Seeing the final first-work tally for Gorillaz‘ Humanz tap out at a robust 140,000 equivalent units (115,000 in straight sales) — second on the Billboard 200 this week only to Kendrick Lamar‘s blockbuster DAMN. — may come as a shock to fans and non-fans alike.
For one thing, the album far out-performed initial projections, which pegged the set at a respectable-but-relatively-unremarkable 80,000 units moved in its debut frame. But more pressingly, 140,000 marks the best sales week yet for Gorillaz (about 28,000 better than 2010’s Plastic Beach, their previous high), a group that’s been around since the beginning of the century and hasn’t had a song crack the Billboard Hot 100 in over a decade. And though streaming and sales have resulted in the group landing a staggering number of entries on the Rock Songs chart this week (14 total), radio support for the set has been minimal. The only Humanz track to even crack the airplay-based Alternative Songs chart has been “We Got the Power,” so far peaking at a paltry No. 38.
It’s all pretty stunning for a group that many dismissed as a novelty act — or at the very least, a likely one-hit wonder — back in the early ’00s, when the cartoon band first broke out with the zombified alt-rap jaunt “Clint Eastwood.” They seemed like a fun diversion for frontman Damon Albarn, in between albums from his main gig as lead singer of Britpop titans Blur. But a decade and a half later, it’s Gorillaz who can disappear for six or seven years — too long to be a regular gap between album cycles, but not long enough to be considered a true comeback — and still post six-figure sales stateside. Meanwhile, Blur waited over a decade between their last two LPs, and 2015’s The Magic Whip debuted at a relatively underwhelming No. 24 on the Billboard 200, with just a fraction of Humanz‘ first-week numbers.
But Gorillaz has advantages for U.S. commercial longevity that, for all their greatness and success, Albarn’s other outfit just can’t claim. For one, Blur will always be associated by many with the Britpop movement — a distinctly ’90s, distinctly British moment in guitar-rock history that feels very far away from popular music in 2017. Gorillaz, however, debuted as a sonically shape-shifting, genre-blurring collective at the turn of the century, mixing rock, hip-hop, electronic and dub influences into an amorphous, undefinable sound. If anything, they sound even more at home in today’s musical landscape, where “alternative” can mean anything from Lorde to Twenty One Pilots to Rag’n’Bone Man.
While Albarn is the outfit’s primary sonic architect and nominal frontman, his actual public presence in the band is relatively sidelined. For one thing, the group members still present primarily through their animated primate proxies — Albarn as the skinny, hollow-eyed 2-D — so they’re much less vulnerable to the potential age biases of a fan base not traditionally used to following bands fronted by singers staring down 50. Just as importantly, Albarn is happy to cede the spotlight on record, too — he lets more of-the-moment guests like Kelela, Vince Staples and Jehnny Beth of Savages take center stage on Humanz‘s biggest tracks while offering sporadic vocal commentary from the wings.
All of this, plus the group’s commitment to continued technical innovation (having just given their first live interview) and musical evolution (“Ascension” and “We Got the Power,” off Humanz, are arguably the group’s most two riotous post-genre anthems to date), results in Gorillaz being as untied to any specific point in rock or pop chronology as any other group of their size or stature. So if they want to re-emerge in 2017, with a specifically 2017 guest list and specifically 2017 thematic concerns, it doesn’t create degree of dissonance caused by your overwhelming memory of what the group was in 2005. That version of Gorillaz made sense in 2005, as their 2010 selves did in 2010, and as their Humanz era does now.
Of course, this wouldn’t mean anything if Humanz wasn’t still good — indeed, the group has never made a bad album, each of their LPs a beautifully realized alternate universe. Gorillaz make concept albums not burdened with the weight of an actual spelled-out concept, with one or two undeniable singles to anchor it in real-world pop. But the fact that Gorillaz seem to exist on their own evolving musical timeline — separate from (but still connected to) ours — means that, on the rare occasions when they choose to cross over to our realm to let us know how things are going on their side, it seems we’ll happily pay for the privilege of hearing their story.