Stephen Bruner had been around long before Thundercat came to the forefront of R&B and he paved his own way in the fusion of funk and rap. With It Is What It Is, Thundercat reaches into the beyond, examining the ethereal passage of the simple moments in life. The phrase is even more relevant to the current era given the isolating effects of a global pandemic. Thundercat is able to put into words, “How I feel. Is this real?” emphasizing the uncertainty which consumes modern society and a melancholia that “time won’t always heal.” The lyrics paint a picture of the different characters Thundercat takes on; a king, a hustler, and a lover, as falsetto vocals combined with smooth instrumentation create the dream-like world of a fairytale.
The album takes off with an interlude, “Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26,” titled as an ode to the system jazz musicians use to label their improvisations. He sings of feeling alone, hopeless, and unable to breathe, searching for any human connection to escape the suffocating and solitary thoughts weighing on his mind. With the sporadic trills of a piano mimicking the high pitched beeps of a satellite, Thundercat’s universe immediately begins to fill the space between your ears. But Thundercat’s recent ascent in the music industry was not as much of a “blast off” as it may seem to the public eye.
Way back in 2008, Bruner could be spotted playing bass for Erykah Badu, lurking in the background yet carrying a powerful presence on stage. Bruner’s image has never shifted from calm and collected with a dash of lightheartedness, and he continues to exude the vibe of It Is What It Is in his 2020 opus. Of the most groundbreaking releases from the past decade, it’s uncanny the amount of times Thundercat reappears in features, mixing base track instrumentals and producing collaborative projects.
Perhaps one of the most pivotal albums to drop in the rap industry, To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar gave Thundercat the opportunity to conceive Grammy-winning songs like “These Walls” in 2016. Bruner’s ability as a bassist to create effortless funk grooves that R&B junkies can’t get enough of is a testament to the innovative and sophisticated virtuoso. It’s no wonder that even before this release, Bruner worked with rapper Mac Miller, experimental rap artist Flying Lotus, and saxophonist Kamasi Washington as well as backed countless artists as a studio musician in his early years.
Even though Bruner has a mellow and moody side, Thundercat never strays from flirty jams like “Dragonball Durag” and “Funny Thing,” which are groovy and upbeat with lyrics that showcase his cheekiness. Accompanied by synth melodic phrases, the kicking bassline leads listeners to imagine driving down the highway, head bobbing along, if they aren’t doing so already. Nevertheless, sounds seem to float in the air as the album flows through in short, sweet segments. The Los Angeles native is nothing if not a master of setting the mood for a slow-motion montage, just like in the movies.
Despite being a classically trained jazz bassist, Thundercat is far from stuffy and prefers to push the boundaries and take nuanced risks, especially in proclaiming things like, “Do the fuckin happy dance, when you really fuckin’ lit.” There’s a subtle difference between authenticity and forced relatability, but Bruner wears his true self well, allowing him to transition his innate goofiness to serious awareness when discussing human suffering and loss. At this point, I guess we should all just take Thundercat’s departing advice: “Dance away the pain. It’s gonna be alright.”