Opening scene: we pan across a dilapidated building, and onto a road as an old-school convertible lurches into view. The car's playing hip-hop music that grows louder with its approach, until Vince Staple's breathless lyrics clarify with the grace of a sledgehammer:


"Pull up to his pad, wipe my ass with the flag,
I'm just playing baby, this the land of the free
Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap
Where you can live your dreams long as you don't look like me
Be a puppet on a string, hangin' from a fuckin' tree"

***

These lyrics call up the visceral rage of the moment and the centuries of hurt that fuel it, of the violence and hopelessness of black life in America. And it's almost enough to make you forget that you're watching a cartoon.

I was shaken out of my brief reverie when the car slammed shut, and the music cut and four ghoulish cartoon characters scuttled out. But this is a Gorillaz video, specifically the 'Saturnz Bars (Spirit House)' video, in which the gang engages in a Scooby-Doo-on-acid jaunt involving an abandoned house, malevolent spirits, and outer space. It's playful, uninhibited creativity, the sort of otherworldly immersion that makes the Gorillaz such a fun band and fun experience. However, I couldn't help but feel that the vivid world of the video paled in comparison to the world of that fleeting Staples verse. And perhaps it's that lingering verse that gave me pause when listening to Popcaan's 'Saturnz Barz' waft through the video.


"All my life
Mi ever have mi gun so mi haffi move sharp like mi knife
All my life
Mi pray say when get mi wealthy a ma a mi wife
All my life
The system force mi
Fi be a killer like Rodney Price
All my life
No, all my life"

Again, a specific experience is invoked, this time soaked in the violence and poverty of Jamaica. This song juxtaposed with the visual of a cartoon band getting spooked by phantom squids and pizza slices left me disconcerted, floating between the disparate narratives.

I think the space between the song, grounded in reality, and the fantastical animation was particularly resonant to me in that moment because I'd just read Emily Yoshida's excellent piece on anime, representation, and Ghost in the Shell, and was thinking about her explanation of the style of anime. Its complicated history (I'd recommend you read the piece for the specifics) bred a doe-eyed, Disney-fied style that obfuscates the race of its characters, and therefore the role that race plays in anime shows and films.

"The cartoon racial ambiguity becomes a little more relevant when considering the intentions of their real-life creators."

Which brings me back to the Gorillaz, and leads me to wonder what effect their animation has on the politics conveyed, or avoided, in their music. The band, in its cartoon iteration, is composed of Murdoc, Russel, 2D, and Noodle. While they've changed aesthetically over the years, they remain in an anime-adjacent style, and somewhat race-adjacent as well. 2D is a white guy I think, Noodle is a white/Asian girl, and Murdoc is sort of a pale green but I would guess is more or less white. Russel is almost certainly black. But it's all a little unclear. Which is fine! They're cartoons, they don't need specific races, it's fine, right?

The cartoon racial ambiguity becomes a little more relevant when considering the intentions of their real-life creators. Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett (white men both) cooked up the Gorillaz in 1999, particularly as a response to celebrity culture. David Nolan's piece on the genesis of Gorillaz notes that each character fills a sort of music industry archetype, with 2D as the vapid frontman, Murdoc as a Keith Richards type, etc. Russel is, of course, the hip-hop representative.

Nolan also posits that the cartoon front allowed for Albarn to safely indulge his love for hip-hop, reggae, and a variety of other music styles. He never claims outright that there may have been race-related backlash to a white guy making rap-reggae records, but it is insinuated particularly with the inclusion of the quote from Blur's Alex James characterizing Albarn as "the blackest man in West London."

Intentionally or not, the use of animation, particularly animation in a style that only flirts with distinguishing the race of its characters, obfuscated the issue of race enough so that Albarn could use a variety of musical genres, particularly black genres, without being questioned at all on account of race or cultural appropriation. Considering that from an age where critics scrutinize Drake's patois and disparage Diplo's globetrotting genre-biting, that's kind of impressive.

While Albarn draws from a wide variety of genres with Gorillaz, hip-hop is the most prominent. Of the band's five most popular songs on Spotify to date, four feature rappers, and the fifth features dancehall singer Popcaan, who has a long history with hip-hop and a recent history with Drake.

Hip-hop producer Dan the Automator, who worked on the first album, said to the Guardian, "Hip-hop has a lot to do with the storytelling and therefore it has that with cartoons. With hip-hop, you get to say a lot more words than you do on a rock record. You can paint a picture." This quote seems to overlook the story of hip-hop itself, its emergence from a particular sociopolitical context, one that is liable to be discarded when subsumed into the Gorillaz universe, particularly if it is only treated as a storytelling mode that allows one to speak more words per minute.

"The story of being a persecuted black man in America shouldn't serve as a mere tonal backdrop for a cartoon."

This was likely an easier oversight to make on earlier tracks featuring more whimsical, relatively apolitical verses from Del the Funky Homosapien on 'Clint Eastwood', or De La Soul on 'Feel Good Inc'. However, on a song where Vince Staples raps about lynching, it becomes more difficult to ignore that perhaps his story, the story of being a persecuted black man in America, shouldn't serve as a mere tonal backdrop for a cartoon.

The question of racial politics could potentially grow louder with Gorillaz, as their upcoming album Humanz looks to have a political bent. Pusha T, who's featured on the song 'Let Me Out', mentioned to Zane Lowe on Beats One that Albarn characterized the record in spring 2016 as sounding like "a party at the end of the world, like if Trump were to win."

In a sense, this captures the intriguing tension of Gorillaz, its desire both to escape and confront, to party, but to do so as a political response. The band was created to escape celebrity and confront it satirically, and perhaps also to escape the question of race. An animated world allows Albarn a safe space to do so, obfuscating his identity and intentions.

All this obfuscation also positions him well to cede the floor to his guests, playing in the psychedelic periphery while rappers and singers emerge, confrontationally, as themselves. This is likely why Albarn and his project are embraced critically, and receive so many enthusiastic collaborators; he knows how to get out of the way and make very good, very democratic music.

The dynamic of Albarn retaining his animated mask while his guests remain fully human is demonstrated visually in the 'Feel Good Inc.' video where De La Soul appear as their live-action selves on a screen within the animated Gorillaz world. This seems like a preferable visual articulation of hip-hop's place in the Gorillaz universe, in contrast to the 'Spirit House' video where guests play facelessly in the background or as cartoon voices.

Perhaps that contrast seems like nitpicking, but it serves to illustrate the precarious position Albarn has given himself as the orchestrator of this global music project in which the voices he seeks to incorporate aren't his own, and aren't as privileged as his own. The mechanisms that obscure Albarn (Hewlett's animation, his own position at the controls) constantly threaten to obscure his guests as well. If Albarn continues to deftly keep those mechanisms at bay, he'll likely keep the thinkpieces at bay as well.