“Your favorite musician’s favorite musician.”
“A virtuoso on his instrument.”
“A latent superstar.”
“The coolest bass player that ever walked the Earth.”
All of this in reference to Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat), a self-described comic book and video game nerd who writes songs about his cat, traffics in complex, proggy mash-ups of cosmic funk, experimental jazz, and slow jam R&B, and who — with his new record It Is What It Is — has delivered an album remarkably in step with a world reeling in the face of a global pandemic and gnawing uncertainty.
Were the pandemic not to have happened, I don’t know that It Is What It Is would have registered in this way for me. I would still be writing about it for its musicality, sophistication, ideas, and sheer funkiness (more on this below). But, dig beneath the outrageous bass riffs and effortlessly smooth flow, and you hear an artist wrestling with serious stuff that feels really on point these days– loss, grief, inequity, uncertainty in facing the future, and, ultimately, some hard-earned acceptance of these as constants to be borne, not necessarily shed.
Like on Existential Dread, a trim 52 second interlude and one of a few tracks where he directly confronts a feeling that he acknowledges set in when his best friend Mac Miller died in 2018 of an accidental overdose.
Sometimes existential dread / Comes ringin' through loud and clear / I'll adjust and simply let it go / I guess it is what it is / I'm not sure what's coming next / But, I'll be alright as long as I keep breathin'
Or, like on Miguel’s Happy Dance where he sings,
Do the fuckin' happy dance / Even when you're really fuckin' mad... / Even if you're really, really sad / You can probably be worse / Just have that sink in for a while
Or, like on standout single Black Qualls, where he and guests Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino present a meditation on what it means to be a young, black American (particularly, a professionally and financially successful one):
There's nothing wrong if you got it / I'm not livin' in fear, I'm just bein' honest.../ If we don't talk about it, then who will?.../ I don't need your co-sign / 'Cause I'm young enough and old enough, both at the same time.../ The box you tried to throw me in don't fit me no more, no
Musically, this does not feel at all like a weighty record. In spite of the serious topics, it flows — sometimes, even sparkles — with a warm tone, hook-y melodies, and seamless production. The songs are complex, but accessible; driven by Thundercat’s incredible solo bass technique, but not dominated by it; and featuring plenty of his trademark humor, zaniness, and individuality. See another favorite track, Dragonball Durag, for perhaps the best combination of all of these elements.
Between the expected virtuosity and the multiple lyrically pitch-perfect moments for the chaos we face now, this is a record that strikes you right away AND gets better the more you sit with it. Thundercat said that this record is him “trying to figure it out.” What better time to do so with him?