Throughout his illustrious career, Stephen Lee Bruner, better known as Thundercat, has worked with artists ranging from Erykah Badu and Kamasi Washington to Travis Scott and Janelle Monae. Recently, he appeared on Kendrick Lamar’s universally acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly and played a key role in shaping the jazz and funk-inspired sounds of the record, which harkened back to legends such as the Isley Brothers and Funkadelic.
On this new record, It Is What It Is, however, the person who casts the biggest shadow is Bruner’s close collaborator and friend Mac Miller, who tragically died in September of 2018 from a drug overdose. In an interview with Vulture, Bruner said, “But losing Mac was a traumatic experience. It forced me to put things into perspective, genuinely.” With a fresh viewpoint, Bruner confronts the stark realities of love and loss with his trademark blend of humor and sincerity.
The first song begins ominously, with spacey synths swirling around his echoing, sensual vocals. Bruner sings, “Hi, hello / Is anybody there? / Let me know if you can hear me / It feels so cold and so alone.” Arriving either as a transmission from another dimension or a message from beyond the veil, the track is certainly mysterious. This feeling of floating into the unknown recesses of Bruner’s emotions and memories pervades the entire album, leaving you feeling as though you woke up from a dream or in a faraway universe after the last echo on the final track subsides.
The second track, “Interstellar Love,” continues the cosmic journey yet introduces driving percussion as the adventure starts picking up steam. It features more spacey, jazz-infused production, courtesy of frequent collaborator Flying Lotus, and ends with a lush saxophone solo. Flying Lotus is responsible for many of the funky grooves that complement Bruner’s bass playing. The perfect collaborative concoction arrives on the fourth track, where Bruner and Flying Lotus join forces with Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington and Childish Gambino.
The twangy, weird start of “Black Qualls” sees Bruner worrying about whether he’s “keepin’ it real” before he resolves in the chorus to let his worries fall away and live in the present. Bruner sings, “’Cause there’s no more livin’ in fear / No more livin’ in fear / If we don’t talk about it, then who will.” Bruner’s basslines really shine through in the chorus. They’re forceful and resound with such confidence. The bass truly is the heart and soul of Bruner’s music.
In a later verse, Bruner trades concerns with Lacy. Bruner howls into the upper register, “Just moved out the hood, doesn’t mean I’m doing good,” to which Lacy responds in his soulful hum, “Wanna post this on the ’Gram, but don’t think I should.” The musical influences harken back to the ’70s, but the lyrics deal with pressing issues. There is welcome honesty in Bruner’s writing—it’s transparent and at times vulnerable without being overly serious or self-pitying. Some of Bruner’s greatest musical achievements are paired with outrageously funny lyrics.
Look no further than Bruner’s grounded sense of humor than his inclusion of Zack Fox on the song “Overseas.” Fresh off the high of viral Internet fame, Zack Fox delivers a hilarious ending monologue that moves seamlessly into the exquisite highlight of the album, “Dragonball Durag,” which is equally jazzy and hilarious.
“I feel kinda fly standing next to you / Baby girl, how do I look in my durag,” Bruner sings at the start in his quirky falsetto, which floats over a groovy bassline. The track’s sweeter than cotton candy. It’s blissful. Later on, Bruner delivers the hilarious line, “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good” along with “You don’t have to like my video games or my comic books,” speaking to his love of anime and the track’s reference to Dragon Ball Z. The song may be goofy, but it is filled with a refreshing dose of personality amid the melodramatic, self-serious music that currently reigns king.
Following “Dragonball Durag,” the second half of the album sees Bruner slow things down to a simmer. “King of the Hill” charts the exploits of a playboy seeking fulfillment, while “Unrequited Love” opens with classical sounding guitar before Bruner dives into a heartfelt exploration of suppressed feelings. “Fair Chance” sees Bruner collaborate with Ty Dolla $ign, the king of features himself, along with Lil B, who has a substantial cult following within the alternative rap community.
The final track, “It Is What It Is,” lends closure to the project and its theme of accepting what life throws your way. It fittingly ends with Bruner saying, “Hey Mac,” reassuring his lost friend that he will be remembered. In a moment of sincerity, with no trace of his humor in sight, Bruner reminds us what’s really important.
Featured Image by Brainfeeder