Thundercat’s soulful ‘It Is What It Is’ playfully looks into the past

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

“Life is a rollercoaster” seems to be the motto famed bassist Stephen Lee Bruner, better known as Thundercat, adopted for his fourth album, It Is What It Is, released April 3. Bruner has done more than prove that he is a master of multiple genres, from his former stint in thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies to his heavy collaboration with record producer and DJ Flying Lotus. It Is What It Is is a wonderous cacophony of jazz, R&B and more, while still bearing the hallmarks of Bruner’s distinctive style.

His bass is as captivating as ever, and he allows his emotions to flow over each thump, each hit from the drum and each whisper from his mouth. Bruner seemed to roll with whatever far-fetched thoughts popped into his head when recording, a fitting move for an established musician tapping into his full creative power.

Beginning with “Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26,” Bruner channels psychedelic, neo-soul energy. But it’s inherently misleading: This album isn’t only a spaced-out trip through the struggles of life, it’s also fundamentally grounded in palpable emotions. He evokes the same zoned-out imagery later on in the record in order to break up the more upbeat songs, a technique that has worked well for him before.

“I Love Louis Cole” brings back the lightheartedness Bruner has previously woven into his work. The song shows his growth and ability to embrace dark notes, while adding in humor when appropriate. “I Love Louis Cole” even features drummer Louis Cole, who conducts the pitter-pattering drums in accordance with the song’s overall sonically pleasing funk. 

The rest of the songs take a turn toward more funk beats, such as “Black Qualls” and “Miguel’s Happy Dance.” Featuring fellow funkmaster Steve Lacy, “Black Qualls” is an especially standout track, melding the trippy qualities of the album interludes with a stronger backbeat and infallible bass. While Bruner claims that the record is mostly “tongue-in-cheek,” it’s clear that there is a darker cloud hanging over these tracks.

But before the atmosphere becomes too heavy, Bruner switches it up with “Dragonball Durag,” a suave, perfectly ridiculous jazz number. Bruner croons, “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good/ Baby, let me know, how do I look in my durag?” While intended for comic relief, the track actually reads seriously, and luckily, relatably.

Compared to his hit 2017 record, Drunk, It Is What It Is is less speculative and abstract: it’s more like Bruner licking the many wounds he’s accrued during his life — one being the death of his longtime friend Mac Miller — but purposely hiding behind a facade of nonchalance.

“Fair Chance” and “It Is What It Is” are touching tributes to Miller, featuring delicate piano and gentle guitar plucking. These are songs to get lost in, songs to reflect on the important individuals who make life enjoyable. “It Is What It Is” ends the record on a somber yet hopeful note. Between the two songs, listeners unfamiliar with the Bruner and Miller’s relationship may not even realize that they’re about Miller until Bruner says “Hey, Mac” in the final song. Followed by a lengthy instrumental, it’s like a final send-off for the late rapper.

It Is What It Is is a messy, chaotic release, but in the best way possible. And somehow, the record is still gentle and smooth. With a voice like honey and a bass that won’t quit, Bruner sprawlingly adds new layers and inflections to his songs. The album is a seamless blend of the funk that Bruner has relied on for success, with a new, unbridled attitude. Bruner may have strayed away from cementing a cornerstone message with this record, but some things just aren’t meant to be understood.

Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected].