Photo Credit: Nasty Little Man
Gorillaz began more than two decades ago, originally a form of collaboration that was unique, to say the least, between a musician (in this case, Blur vocalist Damon Albarn) and an illustrator (Jaime Hewlett, creator of the British comic book series Tank Girl) with the purpose of creating a soundtrack for a gang of edgy cartoon characters. Always much less a “band” than a project or else a musical collective, the franchise would end up hosting a wide variety of collaborators (a practice which continues, as we’ll see), meant to fuse pop and hip-hop in a way that was intended to sound almost like they were virtually the same thing all along.
The Gorillaz now swing back in with their eighth full-length release, Cracker Island. The album bursts right out of the cage with the opening- and the title track which also happens to be the best song on the record. This generation’s bass guitar virtuoso Stephen Lee Bruner, professionally known as Thundercat, guests on the cut, which is a flawless tight combination of modern electronic pop and classic ’70s R&B. Even at a relatively scant three-and-a-half minutes, this one track definitely has it all.
Cracker Island doesn’t slow down in pulling out the big guns with “Oil,” to which Stevie Nicks lends her distinct voice. Ironically, this single cut which features the most seasoned musical veteran to appear on the album is also arguably the most modern-sounding one here. Radio-friendly “Silent Running” explores the group’s more mellow side nicely with a spoken word section by Gorillaz regular Adeleye Omotayo.
Undeniable low points on the album are not many but would have to include “Tarantula,” an average-at-best dance track, and “Baby Queen,” a song that is just confoundingly mediocre. Highlights, on the other hand, would have to include “Tired Influencer,” on which the timely AF title is only the first point scored for the strong mid-tempo track with a borderline-reggae beat. Bad Bunny hops in to add a Latin element to “Tormenta,” while “Skinny Ape” cleverly apes ’80s synthpop and even throws in a punk-like chant, and the dreamily funky “Possession Island,” which closes the main body of the record, features not only an appearance from Beck but also a hook similar to the group’s 2005 classic “Feel Good, Inc.”
Despite the diversity of participants, Albarn definitely dominates the album (as well as the whole Gorillaz franchise – he’s the only non-cartoon musician who’s been on every release) to the point where much of Cracker Island could conceivably have been a Blur release. In contrast to their better-known work, here the hip-hop element largely takes a back seat, with only “New Gold” – featuring rapper Bootie Brown – carrying the torch for the majority of the record (the track also features Tame Impala, which should tell you all you need to know).
The five tracks which comprise the “Deluxe Edition” are the usual mix of alternative versions with original songs that for whatever reason didn’t make the official standard album. Actually, the record seems to have compartmentalized the more hip-hop-centric tracks here, as three consecutive tracks which between them feature rap sections from De La Soul, Del the Funky Homosapien, and MC Bid Laden. It’s all better late than never, as the tracks do reaffirm just how strongly the Gorillaz have always merged music styles and continue to do so. By now, the novelty of the Gorillaz – both in terms of the cartoon gimmick and the hybrid sound – has probably subsided or at the very least become familiar. Still, for those listeners who do already have an idea of what the franchise is offering, Cracker Island isn’t a bad place to get marooned for the better part of an hour.