Thundercat new album 'It Is What It Is' combines historical and personal influences
Stephen Bruner, the bassist and producer known as Thundercat, has spent the past few years making an impact in the music industry. In 2015, his production and solos were all over Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which is widely seen as the greatest rap album of all time. His 2017 album, “Drunk,” still sounds just as unique as the first time you hear it.
For his latest album, “It Is What It is,” his influences have never been clearer. George Duke, the pioneering keyboardist and bandleader who played with Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa before making his own jazz fusion records, is all over this record. To understand and appreciate Thundercat is to value deep '70s funk and the musicians that founded it: Bootsy Collins, George Clinton and Herbie Hancock — these titans of '70s funk and incredibly influential to Thundercat’s musical development.
On “It Is What It Is,” Thundercat stands on the achievements of his forefathers while adding a modern twist of funk and his own personal style. His ability of merging his incredible virtuosity as a bassist while conceptually remaining lighthearted and maintaining a sense of silliness is one of his most powerful assets.
On the first track, “Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26,” he sets the tone of the album immediately by singing, “Hi, hello / Is anybody there? / Let me know if you can hear me / It feels so cold and so alone.” While you’ll always know it's Thundercat due to his unique falsetto vocals and iconic bass tone, he’s started to explore more serious topics such as loss and isolation.
His tendency to avoid traditional song structures are more noticeable on this project than earlier works. Six of the 15 tracks are instrumental interludes less than 2 minutes, and his songs consistently avoid either bridges or choruses.
He can also switch tones at the drop of a dime: On “Dragonball Durag,” he sings about trying to get a woman to be his girlfriend by asking how he looks in a Dragon Ball Z-themed durag. Standout tracks such as this do not detract from the overall theme of the album: They add to Thundercat’s unique personality as a musician and makes him more three-dimensional.
Guest appearances are all over this album, but they do not take away from Thundercat’s artistic flourishes. Childish Gambino, Steve Lacy and Kamasi Washington are all notable guests on this album, but Thundercat’s production reminds that it is his album first and foremost.
The song, “Black Qualls,” is a classic example of Thundercat playing homage to a funk legend. Featuring Childish Gambino and Lacy, the track is heavily influenced by the work of the '70s funk band Slave, which combined both soul and big band elements in its music. The stylistic similarities are striking — the Clavinet keyboard and Steve Arrington’s falsetto are pages straight out of Thundercat’s playbook.
"It Is What It Is" also features some of Thundercat’s most depressing lyrics to date. On “Existential Dread,” he muses, “Sometimes, existential dread / Comes ringin' through loud and clear / I’ll adjust and simply let go / I guess it is what it is.” His tone reflects his mental state over the death of his close friend Mac Miller in 2018 to a drug overdose, and this album is a sort of resigned acceptance over his death and existence in general.
One of the most important takeaways from “It Is What It is” is Thundercat has never been more comfortable and aware of his emotions and personality. He is a unique representation of funk in the 21st century in the way his music encapsulates themes from the past, present and future. He is one of the greatest bassists alive. (He loves Dragon Ball Z. He tweets about his favorite anime.) His personality is effortlessly intertwined with his art, and we should be appreciative that we can watch him work in real time.
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