Thundercat has long mediated on existentialism. “When you look back on your career, you have to be able to answer to yourself: did I make the most of my time on earth?,” he mused to Rolling Stone in 2015. This came shortly after he helped to craft Kendrick Lamar’s rap-jazz masterpiece ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’; the following years suggest the answer to his question is, so far, firmly affirmative.
The career fortunes of the effervescent LA singer, songwriter and master bassist — born Stephen Bruner — have soared, his star-studded solo album ‘Drunk’ a whimsical and much-lauded highlight of 2017.
‘It Is What It Is’, however, arrives at the tail-end of a challenging period in Thundercat’s life. His label boss and co-producer Flying Lotus recently disclosed to Billboard that in making this “sombre record” his collaborator “took the darker path”, referring to the tragic death of Thundercat’s close friend Mac Miller in 2018. “I think the existential dread set in when Mac disappeared,” he told The New York Times recently. “I was faced with a choice — to either follow suit or figure it out. And I guess this is me trying to figure it out.”
The album’s stoic title aside, Thundercat’s lyrical reflections on grief, uncertainty and gradual healing are threaded through ‘It Is What It Is’. He movingly calls out “Hey, Mac!” at the title track’s ethereal outro, and on album opener ‘Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26’ he apprehensively exhales into the great void: “It feels so cold and so alone”.
‘Fair Chance’, which explicitly pays tribute to Miller, features Ty Dolla $ign lifting lyrics from the late rapper’s ‘Hurt Feelings’ (“Keep my head above water / My eyes gettin’ bigger / The world gettin’ smaller”) and Thundercat eulogising “bye-bye for now, I’ll keep holding it down for you” in his distinctive falsetto. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.
‘It Is What It Is’ isn’t entirely shrouded in mourning at every turn though: there’s ample fun and musical exuberance here. A Kamasi Washington sax solo squalls through the thunderous jazz fusion of ‘Innerstellar Love’ before the barmy yet brilliant ‘Dragonball Durag’ sees our narrator declare “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good” to a presumably bemused love interest.
Flying Lotus’ frantic production style, meanwhile, takes hold on the brief ‘How Sway’ as Thundercat shows off his dexterous bass skills. That interlude, one of five on the record, is either impressive or mind-numbing, depending on your feelings about its attempt to ape vintage video game soundtracks.
‘It Is What It Is’’s magic moment comes as Thundercat links up with Steve Lacy, Childish Gambino and ‘80s funk hero Steve Arrington on ‘Black Qualls’; the disco-funk tune should be up for consideration as the best song of 2020. Its inclusion here gives a comforting indication that, for all of the album’s heavy rumination on life, death and healing, Thundercat can still kick back when required.
Release date: April 3
Record label: Brainfeeder