them as one of the most innovative musical outfits of the 21st century. Released in April 2017, just months after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States, Humanz prophesied a world on the brink of political catastrophe, perfectly reflecting the anxiety and uncertainty of a historic moment in time.

Featuring guest appearances from a variety of artists, including Vince Staples, Popcaan and Grace Jones, the album’s timely tunes brilliantly touched on zeitgeist-capturing themes of isolation, disillusionment and social unrest. Through it all, Albarn’s songwriting and production remained as sharp as ever, proving that even in the face of apocalyptic uncertainty, Gorillaz is a musical force to be reckoned with. Here, then, is the story of how Gorillaz evolved into Humanz

Listen to ‘Humanz’ here.

The backstory: “I had this mad idea of imagining what it would be like if Donald Trump won the US election”

In June 2015, the controversial businessman and reality-TV show host Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the US Presidency. At the time, this seemed like a bad joke, a symptom of a world in which entertainment and politics were becoming increasingly entwined. For Blur and Gorillaz songwriter Damon Albarn, the nightmarish scenario of a Trump-run dystopia began to percolate in his head. “I had this mad idea of imagining what it would be like if Donald Trump won the US election,” he told The Guardian. “Like, what’s the darkest, most twisted fantasy I can come up with?”

With this as his starting point, Albarn began to approach potential guest performers, from sharp-tongued US rappers to contemporary R&B singers, and gave them a devilishly inspired brief: it’s the night of the US presidential election, the votes have been counted and Donald Trump is delivering his victory speech. With this seemingly apocalyptic scenario a very real possibility, what would you do? Well, throw a party, of course.

But not a celebratory party, oh no. A party that acknowledges the grim reality – that’s more like it. A party to bring people together to share their fears, frustrations and hopes for the future. “Everything changes,” Albarn explained to Stereogum regarding this hypothetical outcome. “Mankind becomes slightly different and has a slightly different perspective and sensitivity about everything. People are slightly more digital. Truth is distorted and manipulated. Glitched, almost.”

Despite its chilling plausibility and dire implications, the guest performers were galvanised by Albarn’s prophetic elevator pitch. With the US in the middle of a political quandary, and with a constitutional crisis a very real and present danger, Humanz was shaping up to be Gorillaz’s grandest statement yet.

The recording: “I wanted to make a party record. So I juxtaposed that with this dark fantasy of what was going to happen in America”

From Albarn’s own Studio 13 facility, in London, and Jean-Michel Jarre’s recording studio, in Paris, to such far-flung locations as Mission Sound, in Brooklyn, and Geejam Studios, in Jamaica, Humanz was recorded across a period of 15 months, from September 2015 to the end of 2016. Ensuring that the song tempos never dipped below 120 beats per minute, Albarn pushed his guests to evoke the feeling of partying in a world stood on the precipice of disaster. “I wanted to make a party record,” he told The New York Times. “So I kind of juxtaposed that with this dark fantasy of what was going to happen in America.”

Wanting to redress gender imbalances on earlier Gorillaz albums, Albarn also sought to work with more female musicians on Humanz. “We had people like Bobby Womack and Ibrahim Ferrer and Ike Turner who, musically, are patriarchs,” he told Entertainment Weekly of Gorillaz’s past collaborators. “I wanted to work with some matriarchs.”

In something of a coup, Albarn was able to persuade Pull Up To The Bumper hitmaker and eccentric recluse Grace Jones to come out of hiding to add guest vocals on the skittish and fuzz-guitar-laden club banger Charger. With Albarn flying out to Jamaica to record with her, Jones ad-libbed a litany of stream-of-consciousness ideas while Albarn covered the studio floor with scraps of paper, capturing the best of the bunch.

Other guests included the oddball Detroit rapper Danny Brown and Washington-born R&B singer Kelela, on the hip-house pulsebeat of Submission, while wacky doom-monger Zebra Katz set out to scare listeners senseless with house producer Jamie Principle on Sex Murder Party. Elsewhere, Anthony Hamilton added a deranged soul flavour to Carnival, while Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine bought a postmodern Noël Coward sensibility to Hallelujah Money. Longstanding Gorillaz collaborators and Native Tongues posse legends De La Soul even popped up on Momentz, a distortion-addled house thumper envisioning a hellish discothèque run by “the Kool Klown Klan”.

Then there’s what would become Humanz’s cosmic album opener, Ascension, featuring Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. An asteroid-summoning siren call with lyrics pondering humanity going the way of the dinosaurs (“The sky’s falling, baby/Drop that ass ’fore it crash”), it was a “great” song, Staples told Stereogum, “but it does not compare to the things that [Damon] has taught me about myself and my art, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to know him.”

Given Albarn’s club-related concept, Humanz took a large amount of inspiration from the Chicago house scene – a refreshing change of musical direction from previous Gorillaz albums such as Demon Days and Plastic Beach. “I wanted to make a record with a strong house element,” Albarn admitted to The New York Times. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about growing up in Chicago. I don’t know, there was something about it I just connect with.”

A month before completing the album, however, the unthinkable happened: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had gained a surprising level of momentum, and he ultimately won the US Presidential election. This shocking outcome not only meant the Cassandra-like foresight behind Albarn’s concept was eerily accurate, but that the songs on Humanz highlighted the country’s deep political divisions and widespread feelings of disillusionment far more potently than anyone expected.

By late March 2017, Gorillaz were ready to drop a doom-laden quartet of songs on a politically beleaguered public. Most notable of these was the electro-dub doodlebug Saturnz Barz, a team-up with Jamaican rapper Popcaan that was accompanied by an ambitious virtual-reality video featuring Gorillaz’s cartoon bassist, Murdoc, floating helplessly in an asteroid field.

The release: “Pain, joy and urgency. Those were the three tenets”

By the time Gorillaz released their fifth album, Humanz, on 28 April 2017, Donald Trump had been in the White House for three months. Few people seemed in the mood to dance, but, true to their word, Gorillaz grabbed a shovel and dug a burial pit for hope while bringing listeners apocalyptic party vibes in spades. Across 20 songs – expanded to 34 on the super-deluxe edition – Humanz was a conceptual marvel, full of bewildering twists and gleefully haphazard turns.

“We wanted this record to convey pain, joy and urgency,” Albarn told Stereogum. “Those were the three tenets. You couldn’t enter the dark fantasy unless you were going to carry those three superpowers with you.” As always, the freewheeling eclecticism and genre-blending fearlessness at the heart of the best Gorillaz songs was still pumping loud and proud, particularly with Savages lead singer and feminist post-punk rocker Jehnny Beth’s shouty guest spot on We Got The Power.

Remarkably, chiming with the album’s mission of bringing people together in spite of their differences, We Got The Power also features Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn’s chief rival in the 90s, during the “Battle Of Britpop”. “I thought it might be cute, the idea of us singing about the power to love each other,” Albarn said in an interview with Vulture, describing the song as a “strange kind of Britpop clarion call from the grave”.

Boasting Gorillaz’s most socially-aware and thought-provoking clutch of songs to date, Humanz proved to be just the tonic the world needed. Despite this, Albarn insisted that the album wasn’t intended as a political statement, asserting that “it’s not polemical, it’s quite abstract”. That said, there is still a sense that Humanz expresses the creeping fear of a worst-case scenario coming to pass, as grimly expressed by rapper Pusha T’s performance on Let Me Out. “[Obama] is gone, who is left to save us?” he asks, riding an electro-rap groove blessed with the soulful tones of R&B legend Mavis Staples (“[Orlando] we mourn, I’m praying for my neighbours,” the rapper continues, referencing a then recent shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub. “They say the devil’s at work and Trump is calling favours”).

Selling 140,000 copies in its first week, Humanz debuted at No.2 in both the UK and the US, with fans receiving Gorillaz’s ambitious post-apocalyptic party as a call to arms, a reminder that, in times of crisis, we must come together to fight for what we believe in and create a better world.

The legacy: “The world has gone slightly mad”

Without a doubt, Albarn’s vision for the album had proved to be far more prescient than even he had intended. As Donald Trump set about serving his first (and, at the time of writing, his last) term as US President, few albums captured the unease of a world in the grip of upheaval better than Humanz. Nothing short of a conceptual masterclass, its reputation has only continued to grow. “It was set in the future, it was set in when the world was just going to go slightly mad,” Albarn said to The New York Times, before adding, soberly: “And the world has gone slightly mad, there’s no question about it.”

With a coterie of divergent guest performances – from D.R.A.M., whose ghostly backing vocals square off with Albarn’s falsetto on Andromeda, to the gutsy and oily-tongued pop-soul of Peven Everett on Strobelite – Humanz possesses all the naughtiness of an illegal rave on the White House lawn. By coming to terms with a world of MAGA hats and “fake news” finger-pointing, Humanz explored themes of isolation and disillusionment, evoking the confusion of a world struggling to find hope amid the chaos.

As the 2010s came to a close, Humanz seemed to capture the zeitgeist of a generation grappling with a sense of uncertainty and dislocation, reflecting the anxieties and fears of a society coping with rapid technological change, political polarisation and social fragmentation. With its disconcertingly eclectic mix of genres, disorienting soundscapes and haunting vocals, the album offered a compelling meditation on the human condition in the digital age. In doing so, Humanz challenged listeners to confront their own assumptions and biases, urging them to imagine new possibilities for connection in an increasingly fractured world.

Find out where Gorillaz rank among the best 20000s musicians.

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