Album Review: Thundercat – It Is What It Is
Max Ingleby reviews Thundercat’s latest album.
Thundercat does his own thing. That was the gist of this album, and however much it thrilled, bored or overwhelmed me, that fact was indisputable. Stephen Lee Bruner, thirty-five-year-old six-stringed bassist extraordinaire and the preeminent funk revivalist of the 2010s, is kind of a goofball. A cursory glance over his Instagram will reveal Stephen dry-humping a Snorlax plushie whilst dressed as Bruce Lee, or jamming butt naked with Mac DeMarco on a pair of fold-out lawn chairs. Needless to say, he takes himself very seriously.
The album opens with ‘Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26’, a comfortably-numb-style “hello, is there anybody there?” is delivered in Bruner’s trademark falsetto, which floats between tinkling pianos and meandering basslines, before bubbling over to the next track. ‘Innerstellar Love’ is a sprawling jazz-fusion piece, anointed by the holy saxophone of Kamasi Washington, and pleasingly busy, if a little unremarkable. ‘I Love Louis Cole’ is next, a blisteringly fast-paced tribute to a friend and fellow artist. Lyrically, it’s adorably affectionate, but musically, it’s a bit much. The drums sound more DnB than RnB, and trying to keep up with the relentless key changes is exhausting.
It’s silly, sad, unfocused, polished, unremarkable, irresistible and bewildering
‘Black Qualls’, featuring Steve Lacy, Childish Gambino and veteran funk singer Steve Arrington is a frustrating jumble. Bruner has previously collaborated with older artists, and to great effect, such as on ‘Show You The Way’ off of his last album, but the four voices crammed into this short track feel somewhat contradictory. All Donald Glover has to offer is a throwaway line about everyone being hooked to their “tiny screens” (we live in a society), and Lacy’s promising groove is stymied by Arrington’s dreary interludes.
The highly forgettable ‘Miguel’s Funky Dance’ drifts by, then ‘How Sway’, which is so excessively hyper one wonders if Bruner cracked it out after he downed those three Yerba Mates in Kenny Beats’ cave (that’s a loooot of caffeine). Finally, at track seven, we reach ‘Funny Thing’, a charming, well-crafted, emotional song that makes you realise what a slog the first half of the album has been in comparison. There’s a fun interlude featuring the ever-hilarious Zack Fox, then we dive seamlessly into ‘Dragonball Durag’.
This is the crown jewels. It’s out-of-the-park stuff. It’s so damn good I’ve listened to it every day since the single dropped in February, and I do not plan on stopping. Dennis Hamm’s sparkling piano splashes like the sweetest champagne. Kamasi descends from above to bless us poor mortals with a smidgeon more sax, and Thundercat, bass, voice and all, is truly in his element. After the track fades out, however, it slowly becomes clear that we have entered a new album entirely.
The notable tonal downturn spanning the last six songs of the project, can be explained by the tragic death of Bruner’s close friend and serial collaborator, Malcolm McCormick, AKA Mac Miller. When Miller died last September, it was an event that “traumatised” Bruner, as he commented in an interview with Zane Lowe, and the latter half of the album sees him trying to process this grief. The last four tracks all feature the phrase “It is what it is,” taken from Miller’s track ‘What’s the Use?’ (featuring Bruner), and are at times extremely touching.
‘Fair Chance’, featuring Ty Dollar $ign and Lil B, follows the three artists as they pledge to “keep holdin’ you down / Even though you’re not around,” and the final, titular track is a painful dirge that evokes the Beach Boys at their most despondent. “It couldn’t be helped, the end / So many things I wanna say / This is the end,” Bruner reflects, heartbreakingly, as Miller’s voice appears briefly, then disappears into a cathartic instrumental crescendo.
It Is What It Is is a curious beast. A frenetic, unfocused run of six songs is followed by a pristine peak of three, then a run of six songs mostly focused on Miller. It’s oddly structured, but it’s easy to see how Bruner must have struggled to reconcile the mischievous, playful side of his personality with the sudden appearance of grief, so a neat divide is fairly intuitive. As a whole, It Is What It Is is unpredictable and varied. It’s silly, sad, unfocused, polished, unremarkable, irresistible and bewildering, somehow all at once. But it’s hard to get annoyed at the obvious flaws when you realise how personal and unique the sound is, and how much passion has been poured into (nearly) every song. I understand that Thundercat does his own thing, but I can’t stop thinking about that godly three song run from tracks 7-9, and what a whole album of that would sound like. Ah well. I’ll keep grooving to ‘Dragonball Durag’.