It takes a certain amount of chutzpah and a lot of tact to pull off what bass player-singer-songwriter-producer Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner has over the past decade or so — to be a musician whose work traverses jazz, funk, hip-hop and pop, as well as the kind of artist who can parse life, loss and love, and sing sweetly in his tender falsetto, “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good.” Basically, it means being the rare talent who can build a career on the swampy but fertile soil where tragedy and comedy meet.
In 2017, Thundercat accomplished all that on his third album, Drunk, and his new follow-up, It Is What It Is, is just as daring in its musical reach, and its pairing of goofy and gutting. The record finds Thundercat continuing to parse the existential crises of everyday life, especially inside the void left by the death of his friend, Mac Miller.
Once again working with psychedelic-minded beatmaker Flying Lotus, It Is What It Is finds its groove in headier spaces — the album’s first two tracks fuse twinkling keys, guided meditation and a Kamasi Washington galactic saxophone showcase. Thundercat’s bass anchors and propels his sonic fancies, beating a head-spinning pulse on “I Love Louis Cole” and “How Sway,” tracks that add a dash of 8-bit video game delirium to the fusion stew. His bass stomps and wobbles on the love-drunk/regular drunk “Funny Thing,” searches for light inside the morass of “Unrequited Love” and slaps itself silly on standout “Black Qualls,” which brings together a multi-generational mixture of guests, Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino, Steve Lacey and Ohio funk legend Steve Arrington. Blossoming around all this is Thundercat’s wind-whisper voice and a thick mixture of instrumental textures. The songs are frequently quick-hitters, just a couple minutes long, and they can often leave you dizzy or bewildered. Sometimes, you’ll want to strap in and tunnel deeper; other times, you might want to pull off your headphones and come up for air.
Complex and conceptual as his music can get, Thundercat’s lyrics are often far more direct. On “Miguel’s Happy Dance,” he delivers a relentless self-help pep talk, setting up a one-liner, “It’s okay if it’s not going your way,” then deadpanning the punch line, “It never was.” Later, on “Funny Thing,” he fesses up, “Someone hold my phone, cause I can’t hold my tongue.” His sense of humor is steeped in cheeky idiocy, but floated by a kind empathy for the goofball. It all coalesces best on the back-to-back horny-on-main tracks “Overseas” and “Dragonball Durag,” self-deprecating depictions of the dumb stuff we do to boost ourselves up when we’re trying to woo.
It Is What It Is has a narrative flow similar to Drunk, lighter at the top, darker near the end. The album turns on the uneasy soul of “King of the Hill,” a look at self-destruction and “chasing cheap thrills” that makes one think back to the wasted friends reveling on the album’s early highlight “I Love Louis Cole.” It also portends a closing suite of songs that grapple with loss of all kinds, but specifically Miller’s 2018 death from an accidental overdose. The mood here is obviously somber and the arrangements are sparse, like the winding and wistful “Fair Chance,” with its hypnotic acoustic arpeggio and guest verses from Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B. The lyrics, too, remain straightforward as Thundercat tries to find the right words to describe what is essentially the overwhelming sensation of nothingness. He settles on “It is what it is,” repeating the album’s titular phrase in each of the final four songs.
“It is what it is” isn’t exactly a novel sentiment — “Que Será, Será,” is the same thing in French and future tense — but for Thundercat, neither is making music about the death of a close friend: The loss of collaborator and jazz musician Austin Peralta looms over his 2013 album Apocalypse and 2015 EP The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, just as Miller’s does here. The use of “it is what it is” captures the heavy acquiescence one might make in the face of so much recurring grief, but its repetition never feels belabored or cheap; it’s scattered about carefully, appearing the way it ought to, a feeling that keeps rising to the top of a clouded consciousness. It’s also ostensibly a nod to Miller himself, who used the phrase on “What’s the Use?” a cut from his final album, Swimming, on which Thundercat appeared as well.
Where Thundercat sang of one day seeing Peralta again on Apocalypse closer, “A Message for Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void,” on It Is What It Is he takes what he can of Miller and posthumously places him in the present. On the album’s final song, the title-track, Thundercat sings, “Hey, Mac,” and the rapper’s voice echoes in response, a lone but lovely, “Woah.” And with that encouragement, Thundercat lifts off to the place he always seems most comfortable, the outer reaches of inner space.