On 2017's Humanz, Damon Albarn returns to Gorillaz after a seven-year hiatus -- a period when he busied himself with two operas, a solo album, and a Blur reunion -- and reconnects with the collaborative instincts that drove the band's first two albums. Plastic Beach -- the 2010 album that served as the group's last major opus (The Fall, released just months later, was that LP's bittersweet coda) -- found Albarn stepping toward the center stage but on Humanz he recedes, giving his collaborators the spotlight and softening whatever complicated narrative he and illustrator Jamie Hewlett devised for their cartoon group's fourth phase. Maybe this is why Humanz feels wild and unruly in a way Plastic Beach never did: the emphasis is on the individual cuts, not the grand concept. Some themes are woven throughout the record -- there's a political undercurrent, although the upheavals of Trump and Brexit are never addressed directly; there's a heavy reliance on R&B and hip-hop -- but the album seems pleasingly scattershot as it bounces from guest to guest. Its messiness suits the digital era, when it's possible to swipe from style to style without a second thought, but Humanz isn't haphazard. Albarn deliberately sculpts each cut, giving plenty of space for Vince Staples, Grace Jones, Danny Brown, Anthony Hamilton, Mavis Staples, Pusha T, and longtime Gorillaz mainstay De La Soul to roam. That list of guest artists underscores how Humanz feels connected to soul in a way Plastic Beach didn't, but with its careening, carnivalesque hooks and skeletal 2-Tone spook -- not to mention how the whole thing is anchored on "Busted and Blue," a Damon solo track that could've slid onto Everyday Robots -- it's clearly an Albarn project. But even with its heavy, heavy R&B vibe and roiling politics, Humanz feels strangely uplifting, as if every musician who entered the studio found solace in the act of creation. That's why "We Got the Power" -- a collaboration with Savages singer Jehnny Beth and Damon's onetime rival Noel Gallagher -- is such a fitting closer: in dark times, it finds hope and inspiration in the power of the collective, which is a testament to what Albarn intends to do with Gorillaz.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2