Stephen Lee Bruner is the closest thing we have to a modern day mad musical scientist. The artist, better known as Thundercat, has been pushing the limits of modern music for over a decade and every project he is associated with contains the benchmarks of what makes him so special. There’s a reverence to the past while at the same time being so forward thinking that everything Thundercat touches comes off as so wonderfully original. From his beginnings with brother Ronald Jr. in LA thrash purveyors Suicidal Tendencies to being a major contributor to Kendrick Lamar’s startling break out album How To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015, Thundercat has been consistently at the vanguard of what an artist can do to push how we all think of and ingest music. His newest collection It Is What It Is is out April 3rd and it is a flurry of head dizzying musical chops, complex arrangements and deeply personal songwriting.
The solo work of Thundercat has always been based out of a love of darkly complex 70’s funk and this influence is apparent all over It Is What It Is. The album kicks off with Bruner’s smooth falsetto on “Lost In Space/Great Scott/22-26”. His voice floating in the space above some bubbling bass and chiming electric piano. The short track acts as a catalyst for what is to come. It leads you directly into “Interstellar Love” with a full band of absolute sharp shooters and an angelic chorus of harmonies that wouldn’t sound out of place on the score of an episode of Star Trek The Original Series. There are an amazing plethora of collaborators featured throughout It Is What It Is. Steve Lacy, Childish Gambino and Steve Arrington, of Ohio based 70s funk act Slave, all feature on “Black Qualls” which definitely takes its cue from the aforementioned band. The track has a mournful quality that is balanced by its classically sounding funk, think Ohio Players, feel which at once comes off effortless, given the high quality of the players involved, and oh so deliciously complicated. One of the lighter moments on the record is accompanied by LA singer/songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Louis Cole on the track “I Love Louis Cole”. It’s a jagged blast of double time drumming and organ pads that tells the story of a night out with the pair. The lyrical sweetness juxtaposed with the retelling of what actually happened that night make it so endearing. “Yeah, I remember you were punching my friends/Made an oil spill that makes Exxon offended/Then you fell asleep on the laundry in my room/And this is why I love to party with you”, sings Cole on the infectious song’s third verse. Ty Dolla Sign and Lil B feature on “Fair Chance” again showing Bruner’s reverence not only to bridging what he does with influences from the past but also contemporarily. The album closes with title track “It Is What It Is” featuring Brazilian guitar prodigy Pedro Martins. Martin’s influence is clearly dripping all over the track which is mostly just his unique playing and Bruner’s loving vocals before the band plays us out in the song’s second half. It’s a nice capper for the journey Thundercat has treated us to.
It Is What It Is is electric with wonderful performances from some of the most talented people in music today. While it’s heady and consistently interesting, there is so much here in its relatively fast paced 40 minutes for every type of music fan to fall in love with. Thundercat has been showcasing his and his friends unique take on modern jazz, classic funk and hip hop over the last decade and with a record like this, one that you can just sink into and revel in, it becomes genuinely exciting to also think of what else Thundercat has up his sleeves for us in the future.
interview by Adam Fink