Review Summary: Sippin' some gin and juice, laid back
Thundercat's records tend to resemble a sugar-infused cocktail: the first sips are flocking with California sweetness while the bottom of the glass leaves coagulated bitterness. This new album is no exception, confusing the listener with its ability to be as rewarding as it is frustrating. As a matter of fact, Thundercat (born Stephen Bruner) has always been consistent in his inconsistency, having continually delivered imperfect albums whose qualities outweigh the flaws. Similarly, Bruner always used dark album titles that ended up containing effortlessly upbeat music. After the drunkenness necessary to overcome the apocalypse, Thundercat accepts his tragedies in It Is What It Is
A pure product of his generation, which manages to create memes about the biggest pandemic in a century, Thundercat is capable of laughing at his own misfortune, and injects a shaggy silliness into his darkest thoughts. Bruner has already proved he is a musician of the zeitgeist, psychedelically crafting groovy and tender music since his solo debuts. This constant search for groove takes shape from his past musical endeavours: one of the leaders of the LA jazz revival scene with Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, he also demonstrated some more farfetched influences as bassist of crossover thrash band Suicidal Tendencies. This eclectic learning always was at the core of Thundercat’s sound and helped him develop his skills in many ways. Now an established and distinguished bass player, he also never forgets to build psychedelic music on top of the four strings, and also never neglects the instrument's history. While funk invariably frames bass as the core of its groove, the instrument very often remains an accompaniment to the music, and is often only there to solidify the rhythm dictated by the drums. On It Is What It Is
, the bass never gets egocentric or hogs attention. Rather, it understands when to retreat in the background as a supporting instrument when appropriate.
In the same vein, Thundercat never betrays funk's inner paradox: the genre is both known for its biting social critique as well as its sexual silliness. This is an album where references to Dragonball
are associated with penetrating comments on the constant battle of modern life, as well as a sulky homage to his deceased friend Mac Miller. Once again proving he understands his time, the sorrow of the lyrics is compensated by the cheerfulness of the funky music. Almost impassively, Thundercat accepts calamities.
As if he desperately didn't want to leave too much room for despair, Thundercat fills his album with funk and groove in skits sometimes taking the form of breathing spaces. These are what help the record move with a continuous flow, as most of the tunes build on each other. The man sure knows how to build an album. This is a great reminder of his past musical journeys, as, in the end, this is a nerd’s take on jazz and fusion. Once again helped production-wise with other well-known nerd Flying Lotus, the record breathes and is full of life, flowing from one sick bassline to the next. A longtime associate, FlyLo's frantic production is at the service of the music: each instrument has a specific place in the musical world created by Thundercat.
Nevertheless, some paragons of musical cleanliness will criticize small details here and there, like the sometimes rather strange mix reserved for the first part of the album. Still, it doesn't take away the groove of the songs, each one building a lore for the album. Another criticism concerns the too important place taken by the interludes. Although the artist already was known as the master of the interlude, it is once again with a certain discontent tinged with respect for this all-encompassing approach that the listener will start dreaming of the album that could be. The short tunes are plain fun, but are sometimes frustrating as some musical ideas are not stretched to their limits. One might also falter when discovering these proper
tracks are not as enlarged as one would have hoped. Unfortunately, it was to be expected, as this is a curse that follows Stephen on each of his albums. It contributes to his reputation as a musician thriving in a collective environment where his ideas can be channelled and integrated into a whole. Too often his albums suffer from the same problem: too much happens in too short a time, and everything feels rushed as a result.
Even though each and every one of us listeners must have nothing but respect for an artist who wants to emancipate himself from the sometimes too big shadow of his most famous collaborators (Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar), some people can't help but prefer the collab Thundercat. Like one of those many rappers feeding his hype through his numerous collaborations, it would seem once again that this is an artist in need of completion. It's particularly obvious on this album, where the songs featuring other artists are the most impactful and interesting ones. For example, Childish Gambino's addition helps the album break Thundercat's monotony. Stephen's vocal performance, while not bad by any means, clearly is not mind-blowing and is a tad tiresome over the course of a full-length record. Another example include Ty Dollar $ign and Lil B, who help accentuate the laid-back feeling Fair Chance
While these last few sentences might seem like direct jabs directed at the artist’s teeth, it proves Bruner evolved as a producer. Although FlyLo’s influence remains gargantuan, one can feel Thundercat is increasingly blossoming in this role of total creator: the featurings, almost all of them being successful, prove that Thundercat has learned a deeply important lesson for a solo musician: know how to surround yourself with people who make him better.
At a time when new releases abound and it's getting harder and harder to know where to focus, Stephen Bruner simply lets us breathe with a genuine free-flowing record. Few recent musical works manage to capture such a respectful essence of funk. Thundercat proves yet again he be slappin' tha bass real good and delivers another chill and laidback album for your summer evenings. Always suffering from the same problems, but at the end of the day, isn't it inherent in human beings? We are left with an authentic, groovy and tender album. The slowest rush of the year.