It Is What It Is: Thundercat's Latest Excursion into Psychedelia Is a Marvelous Listen
The bass extraordinaire's new album, for the most part, is a thoroughly enjoyable foray into his remarkably creative mind.
Originally published on 4/6/20.
Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, has proven himself to be a creative powerhouse over the last decade; in addition to the four full-length albums he has released, he has collaborated with countless artists such as Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and the late Mac Miller. The most fruitful of these ventures has been his extensive creative relationship with the former. Appearing throughout the experimental electronic music maestro’s last four albums, Bruner has been adding a jazzy flair to FlyLo’s output that has resulted in one of the most endlessly creative wells in modern music. All of this is due in no small part to his absolutely stunning level of talent on the bass guitar; playing the instrument from a young age, Bruner is capable of doing anything he wants with the thing, with funky bass foundations, jazzy chords, frenetic arpeggios, and even finger-picked melodies appearing all over his music. He continues this wonderful trend with It Is What It Is, a largely satisfying collection of tracks that serve as yet another showcase for his creativity.
It Is What It Is is a relentless 37-minute onslaught of musical imagination, with many stylistic bases being covered by Bruner. Encompassing genres such as funk, R&B, and all manner of psychedelic music, It Is What It Is feels like another satisfying trip into Bruner’s mind, with various emotional states being extremely well-conveyed through the instrumentals alone, even on the small handful of not-as-memorable tracks. (It helps that Flying Lotus leaves his fingerprints all over the record, contributing production on every single track here.) Additionally, Thundercat’s bass playing has never failed to impress before, and it most certainly does not stop doing so here as he fulfills musical roles with the instrument that would normally be taken by others.
The sonic and musical aspects of It Is What It Is cannot go overlooked. Thematically, the album’s first couple of tracks concern being in space, and the dense backing instrumentation gets that feeling across flawlessly; frenzied drums, atmospheric chords, and Kamasi Washington’s trademark saxophone sound all come together to make the listener feel like they are shooting into the stratosphere. Later, “Black Qualls” takes the stage as the album’s funkiest track, with a bassline and drum groove that bring Kool & the Gang to mind. “How Sway” is a brief but electrifying piece of instrumentation, with fast-paced bass arpeggios, electronic drums, and glide-heavy synth leads effectively setting the listener’s brain on fire. “Dragonball Durag” has an irresistible R&B swagger that turns the previously-released single into the record’s most addictive song. Near the end, “Fair Chance” is a beautiful musical exploration into grief, with a lo-fi drum loop and Bruner’s layered acoustic guitar-like bass melodies and harmonies forming the sonic and emotional backbone of the song.
Lyrically, It Is What It Is covers a lot of bases both thematically and emotionally; while some of these tracks deal with heavy subject matter, others allow Thundercat’s signature fun, oddball personality to shine through, which goes a long way in helping to make the album as enjoyable as it is. “Dragonball Durag” is a prime example of this – its title being an obvious reference to the immensely popular anime franchise Dragon Ball Z – with somewhat silly lyrics about desperately trying to impress every single woman around you. (It also contains one of the funniest lyrics you’re likely to hear this year: “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good.”) Elsewhere, there are songs about embracing one’s blackness (“Black Qualls”), pretending to be happy when you’re not (“Miguel’s Happy Dance”), the inevitable downfall of a life filled with debauchery (“King of the Hill”), and just having fun with a good friend (“I Love Louis Cole”). While the range of subjects and sentiments between tracks can be jarring, and sometimes doesn’t entirely work, the argument can be made that Bruner is simply allowing the listener access to various facets of his imagination, something he has done liberally on previous releases.
The last leg of the album, though, takes a very somber turn; the previously mentioned “Fair Chance” is dedicated to Bruner’s close friend and creative partner Mac Miller, who tragically overdosed in 2018 at the age of 26. The lyrics of this track concern Bruner’s inability to deal with the grief of losing his friend, a theme that is only helped along by the appearances of Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B. The features from both artists compliment the track perfectly – despite the subject matter of their verses being vaguer than Bruner’s – and help to make “Fair Chance” the album’s crowning achievement. After “Existential Dread,” a brief musical interlude about just that, It Is What It Is closes with its title track, which furthers the examination of Bruner’s grief over Miller’s passing. However, the song soon reveals itself to be split into two parts. As the second half of the song begins, the album’s final two words are sung by Bruner: “Hey, Mac.” This is immediately followed by a barely-audible sample of Miller: “Whoa.” Just like that, Miller’s presence is felt in the song, hanging over it like a specter as the record comes to a gorgeous, cosmic instrumental close. It doesn’t take much longer to realize that the whole album is dedicated to Miller’s memory; its very title shows up on “Fair Chance” and the final track as something Bruner tells himself to try to deal with his sorrow. It’s a very powerful tribute to one of the most creative musical artists of the past decade.
Unfortunately, there are some problems on It Is What It Is. Several tracks show up that come in at under two minutes, and while some of them have their short runtimes work to their advantage (“Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26,” “How Sway,” “Funny Thing”), they can serve as a detriment to others to an extent (“Overseas,” “How I Feel,” “Existential Dread”). “Overseas” just feels like a somewhat awkward, forgettable, and unnecessary intro to the far superior “Dragonball Durag.” Elsewhere, while “I Love Louis Cole” is ultimately a rather fun track, it is a rare occurrence where the fast-paced groove just doesn’t gel together all that well, and comes across as kind of clunky; Louis Cole’s appearance doesn’t add much to the song, either. “Unrequited Love” doesn’t particularly stand out in the tracklist, and multiple listens fail to make it do so. There are also some issues with musical and thematic cohesion (though thankfully to a lesser degree than 2017’s Drunk) that drag It Is What It Is down a little; as a whole, it doesn’t work quite as well as I was hoping, with some stylistic and thematic jumping around that can struggle to truly pan out in a few places.
Overall, though, It Is What It Is is a strong, satisfying body of work that continues to showcase Thundercat’s undeniable talent, as well as the creative fruitfulness that stems from the ongoing collaboration between him and Flying Lotus. While the album does have problems, the vast majority of what is here is filled with wonderful production, creative instrumentation, clever lyrics, and amazing performances. This one was definitely worth the wait.
Listen to It Is What It Is on Apple Music or Spotify below.