Usually in my ‘Armchair Designer’ series, I break down the design of games… But here, I’d like to take a short break from that and take a look at my favourite album of 2017- Humanz.
Humanz was received by fans about as well as a cannonball to the scrotum, which I think is unfair. Because more so than any other Gorillaz album, or indeed any other album I can think of, ‘Humanz’ is a piece of art with a story to tell. Because Humanz is a Gorillaz album, and Gorillaz albums have always been deeply political.
I’d encourage you, if you can, to listen to the album as we go. It’s available on Spotify, don’t worry.
Ready? Cool. The album opens with these words:
Prelude: I switched my Robot off
“I switched my robot off
And I know more
But retain less.”
This is the setting of the album. 2017. The world where we are so overloaded with information that it makes us stupid, and compliant. Our agency in our lives has been removed, but for one night the robot overlords of the internet has been switched off- because, as we see, the world is ending, and it’s time to party. 2D, the band’s lead singer, is among the revellers, and while he remains quiet for most of the album, the album still takes place from his perspective- all of the things he thinks, sees, and hears during the last night.
The first track is ‘Ascension’. And it tells us exactly what is happening- the sky is falling, so it’s time to dance away out last night on earth.
Of course, the sky isn’t literally falling. But, there is a deep evil seeping into the party- and it brings destruction with it, invoking the old-time fears of lynching and people being hanged from trees. The great evil spirits of old America are returning.
But we ignore the evil outside, and with our 2nd track, “Strobelite”, we continue partying on, but are still haunted by our fears as we pretend to ignore them. Will humanity live peacefully, or “Are we just too far to be as one again?”.
But if we live by the strobe light, ignore our problems, and continue to revel in the night, we will find momentary peace one last time “All will come to view”, says the DJ “If you’ll come with me”
And, true to form, the music video shows singer 2D and guitarist Noodle enjoying themselves on the dancefloor.
But, the party isn’t just for those taking shelter from the evil. There are dangerous people around amongst the revellers. Dangerous people that are victims of a world that forced them to be cruel. These people and their lives are so alien to those privileged enough to party through the end of the world, that their cries for help might as well be from outer space- they’re Saturn’s Bars.
“All my life, the system forced me to be a killer, just like Rodney Price.”
These men aren’t evil, in fact they simply dream of owning property of their own and living the lives their grandmothers wanted for them. But that isn’t the case. They’ve been forced by the great evil that now lurks outside the party.
2D takes time to sit at the back of the room among these dangerous people, and he confesses to them his sins, how he’s been careless and squandered his good start in life. Fans of the greater Gorillaz story will recognize this as his addiction to Painkillers, which ails his memory and contributes (along with a history of physical and psychological abuse) to a downward spiral in his overall mental health. 2D can’t remember large chunks of his life. He confesses to making mistakes, and that it has cost him his chance of being loved (Perhaps even the chance of being married) and happy.
‘Cause I’m out when I’m stakin’,
and the rings I am breaking,
are making you a personal debt’
But, in a flash, De La Soul appear. Old collaborators from Gorillaz’s 2nd Album 12 years prior, they snap 2D out of his misery and bring them with him to find an attractive woman for some meaningless sex.
2D looks around the party, trying to find what the point of it all is- he looks to Posdnuos under the lights and grime of the messy party, and ponders ‘Is this why I’m here?’
“Main event, yellow, red
Black, white, dirty”
The entire first verse shows Posdnuos finding a girl who’s “Up for the mating”. He seizes the moment, buys her a drink, and smacks her behind. The two go away to have sex, and await the hangover in the morning.
No, this can’t be the point. 2D looks elsewhere- and sees his friend and bandmate, Noodle, enjoying herself without a care in the world. Is this the whole point?
“Main event, yellow, red
Black, white, dirty”
In fact, Noodle is enjoying herself so much and caring so little, that she’s just screaming jibberish.
“Plastic on the ceiling!”
But, as the song comes to an end, 2D makes a grave realization. These people aren’t defying the great evil outside- they’re making light of it, ignoring just how dangerous it is. The KKK is now the Kool Klown Klan. What the revelers seem to see as defiance and free-spiritedness is actually exactly what they evil wants, and needs. It is coming to power because it is being mocked, the revelers aren’t doing anything to hold it at bay, because they’re treating it like a joke.
Interlude- The non-conformist oath
In unison, the crown chant the oxymoron beliefs that are leading them to their doom. All, in unison, repeat after the DJ states “I promise to be unique, to be different, and not to repeat things other people say!”
2D was right. The revelers aren’t rebels, they’re prisoners. The system has beaten them and they don’t even know it. They’re no different than the killers that stand amongst them.
But, 2D is distracted. By sex, naturally. A woman, Kelela, approaches him, and begins confessing feelings of adoration- she’s utterly hypnotised, and enthralled, by him. He says nothing, and lets her speak.
All she wants is to try, harder and harder, to get 2D in bed. She, like the party as a whole, wants 2D to forget about the big picture and join the wreckless, indulgent, self-dooming attitude.
2D wants to, for a moment. He even begins to harmonise with her, repeating “It’s all I got…”
Suddenly, Danny Brown intervenes. In a drunken state, he begins to rant at 2D- he’s come to the same realisations that 2D did earlier. He, too, realises the futility of the whole situation.
“Wish I could think of better ways
‘Cause I lost my patience yesterday”
He’s flanked on all sides by forces that seek to destroy him. He won’t be “saved by no superman” Danny realises he’s doomed, and disappears into the crowd. Kelela regains 2D’s attention, and draws him back for one last verse.
But, 2D makes some semblance of a realisation, and escapes with his phone in hand. He sits, and reads what’s going on throughout the internet. And with that, he makes contact with the outside world, and is possessed by a ghost. Grace Jones is the spirit of hatred, spread by technology. This is the song’s obsession with Chargers- the charger of a phone, which charges out mind with negative thoughts.
The Robot- the unfeeling, mind-numbing flow of information that overloads and rots the brain- that 2D thought he’d escaped from for now, has returned. What’s more, he comes to the realisation that he’s not even sure if all the information he’s reading is true or not-
Everything is supposed to get in
I just don’t know where I’m a-getting it from”
But nonetheless, 2D is possessed by the cruel and toxic thoughts the ghost plants in his head. Technology makes him cruel.
2D recedes to within his own mind, and tried to escape the cruelty. He reminds himself that there was good in his past, and he grabs hold of them, and teaches himself to love once again. He thinks back to an old love, back to the good time, and draws warmth and happiness from the memory.
“Take it in your heart now, love her.”
He converses with his very soul, who reminds him of an old friend- legendary soul singer Bobby Womack. Bobby had collaborated on the previous Gorillaz album, in the song ‘Stylo’, before he passed away in 2014. At the time, 2D felt lost in himself, almost as if he was a shell of a man. However, he reached out to Bobby. He put his trust in his mastery of the soul, and Bobby put him back together, and made him a whole man again.
“Outside, cold and ghosting out with jet lag
I took it to the right man
Took it all back
When the courts were closing
It was Bobby gracing
I know that
I put it to the right man
He put it back”
Busted and Blue: our starting point for part 2
(It’ll be added to this same article, which I’ll then re-share on all Respawning social media channels.)
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