Stephen Lee Bruner aka Thundercat is best known for producing Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly earning Lee a Grammy. However there so much more to this jazz enthusiast than this. Despite being in a boyband at aged fifteen and playing bass in Los Angeles punk band Suicidal Tendencies; Thundercat gets audiences to dig his music by “digging in the crates” where Thundercat renews elements from old soul, funk, and jazz albums (Miles Davis, Mary Lou Williams and Ron Carter) to bring the sound, feel and emotion he wants to convey. It Is What It Is follows Thundercat’s third LP Drunk which saw collaborations with Pharrel. Having since stopped drinking lost weight and experienced the loss of his friend rapper Mac Miller; It Is What It Is promises to be a new experience and departure from Drunk.
Despite opening track “Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26” being shorter than ninety seconds; “Lost in Space” with its profound existential questioning provokes one’s own pondering about if we are alone in the universe with Thundercat’s falsetto vocal beauty amidst mellow, chilled, yet cosmic funk chords. The majority of the tracks across It Is What It Is are extremely brief (with five failing to break the two-minute barrier), yet so much energy and variety is compressed into each song. These include “How Sway” with speedy synths and funk bass lines draws the best from Stevie Wonders Innervisions with innovative organs reminiscent of Billy Preston and the prog-rock greatness of Rick Wakeman. “Funny Thing”, a song about being drunk and partying draws EDM influences from Australian duo Empire of The Sun. “Overseas” sees Thundercat goofing whilst trying to be a player whilst flying in first-class featuring Zack Ross as the pilot paying homage to Thundercat’s fashion of choice: chains and durag.
Durag (a cap typically worn to accelerate the development of waves, braids or dreadlocks) also features on lead single “Dragon Durag” has a fantastic music video which sees Thundercat wearing a durag, chains, Micky Mouse jacket, leopard-print ear muffs and manga shorts trying, but unsuccessfully wooing Haim band members (Este, Danielle and Alana), R&B singer Kali Uchis and US comedian Quinta Brunson. Despite being unsuccessful with the ladies “Dragon Durag” musically impresses with slow funk and impressive sporadic improvised jazz sax solos whilst representing male cat owners globally across the lyrics “I may be covered in cat hair (Thundercat has a cat called Tron), but I still smell good”. “Dragon Durag” also shows an adroit artist at ease with himself.
Thundercat as the holy goof across It Is What It Is is a joyful character. His ability to be at ease is sacrosanct for his development as an artist; however many of the other songs across this LP expressing fear and describing struggles are the most poignant. “Black Qualls” featuring Childish Gambino, Steve Arrington & Steve Lacy impresses with Stevie Wonder “Living in the City” funk amidst lyrics “Just moved out the hood, doesn’t mean I’m doin’ it good. Wanna post this on the ‘Gram but don’t think I should. Is it just for me or am I paranoid? Gotta keep it on the low ’cause I been robbed before.” “Fair Chance” featuring Lil B & Ty Dolla $ign about rudimentary survival of keeping “above water” has unexpected riffs (albeit more chilled) that one finds on Leonard Cohen’s “Stanger Song” and The Partisan”.
From its spooky organ intro to bursting into chilled hip hop beats along with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” sounding organ riffs; “King of the Hill” graduates as a reinterpreted Beatles “Fool on the Hill” for the twenty-first century. The lyrics “A king in his castle. A king of the hill. Wasting his time chasing cheap thrills. He knows it’s gonna cost him. God knows how much.” speaks to so many people with secreting trepidation and anxiety.
The Playout track bearing the same title as the LP and the only song (out of fifteen) on the LP lasting longer than five minutes (with the rest under four minutes) despite being laconic lyrically given this songs’ length; Thundercat succeeds as a poet with his ego stripped free, focused, concerned and serious “When the gold becomes dough and the magic starts to fade” and When I sit back and reflect from a broken heart sometimes there’s regret… so many things I wanna say this is the end.” With a soundtrack of unplugged guitars, strings and percussion drums; the listener is left feeling haunted, humbled, thought provoked whilst also enriched.
From being laid back and silly, flirting with girls, boasting about his cat, bringing the durag into everyday vocabulary, to analysing himself, laying bare his inner, external and existential anxieties; Thundercat demonstrates that the yin and the yang can come together and coexist on an LP. With classic albums and songs being continuously celebrated; Thundercat like a deft archaeologist excavates the historic musical elements that are still reinvented, authentic and can relate to people’s lives in the here and now.