Thundercat: It Is What It Is (Brainfeder) Review | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, January 26th, 2022  

It Is What It Is

Brainfeder

Apr 13, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


“All I ever wanted to be was funky and funny,” Thundercat, born Stephen Lee Bruner, told The New York Times earlier this year, yet even a cursory listen of his recent work would suggest his ambitions stretch much further than that. Bruner’s last record, 2017’s Drunk, was certainly funky and funny. It also brought together an eclectic cast of guests, from yacht-rock legend Michael McDonald to Wiz Khalifa, for a whistle-stop tour through half a century of jazz, soul, and funk. Bruner continues along that musical path on his latest album, It Is What It Is, with a weightier emotional message, as he comes to terms with uncertainty and inexplicable tragedy.

If Drunk’s appeal was its freewheeling eccentricity, its follow-up sells itself as a more concise, focused record. It Is What It Is balances three strands of Bruner’s persona—as a bass-playing virtuoso, as a loveable goofball, and as an introspective soul. It is through that latter strand that this album is at its most understated and revealing, with a run of closing songs that conspicuously feature the record’s title. “When it all comes to an end/When there’s nothing left to say/It is what it is,” he sings on the title track, sounding like a defeated man. Bruner has written heartbreak songs before, but here they double as songs of mourning—inspired in part by the death of his close friend and collaborator Mac Miller.

The moments of gloom make the sillier moments on It Is What It Is all the more sweet. “Dragonball Durag” is one of Bruner’s funniest singles to date—a joyous yacht rock-inflected soul jam which sees him go through a series of ridiculous attempts to get the attention of a girl. “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good/Baby let me know, how do I look in my durag,” he coos in one verse. While on “I Love Louis Cole,” Bruner attaches lush melodies fit for a Broadway musical to frantic drumming more commonly heard in pop punk to surprisingly gorgeous effect.

There are also moments where Bruner balances the album’s darker themes with his usual playful demeanor. On the album’s lead single, “Black Qualls,” he speaks of paranoia against an urgent, raw funk groove assisted by an intergenerational duo of guest vocalists—Slave frontman Steve Arrington (an inspiration for Bruner) and The Internet’s Steve Lacy (a possible successor). The message of the song is cautiously optimistic—“I’m not living in fear/Just being honest,” Lacy sings in its first verse. The sense of persevering through adversity comes through explicitly on the next song, “Miguel’s Happy Dance,” when Bruner sings: “Do the fuckin’ happy dance/Even when you’re really fuckin’ mad.” It is in these moments that It Is What It Is stands out from earlier Thundercat records and shows how Bruner is growing as a more emotionally complex songwriter.

It Is What It Is may not be the finest Thundercat album to date—it lacks the immediate thrill of singles such as “Them Changes” or “Oh Sheit It’s X”—but it is the most complete presentation of his talents so far. When it stumbles slightly in its middle section, it does so by throwing together too many ideas in quick succession, as Bruner moves within five minutes from an energetic bass workout (“How Sway”) to funky synth-pop (“Funny Thing”) to breezy soul (“Overseas”). There is no doubting his skill as a musician in these moments, but they can feel like promising sketches rather than finished songs. It is a sign of Bruner’s growing maturity as a writer that the best songs on It Is What It Is are almost exclusively the longest, often when he focuses on a simple idea and sees it through to completion. Although even at its worst, Bruner’s songs remain enjoyable through his sharp, and often dazzling, bass playing. Emotionally and musically, he has kept pushing forward on this new record. (www.theamazingthundercat.com)

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10



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