THUNDERCAT- ‘It Is What It Is’
Thundercat’s last album was his masterwork. The man otherwise known as Stephen Bruner had hit high notes before of course, he’s been one to watch since his honeydew debut, but 2017’s ‘Drunk’ was a fizzy, dizzy collection of sugar-rush funk, electric soul, and killer slow jams that felt like the greatest mixtape ever made. It somehow scratched Bruner’s itch for full-blast virtuosity, madcap fun, and relentless experimentation, while also ending up album-of-the-year lists everywhere. A feat.
‘It Is What It Is’ can’t compete.
Opener ‘Lost in Space…’ starts with Bruner asking “Hi, hello, is anybody there?” as if he didn’t pick up a million new listeners over the last three years. For first timers though, it’s a neat introduction to the high register vocals, smoky, palpable production, and enchanting but slightly-agitated vibe of Thundercat. It bleeds directly into the jazzy, jangling ‘Interstellar Love’ though, the least smooth song about zero-gravity sex ever recorded, then the abrupt flurry of ‘I Love Louis Cole’, and the pudgy groove of ‘Black Qualls’, and now it’s track five and the album still hasn’t really got going.
Previously, it has felt like Thundercat could do almost anything. He’s toured with Suicidal Tendencies as a teenager, worked with artists as diverse as Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, and Kenny Loggins, written songs about outer space, video games, and booty calls, and he’s made it all work before now. It’s not fair perhaps, but it makes some of ‘It Is What It Is’ feel extra underwhelming. ‘How Sway’ is a sweet nothing, and ‘Overseas’ ripples with quality but still feels like it could have been developed further.
Oh, he can still thrill. ‘Fair Chance’ is whispered liquid gold, ‘Dragonball Durag’ is equal parts ridiculous and brilliant, and Bruner’s skills with a bass remain unmatched- there are some dreamy, original sounds here and ‘I Love Louis Cole’ will make your fingers dizzy. But if this is also a mixtape, it’s been made with less care for transitions and dynamics and ebb and flow.
Bruner’s tendency to extend riffs and jokes that should be left bite-sized, while cutting short ideas that would actually be better served by more space and time is also in effect here. Even if it meant confronting some BIG questions, ‘Existential Dread’ should have bloomed instead of being nipped in the bud, while the bubbly head-bob of ‘Funny Thing’ is irresistible but less than two minutes long. And this, when he can conjure magic like the mutant Bond theme that is the title track.
That album title fits then. As well as something of a grating Gen-Z shoulder shrug refrain, it feels like a better review of this record than the last 400 words put together. This is Thundercat in third gear.