Thundercat’s It Is What It Is Meditates on Love, Loss, and Acceptance
April 26, 2020 | By Sasha Shrestha
Photos Courtesy of Brainfeeder Records
Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, constantly defies the mainstream with his versatile sound and unique blend of genres. He is easily distinguished by his virtuoso bass playing and sweet, falsetto voice. The 35-year-old American musician, singer, songwriter, and music producer has collaborated with a variety of critically acclaimed artists, including Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar. In 2015, he won a Grammy for his performance on Lamar’s These Walls, a nod to his extensive work on the album To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat himself has released four albums: The Golden Age of Apocalypse (2011), Apocalypse (2013), Drunk (2017) and his latest album, It Is What It Is, released on Apr. 3.
It Is What It Is manifests a collection of emotional states as Thundercat explores themes of existentialism and coexistence with grief. The album plays like a series of journal entries in the way that he reflects on the weight of losing his close friend Mac Miller, the late rapper, and the bleakness of everyday life that came with it. With every song, we voyage deeper into the corners of Bruner’s memories and feelings — ultimately leading up to his acceptance of a cold, unforgiving universe.
The first track of the album, Lost in Space, explores isolation. Thundercat’s echoing voice calling out "Hi / Hello / Is anybody there?" coupled with the spiraling of the synth produces an almost out-of-body experience. With this hypnotic song, he compares feeling alone to being lost in space. We continue on the galactic journey with Interstellar Love. Thundercat creates a fusion of spacey jazz-funk with fast-paced drums and a rich saxophone solo that builds as though he’s running toward something. Drummer Louis Cole makes an appearance in the upbeat and energetic I Love Louis Cole. The charging drums and buoyant string instrumentation juxtapose Bruner’s vocals, his silky words creating a calming sensation amid the song’s lively atmosphere. The energy continues with Black Qualls featuring Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino. Thundercat’s bass playing is sleek yet strong in this funky '70s melody; his lyrics are vulnerable as he talks about his anxiety dealing with his success.
Photos Courtesy of Brainfeeder Records
The journey continues with Miguel’s Happy Dance: A comforting and hopeful song which features lyrics like, "Dancing' away the pain, it's gonna be all right." How Sway, is a colorful, psychedelic interlude with a retro video game frenzy. The interlude is one of many that make up the 37-minute album. It’s obvious that Thundercat tends to steer away from traditional song structures, as a lot of the tracks don’t have bridges, or even choruses. Regardless, the production and instrumentation of his songs creates the perfect ambiance for his lyrics. Funny Thing is perfectly wobbly and unsteady as Bruner sings, "I'm just a little drunk and I want to party with you."
Despite the introspective themes of the album, Thundercat avoids drowning himself in existential dread. The sobriety is counterbalanced with back-to-back tracks, Overseas and Dragonball Durag, which both display Bruner’s signature goofiness. Overseas ends with a lighthearted interlude by Zack Fox that leads into the next track. Dragonball Durag, arguably one of the best songs Thundercat has ever produced, acts as the climax of the album. The song is a playful, modern-day love letter full of hypnotic funk and whimsy. Lyrics like, "I may be covered in cat hair / but I still smell good” are a refreshing bit of personality and comic relief.
How I Feel is a nice interlude into the second half of the album. The twinkling sounds and melodious vocals mimic the grogginess of waking up from a heavy sleep. This transitions into uneasiness with the ominous beginning of King Of The Hill and its message of self-destruction. Unrequited Love and Fair Chance focus on casualties of love. The production on Fair Chance is gentle and intricate, and Bruner's lyrics mourn late friend Mac Miller. He wistfully reflects, "We were just gettin' lifted / Now we just reminiscin’." At 52 seconds, Existential Dread is the shortest track of the album. Careful not to drown himself in desolation, Existential Dread slowly sinks deeper into ideas presented in Miguel's Happy Dance. The message is clear: "As long as I keep breathin' / I know I'll be alright."
The final track It Is What It Is is a luxurious five minutes that brings closure to the journey. The song, and the album itself, is about accepting the highs and lows of life. It’s about normalizing loss. Bruner affirms there is nothing we can do besides accept the fact that reality simply is what it is. He closes the final song with a simple, heartbreaking "Hey Mac" followed by an ad-libbed "woah" from Mac himself: the perfect ending to the emotional album.