Gorillaz v Kendrick Lamar – who won the battle of the surprise drops?

Damon Albarn and Kendrick Lamar.
Sudden impact … Damon Albarn and Kendrick Lamar. Composite: Rex/Getty

Gorillaz – four tracks from Humanz

The biggest question with any new Damon Albarn project is always whether he’s spreading himself too thinly. On some of his mythic operas and even his own solo album, in keeping with his “precociously stoned teenager” public persona, he’s often found himself extending an idea over more space, time and media than it warrants.

Gorillaz, too, became a bit of an ill-defined mess around the time of Plastic Beach, and it was no wonder Albarn and Jamie Hewlett fell out. The return of Blur came with Albarn sounding hungry and fresh, though, and on the basis of these four tracks, it seems his reunion with Hewlett and the traditional cast of thousands for Gorillaz could actually be a bit more focused.

The artwork is foreboding and intense, and unlike January’s Hallelujah Money, the doomy and wilfully avant garde comeback song with Benjamin Clementine, the tracks suggest Albarn is fully revived and firing on all cylinders. We Got the Power, with Jehnny Beth of Savages, leaps out with its gospel-punk chorus of, “We’ve got the power to be loving with each other no matter what happens”, sung over a beat that finds a sweet spot between Suicide’s drum machine primitivism and Outkast circa Bombs Over Baghdad.

Ascension is similarly high-energy, with more gospel choir and some fantastically nimble beat programming tangled up with the somersaulting rhymes of Vince Staples. Saturnz Bars (Spirit House) sounds the closest to vintage Gorillaz thanks to a sassily swung trip-hoppish beat, but the trippy atmospherics and the Popcaan’s android patois float are all rendered in hypermodern high definition to match the new digital shine on Hewlett’s artwork. Andromeda is where Albarn takes centre stage, over a zippy house beat and synth-pop hooks, with Virginia MC Dram there more as support than feature.

There isn’t a weak track among the four, and Albarn seems to be remembering that he’s a pop star first, grand conceptualist second: the hooks are instant and insidious, and this strongly suggests that what’s to come will be a whole lot more exciting than the overblown splurge of Plastic Beach.

Verdict: 8/10

Kendrick Lamar – The Heart Part 4

Excitement on social media around the new Kendrick Lamar track and the promise of a new album at the start of April is currently at Defcon 1, as the feeling – not entirely discouraged by the man himself – that he is the hip-hop messiah continues to grow.

The Heart Part 4 is the latest in a series of one-off tracks that have tended to precede his bigger projects and which add to the interwoven autobiographical narratives that fans like to decode as if they were holy texts.

It certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s actually more like two and a half tracks inside five minutes, with a Tribe Called Quest-like soul loop easing us in, then taking a sharp left turn twice in succession before the second minute, settling into an altogether less retro rhythm, devoid of drums, led by a swerving electronic bass tone.

The production is as glorious, intense and detailed as anything in his back catalogue, reminding us that deft though Albarn is with a drum machine, modern hip-hop continues to push way ahead of all comers sonically. Lamar’s torrent of syllables continues unabated with each switch, almost as if his thought processes were detached from the changing music. But on each repeat listen the interplay of word and sound becomes more apparent: he is as virtuosically riding the sound as ever, shifting mood in counterpoint to the beat, not in obedience to it.

Though the patterns and delivery of the rhymes are endlessly complicated, it’s always natural, effortless even, never entering the rhyme-scheme equivalent of metal guitar noodling in the way, say, Eminem has done so many times. This, as ever, is where Lamar justifies the hype.

As far as content goes, though he’s talked a good hip-hop activism talk, unless there’s an entire coded undercurrent audible only to ultra-fans, there’s nothing earth-shattering here. Essentially: he’s the greatest rapper of all time, unnamed adversaries are going to feel his wrath, he’s maintaining his purity of soul despite courtroom shenanigans, righteousness will prevail, and something oblique about Russians.

Which isn’t to belittle the brilliance of this release. It is brilliant, and he continues to be one of the most important talents on the planet, a fantastic figurehead for a vivid purple patch for hip-hop. But only time, and perhaps the coming album, will tell whether he really is the greatest.

Verdict: 8/10