Gorillaz is…?

(Too tired to write after teaching TKD today, so here is my music column from this coming Sunday. PREVIEW!!!)

Gorillaz aren’t exactly hip-hop, but I can’t pass up the chance to reflect on them. Actually, pinning them down to a genre is probably the most difficult thing about understanding Gorillaz. Their Wikipedia page lists rock, pop, alternative, hip-hop, acid pop, trip-hop, and electronica. Endlessly unique and trippy, their innovations always feel slightly discordant, like they didn’t arise naturally be came from someone consciously trying to figure out what a new music innovation might sound like. Their pop tendencies are almost ahead of their time, or from some underground scene that was so hidden critics never figured out how to process the new sounds. If I had to give their style a name, I’d call it Speculative Pop: pop music created for a twisted bizarro world that may or may not come about.

If you don’t know already, Gorillaz is a semi-fictional band. Obviously they produce real, non-fictional music that gets sold in real stores and tracked on real charts, and obviously there are actual human beings composing the songs and singing the vocals. But the individuals to whom the music is attributed are characters, cartoons with elaborate made-up histories. When they perform live, these cartoons are projected onstage. One of the most awesome and revelatory experiences in my understanding of music was watching the Grammies on TV when Madonna (in the flesh) performed with 3D holograms of Gorillaz.

Perhaps because of this fictional nature, Gorillaz can get away with stuff that more conventional bands can’t. They did two remixes albums of their debut, self-titled album, one more or less dub reggae and the other closer to alternative rock. Usually this sort of genre switching is hard to pull off, but nobody blinks when Gorillaz does it. Their second album was…pop/electronica? A good chunk of their songs on these first albums have really solid hip-hop verses in them (in the first album these were ostensibly performed by a rapping cartoon ghost that possesses the band’s drummer through a magic baseball cap; in reality they were done by Del the Funkee Homosapien). Their second album had De La Soul on 2005’s pop/hip-hop breakout single, “Feel Good Inc.”

Gorillaz has a new album out this week, appropriately but unsettlingly titled Plastic Beach, set in a world, I think, where pollution is an aesthetically transformative force. Just scanning the list of featured artists feels like a journey into the Twilight Zone: Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, De La Soul, Kano, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Mick Jones, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. Despite the appearances by Snoop and Mos, this album is much less hip-hop focused, much slower and drifting. I don’t think any of the tracks have the speed and energy to make it on the pop music charts. Still, the album is really fun and fascinating in its way, and I have no doubt that some of its sound seep out to influence other genres. It is the kind of music that you must either devote all your attention to or just leave on as background noise. The middle ground (where pop music thrives) isn’t really an option.

If you want to hear something indisputably new this week, check out Gorillaz new album, Plastic Beach.


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