ALBUM REVIEW: Thundercat begins ascent to ethereal realms on ‘It Is What It Is’

Thundercat It Is What It Is

Few musicians today can compete with the resume of Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat. Bruner developed his virtuosic stringmanship alongside some of L.A.’s brightest talents. He was instrumental to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (widely regarded as Lamar’s best) and collaborated on albums by Erykah Badu and jazz bandleader Kamasi Washington. Before all that, he even took a turn with crossover thrash mainstays Suicidal Tendencies.

It Is What It Is
Brainfeeder Records, April 3

Finally, in 2017, the funk-rooted bassist came into his own with Drunk. The album was well-received and showcased Thundercat’s range and emerging lyrical style. His fourth solo album, It Is What It Is, marks a maturation of the artist. Surgically precise execution follows, from uniform instrumental mastery to the crisp editing and production of Flying Lotus.

Strong instrumental work is to be expected from any Thundercat release. Nifty drumming explodes on bromance “I Love Louis Cole.” The subject of the song, Louis Cole, who keeps jazz alive in L.A. living rooms, plays on the track. Cole transmutes a fast techno drumbeat into a jazz distance sprint. Bruner, who has called Cole a genius, constructs a high-flying ode to partying together above Cole’s airtight performance. The song builds on an ascending, reverb-ensconced organ theme. The affirmative lyrics recall an evening’s revels and the song carries itself away in cloud-like elation.

Having built his reputation on instrumental skill, Thundercat naturally brings it for It Is What It Is. “How Sway” takes barely a minute to whizz through impressive bass and keyboard jams. Emerging jazz giant Washington centers the wayward “Innerstellar Love” with a cosmic saxophone outro. Washington gets down on the freaky side of smooth new age gloss while the band test-drives jazz quotables around him. Throughout the record, Bruner’s bass playing sustains a nimble rumble, steadying the album with a guiding pulse.

Bruner the songwriter explores one take on the black American experience on thumping single “Black Qualls.” A quick internet search suggests “quall” is an archaic usage for the word “equal”—though given Bruner’s therianthropic aspirations, it could just as well refer to the carnivorous Australian marsupial. The band executes hairpin chord changes to mobilize some of Bruner’s grittier lyrics. “Just moved out of the hood/ Don’t mean I’m doin’ good,” he sings, recalling 1970s urban action flicks. In view of the vocal similarities between Bruner and canonized soul icon Curtis Mayfield, Bruner stretches out on “Black Qualls,” navigating a near-collision with a ball of super-fly grime.

If anything, the rapid-fire brevity of the album’s first half may leave some listeners feeling It Is What It Is doesn’t have quite enough to bite into. After the expansiveness of Drunk, the entirety of It Is What It Is flies past in a brief 37 minutes. Of the 15 songs, only nine exceed two minutes in duration. A few feel superfluous, like “Miguel’s Happy Dance,” with its adverse directive, and the frivolous “Overseas.” While there are hooks and chops overflowing from every corner, the record’s short-form aesthetic may limit its repeat-listening value for some casual fans.

This doesn’t entirely work against the album, however. Despite the decision to produce the songs as sketches rather than aural paintings, those sketches are illuminating. The songs are lush, almost overproduced, making it a surprise how much variation is layered into each cut. As the follow-up to the important Drunk, It Is What It Is admirably avoids overstatement, opting instead to give just enough across a wide spectrum.

The album arcs strongly from the neural firepower of its first half to a string of contemplative songs, allowing itself to unwind at a relaxed pace. The spooky intro of “King Of The Hill” creates some breathing room, at last, initiating a movement away from Bruner’s manic musical frenzies. Though he erupts again on “Unrequited Love,” it is a subdued affair. “Fair Chance” graciously accommodates Ty Dolla $ign and Berkeley native Lil B for a delicate study on growing up and apart from someone. Ty Dolla $ign delivers the bold emotional punch with a finely crafted lead vocal. Lil B follows up with an introspective semi-melodic rap, the introverted mumble of which complements the former’s plaintive turn. With a beautiful sense of melancholy, subtle production touches augment the song’s compelling fragility.

“This album is about love, loss, life and the ups and downs that come with that. … Some things just aren’t meant to be understood,” Bruner has said of It Is What It IsThe handful of meditative songs that close the album reflect this attitude of sublime resignation. In the lyrics of the final three songs, the album’s title phrase shows up repeatedly. The upshot is a thematically cohesive sendoff that stands in contrast to the album’s fevered majority.

The title track, the longest on the album at just shorter than five minutes, achieves this distinction across two movements to close the record. The first part creates a placid environment for Brazilian guitarist Pedro Martins, who runs freely over a series of complex chord-based strikes. A sense of wonderment and sublime resignation overtakes the mood. Bruner accepts uncertainty with almost blasé assurance. Nevertheless, he is sincere. It Is What It Is crackles with Bruner’s vibrant personality, direct contemporary lyrics, and one-of-a-kind approach to songwriting. Buoyed by tasteful arrangements, impressive musicality and high quality guest spots, the album shows further growth from the accomplished Thundercat.

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