I’ll always be impressed with what Thundercat has been able to do since coming on the scene in the mid 2010s. Creating futuristic jazz fusion music with his six string bass played with virtuosity, dreamlike falsetto vocals, and weird lyrics about Mortal Combat and existentialism, it’s something that would have been considered niche in the early 2000s and a joke in the late 90s. Yet in 2020, thanks to a revival in jazz tastes, Thundercat can pack a theatre of diverse audiences and create anticipation with a single late night TV performance.
His appearance to first time glancers is strange as hell, but so is everything about him. He paints his nails, employs a head of crazy dreads, and an undeniably unconventional if not cool sound and style on his mind bending records. It Is What It Is, the latest of three, takes the mission statement further. It’s a record Bruner has labelled as his most somber, informed by tragic life events and the closure they demand.
One thing a Thundercat project promises is an ambitious performance and the playing here is top notch with incredible bass that’s colourful enough for arpeggiated chords to take the place of guitars or keys for melodic core. Thundercat understands the function of the instrument better than anybody else and then some which is to say he’s not just a shredder, he’s an artist. That’s why his solos, like the blistering one that consumes the chaotic “How Sway” or the ones that bookend the deep “Unrequited Love” carry so much weight; they’re used sparingly otherwise filling out strong grooves behind his think pieces.
Contrary to popular opinion, he’s actually come into his own as a vocalist, not technical by any measure but still highly emotive. His falsetto and weird voicings immortalized on previous work like “Them Changes” and “Show You the Way” and the intergalactic concepts they bring are some of the highlights of the record and make IIWII more than just a technical musician record. Unfortunately the album doesn’t feature any song that can stack up with those two, though the sound quality and mix that hindered the strength of Drunk and Apocalypse has improved.
Taking the place as thee side man on the most important recordings of the past decade has given Thundercat the license to bring on a plethora of featured players who adapt well to a seemingly more musically progressive environment from the obvious (Internet guitarist Steve Lacy and childhood friends like jazz great Kamasi Washington) to more commercial fare (Childish Gambino and Ty Dolla $ign).
This is what psychedelia sounds like in 2020, weird fantastical lyrics and large soundscapes with advanced progressive playing. Again, we are treated to an album that challenges the album format. Songs are short, most barely reaching over three minutes, many under two, and often do not feature choruses. Some songs even feel like they could be the instrumental breaks of their predecessors leading to a delirium of sequence. Sometimes this is to the detriment of the album which can feel half baked and incomplete. And while a range of emotion not seen in earlier works takes the record to diverse places, results are varied.
“Black Qualls” the album’s first release is a spectacular slice of funk that offers multiple vocal performances from new wave R&B artists like Childish and Lacy with pioneers like Slave vocalist Steve Arrington. The impressive name-checking “I Love Louis Cole” is so fast it sounds like George Duke reimagined “March of the Pigs” by Nine Inch Nails, while “Overseas” is a come on aboard the mile high club that while unique, lacks cohesion. Undeniably though, everything here sounds interesting and IIWII if many things is never boring.
Thundercat has also come into his own as an introspective lyricist and progressive thinker as tragic occurrences gave the album a new level of seriousness. Personal loss is a major theme and the death of his close friend and collaborator Mac Miller looms heavily over the project, most explicitly on the spiritual movement of “Fair Chance”. But it’s really everywhere from the album’s outro that calls out his name to its title. It’s less about overcoming pain, fear, and sadness and more about learning to live with those things as constants or conditions of the inevitability of life. “So hard to get over it / I’ve tried to get under it / stuck in between / it is what it is…” It’s the acceptance stage of tragedy and that melancholy that runs through the track list.
However, Thundercat’s signature humour is still ever present and at its core still represents the very thesis of the humanity and spontaneity of jazz in a Zappa-esque way, though Bruner seems to be seeking solace in humour in the face of grief. In the end, It Is What It Is though flawed by its outlandish nature presents a purpose and manages to say some profound things about life in the package of an otherworldly fusion record.