Thundercat Traverses a Free-Flowing Jazz-Funk Universe and Returns Realizing ‘It Is What It Is’
Stephen Bruner, who records under the moniker Thundercat, is a musician of the highest rank. A virtuosic bass player, singer-songwriter and visionary with an encyclopedic knowledge of funk and a camp comedic bent, he has played with Donna Summers and the Temptations, won a Grammy for his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, had a short stint with thrash group Suicidal Tendencies, toured with Snoop Dogg, and the list goes on. His last album 2017’s “Drunk” found him his widest audience yet, and saw him collaborating with such star power as Pharell Williams and Whiz Khalifa. The followup, “It Is What It Is,” ensembles an even more impressive roster, and marks a bold new step for Bruner. It’s a free-flowing set of songs full of consummate musicianship, existential musings, and insider wit.
Moments into opener, “Lost In Space/ Great Scott,” it’s hard to mistake the music for that of anyone but Thundercat. He resides in an esoteric retro futurist jazz-funk realm that few select souls inhabit today, and has settled more comfortably into this particular niche with every successive release, to the point where the music just seems to exude from him. From the onset, it’s all angular, jazzy chords, ‘80s synth funk inclinations, and self-aware, slightly strained singing from Bruner that hints subtly at the humor that is generally also a central feature of his music. Along with this, comes a fair amount of existential exploration, which should come as no surprise considering the strain of comedy to which Bruner usually gravitates — the surrealist fare characterized by such personalities as Eric Andre. Here he begins, “Hi, hello / Is anybody there?” and ends up asking, “Is it time to go? / Go and start the show,” after which a beat promptly picks up, as if affirming the album title, “It Is What It Is.
“Interstellar Love” is the first proper song — in regard to its length. In terms of structure, it begins, flows, and ends like every song here, however Bruner pleases. Once again, “it is what it is.” This is actually one of the more conventional tracks, as it has a distinct chorus. Over crashing drums and keys, Bruner dribbles up and down melodic staircases every which way on his bass. Saxophone enters the mix, and it’s all a joyous, concerted, fusion celebration. The philosophical musings continue, “Nothing is yours, nothing is mine / We are decaying, over time,” but find a positive resolution in the refrain, “Let’s go together, innerstellar love.” For, “I Love Louis Cole,” Bruner recruits, indeed, Louis Cole of electronic Knower, who performs live with a full jazz-funk ensemble. This track is cheery, heavily ‘80s-informed giddiness, a glorious excavation of a largely forgotten sound. The drums are so fast, the players all so perfectly in sync, and the vocal melody so catchy that one expects all the musicians to be grinning widely throughout. The refrain, “Let’s do it all again,” sounds like an extension of the previous track’s sentiment, but now directed specifically toward partying. Bruner hilariously recalls details like “I remember you were punching my friends / Made an oil spill that makes Exxon offended… And this is why I love to party with you.“
Single “Black Qualls” features a larger-than-life cast of characters, including the Internet’s Steve Lacy, Childish Gambino, and Steve Arrington, best known for his role as singer and drummer of ‘70s funk group Slave. The three guests and Bruner take turns singing, each infusing the track with plenty of personality. Lacy’s standard delivery comes in perpetual falsetto, at moments taken to ridiculous heights, otherwise kept at bay with a considerable cool. On this track it’s remarkable how much he occasionally sounds like Pharell Williams. Arrington has a one-of-a-kind voice. He sings in breathy utterances scattered whimsically, swelling into gestures of evangelical flair. Gambino enters in the end, channeling funk greats with a brief verse of sporadic, soulful stylings, expressed with gusto, as a pitched-up voice edges him on, “Don’t stop.” It’s the funkiest track yet, with traces of the aquatic feel of Lacy’s work with the Internet, and the colorful, cartoonish essence of classic P-funk. There are observations specific to the times like “Wanna post this on the Gram, but don’t think I should / Gotta keep it on the low ’cause I been robbed before.” Ultimately, in the chorus, Bruner sings, “’There’s no more livin’ in fear / If we don’t talk about it then who will?” once again nodding to the statement in the album’s title.
“Miguel’s Happy Dance” sounds about as cheery as you might expect from its title. The buoyant bass, translucent tones, wah wah droplets shifting through stereo, and Bruner’s ultra-chill vocals gliding over it all make for a smooth, silky sound. Above all, it reminds you what a difference bass can make. When most bassists are content to wither in relative obscurity, people like Thundercat reclaim the game. The humor also return here, with lyrics seemingly delivered half-jokingly, like “Just do the fuckin’ dance / Even if you start to cry / It’s okay.” Studies have shown that the act of smiling actually makes people happy, so it’s not much of a stretch to expect the same from dancing. Still, one has to poke fun at the ridiculousness of the idea, as Bruner and crew are surely doing so. Bruner takes the spotlight on “How Say,” which places him over an insistent beat and minimal backing, and just lets him go to town on the bass. It’s a lot like Squarepusher at his most straight-up jazz fusion. A voice offers a running commentary that consists solely of “Ay” and “Yo,” which translate in context roughly to “damn,” in response to Bruner’s soloing.
A dose of heavy funk comes on “Funny Thing,” with deep wallops of wah wah bass, a steady synth pulse, wheezing ambiance, and a slapdash, barebones drum machine pulse. Another brief interlude, it functions as a succinct reminder of the lighthearted spirit at the core of the album, with Bruner reprising the theme of ‘I Love Louis Cole,” insisting, “I just wanna party with you.” Next comes “Overseas,” another playful number with Bruner daydreaming about traveling with a lover to various locales around the world over a thrilling racket of percussion. The track ends with comedian Zach Fox playing a pilot making an announcement. At one point, he comments, “There appears to be a shiny black man up there in first class… He’s got all his chains on and a durag, is that Thundercat?” This cues up possibly the greatest moment on the album, “Dragonball Durag.” This song might most accurately be classified under the comedy genre. It just happens to have absolute top musicianship. Just consider a few of the lyrics: “Do you like my new whip? / Watch me go zoom, zoom… Baby girl, how do I look in my durag?” Right.
Another telling line of “Dragonball Durag” is “You don’t have to like my video games or my comic books,” as it serves as an acknowledgment of the geekiness — for lack of a better term — at the core of this music. As if again on cue, the band erupts into “How I Feel,” another interlude in which the sound design stylings seem to nod at sci-fi silliness. The existentialism resurfaces too, as Bruner croons away, repeatedly asking, “Is this real?” By this point, it seems like Bruner and crew have achieved the maximum conceivable musical realization of mellowness. Yet, they continue to exceed themselves. “King of the Hill” is another all-star affair, recruiting long term collaborator Flying Lotus and Toronto jazz/hip-hop collective BadBadNotGood. While a song of average length, it still has the feel of an interlude, due to its free-flowing nature. Bruner appears to be still sifting through eternal questions, reflecting, “A king of the hill / Wasting his time / Chasing cheap thrills.” The keys sound particularly magical on this track, melting into the overall aura as the band riffs off the loaded questions, as if seeking spiritual answers until it all comes together in the end upon a refrain of “love, love, love.”
“Unrequited Love,” originally featured on the television show “Carole & Tuesday,” brings a rare moment when you really just get to hear Bruner solo, reminding you what restraint it must take for him to hold back such skill most of the time. A third in, a basic beat drops, with the hardest snare imaginable — very Questlove. The more romantic end, with Bruner singing about “the one that got away,” as the music develops into a blend of rosy bass and string interplay with frilly guitar figures. Next, “Fair Chance,” enlists Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B. Funky. The expertly fractured, deconstructed soul soundscape, with its rather odd instrumentation, itself makes the track a standout. Ty’s verse is easy and reflective, and Lil B’s is essentially spoken word, with sung backing vocals accenting bits here and there. Bruner has explicitly specified that this song is about Mac Miller,” whose death last year shook up musicians from practically every genre imaginable. Ty, B, and Bruner all keep their lyrics rather open-ended, taking inspiration from Miller, but letting that inspiration assume whatever form it takes. With Miller already having passed, there’s of course not much one can do other than remember him, and Bruner acknowledges this, incorporating the phrase from the album title, “It is what it is.”
Bruner repeats the sentence again in “Existential Dread,” effectively tying together a couple of the album’s themes, by offering it as a response to the titular phenomenon. A slow, delicate number full of intricate guitar, it’s the softest moment on the album. There’s a single bit of phrasing and wording seemingly pulled from Incubus’ “Drive,” out of all places. After all the soul searching, drums eventually enter the mix, offering some grounding, whereupon the band comes into concert, and jams away. Finally, the title track ends the triptych, easing out from the elated frenzy, back into the sprawling, spacious stylings of “Existential Dread,” albeit now taking up a distinctly composed tune. Guitarist Pedro Martins takes the spotlight here, and the band takes directions from his expressive playing. For his last words, Bruner calls out, “Hey Mac,” as if framing the whole album as a dedication.
“It Is What It Is” is clearly the work of an auteur. Every second of the recording fits neatly into that camp sonic vision that has characterized Thundercat’s solo efforts since day one. The particular strain of jazz-funk that he brings back to light so successfully is a style that largely fizzled out and disappeared after its ‘70s heydey, and is hardly ever revived with such commitment to craft. Musicians of Bruner’s calibre often lapse easily into self-indulgent, academic exercise that is generally more fun for the musicians than the listeners. Bruner’s new album, however, strikes a fair balance, always remaining both intriguing and accessible. Similarly, the lofty philosophical quandaries are kept in balance by the goofiest of humor. Altogether, it’s a wild ride, thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
“It Is What It Is” is available April 3 on Apple Music.