It Is What It Is – Thundercat – Brainfeeder Records – 2020
Image courtesy of Pitchfork


After 3 years, early April finally saw the release of Thundercat’s 4th full-length album: It Is What It Is. For the uninitiated, Stephen Bruner a.k.a Thundercat is a bassist, producer, songwriter, and vocalist out of L.A. with a unique style of genre-bending music that draws from jazz, funk, R&B, electronica, soul, and hip-hop. For the past half-decade he’s been in high demand in the worlds of jazz and hip-hop, especially among artists that like to explore their intersection. Recent collaborations of note include credits on Travis Scott’s Astroworld, Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, Anderson Paak’s Oxnard, frequent appearances on Mac Miller’s albums including the posthumous Circles, and perhaps most notably Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly on which Bruner won a grammy for his work on the song “These Walls”. 

While Thundercat’s musicianship is on full display on this album, producer Flying Lotus plays a major role in shaping its sound and structure. Steven Ellison a.k.a Flying Lotus is a close friend and frequent collaborator of Thundercat’s. He also heads the album’s label while simultaneously being a leading artist in the jazz-adjacent electronica scene. Discussing the creative dynamic between the two on It Is What It Is, FlyLo said “A long time ago, [Thundercat] told me ‘I just want to sing and play bass’ and it’s my job to make it easy for him to do just that,” and went on to say that Bruner gave him “complete freedom to help structure the LP and stitch it together”. Parts of the album sound as if they’d be right at home on Flying Lotus’ latest album Flamagra— particularly the song “Unrequited Love” with its lush beat, swirling violins, and sparkling synthesizers– but perhaps Flying Lotus’ biggest contribution to the record is its strong sense of direction and thematic consistency.

It Is What It Is evolves as you listen to it, clearly shifting in tone as the album plays out in what Flying Lotus describes as a three-act structure. He says, “There’s a hopeful innocence that turns into love, until a heavy dose of reality and pain shakes the whole sh*t up”. Despite the album’s variety, the whole thing is permeated by a sense of natural continuity that makes It Is What It Is feel like a consistent unit.

The first four songs make up the album’s first “act”, opening with an extended intro track that utilizes sparse instrumentation, complex chords, and an unusual melody to evoke a lonesome cosmic landscape which thematically and aesthetically leads into the album’s first substantial track “Innerstellar Love”. I really like the way the song begins, opening with cascading string sounds over futuristic synth chords just as Thundercat lands an elaborate pickup into the song’s groove, all in the first 15 seconds. About halfway through this track, we get the album’s first feature in the form of jazz giant Kamasi Washington bursting in with his unmistakable sound and rhythmic runs. Thundercat and Washington have a long history together as instrumentalists, including Thundercat’s strong presence as the electric bass player on Washington’s 2015 breakout album The Epic. In reference to It Is What It Is Washington noted, “It’s crazy to see how far Cat has taken his sound since [we] were kids”.

The next song, “I Love Louis Cole” features the titular artist from L.A. in a characteristic high-energy cut that leads into one of Thundercat’s more virtuosic solos on the album. The song blends the two artists’ sounds compellingly, owing much to the two men’s close relationship and their previous collaborative effort on Louis Cole’s 2018 album Time. The last track on the album’s first act is “Black Qualls”, which includes features from two prominent funk artists from past and present. Steve Lacy is perhaps best known as the lead-guitarist for neo-soul outfit The Internet, and Steve Arrington is a funk artist who’s career spans 5 decades. The three-minute cut is extremely funky and features a very rare instance of Thundercat playing slap bass, an inclusion towards which he was originally hesitant but later ended up requesting that it be emphasized during mastering so as to make sure it was audible on the final product according to producer Flying Lotus. The song is one of the albums strongest cuts, alternating between hard-driving verses and the velvety smooth hook, on top of which Childish Gambino delivers a strong performance for the final feature of the song.

The album’s second act is where Thundercat’s distinct personality and sense of humor really comes into its own. “Miguel’s Happy Dance” opens the door for the tonal shift of the album’s mid-section with its quick and choppy melody, off-kilter instrumentals, and playful lyrics. The track’s premise of forcing a happy dance even when you’re sad creates a humorous mismatch between the sound of the song and its lyrics, making space for Thundercat’s tongue-in-cheek approach to comedy. The song reminds me of Drunk‘s “Bus In These Streets” because they both demonstrate the artist’s natural ability to write humor into his songs. There are moments where a joke’s setup and punchline seamlessly correspond with the rhythm and melody of the track to achieve great comedic timing, elevating what would’ve been some witty lyrics to genuine laugh out loud moments. The song also sounds great, featuring a fantastic baseline that weaves in and around the song’s melody.

The next track, “How Sway” is a short instrumental interlude where Thundercat really shows off his chops. To me, this track is the only one that sounds like it would’ve fit naturally on Drunk, which says something about the originality of Cat’s newest project. “Funny Thing” is probably the album’s most forgettable track, but that doesn’t mean it’s underwhelming, as it fits nicely on the LP as a fun, short, electric party song. The track “Overseas” tells the story of a jet-setting international love affair complete with mile-high privileges. It’s a great track with a breezy tune and lyrics that show the album doesn’t take itself too seriously. The inclusion of comedian Zack Fox in the skit at the end of the tune is a great touch as well. The tone of this track leads very well into the last song of the second act: the hilarious “Dragonball Durag” which sees Thundercat singing in his classic falsetto about being covered in cat hair but still smelling good, and “smashing” in a Dragonball-themed durag. Apart from being a great example of how Cat infuses his songs with his playful personality like he did on “Tokyo”, “Dragonball Durag” simply sounds great, dripping with FlyLo’s Flamagra sound and offering a heavy dose of Cat’s trademark six-string funk.

The album’s third and final act represents the biggest shift in tone, introducing more serious and somber themes about death and lost love. “How I Feel” is an effective bridge between the zaniness of the second act and the seriousness of the last handful of tracks. The song is more of an instrumental interlude with rich vocal harmonies and sparse lyrics. “King of the Hill” is a three-way collaboration between Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and Canadian hip-hop-jazz fusion ensemble BADBADNOTGOOD. All three of their respective sounds can be heard blending on the track, from BBNG’s eerie synth and vibe intro and sweeping EP chords to Flying Lotus’ clavinet straight off of Flamagra, to Thundercat’s trademark falsetto. The next song, “Unrequited Love” is a pained and soulful track about “the one that got away”. As previously mentioned, this track stands out as the most striking example of Flying Lotus’ musical influence on the album.

The next track, “Fair Chance” is Thundercat’s take on a breakup song. It’s a great cut of bedroom pop, and features a truly inspired bass motif. Lil B provides a tender, silky autotune vocal and Ty Dolla $ign’s lethargic performance perfectly suits the tone of the song. This is followed by another short interlude, “Existential Dread”, which sets up the final track. By far the album’s longest cut, the title track is split into two parts. The first half tells the story of the fallout from a breakup set to the soft and lyrical guitar stylings of Brazilian Pedro Martins who Thundercat likens to Antonio-Carlos Jobim. The second half of the song is entirely instrumental and is kicked off by Thundercat exclaiming “Hey Mac” as a final goodbye to his good friend Mac Miller. This being Cat’s first album since his sudden and tragic death in late 2018, it’s a touching dedication from a long-time friend and musical collaborator.

Promotional art from the single version of “Black Qualls”
Image courtesy of Ninja Tune


So how does this album stack up against Thundercat’s discography? I’m glad to say that It Is What It Is is just as brimming with personality as his last effort. Songs like “Dragonball Durag”, “Overseas”, and “Miguel’s Happy Dance” really highlight Thundercat’s great sense of humor the way songs like “Captain Stupido”, “Bus in These Streets”, and “Tokyo” did on Drunk. This record is also much shorter than his last one. In fact, it’s Cat’s shortest album since his debut, Golden Age of the Apocalypse, clocking in at around 37 and a half minutes. This runtime definitely produced a more focused project, as it’s the most conceptually consistent record in Thundercat’s discography. The album is cohesive without being static thanks to its three-act structure, which explores a variety of themes while dedicating enough attention to each one to flush out its ideas. This is due in large part to Flying Lotus’ production and direction, which demonstrates his intimate understanding of Thundercat as an artist.

To me, It Is What It Is is Thundercat’s best album to date. It sorted out some of the consistency issues that were present on his last record, ventured into new sounds and instrumentation, and took big creative risks with the structure of the album that really payed off. It’s funny, tender, exciting, and touching all at once. While on Drunk, Thundercat showed himself to be one of the more unique creative personalities in music, with It Is What it Is, Thundercat proves he’s also capable of producing polished, conceptual records on par with the strongest artistic forces in the industry today. 8.5/10

Track Facts

Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26: According to Flying Lotus, this was the first track of his or Thundercat’s to feature Moog’s new analog polyphonic synthesizer, the Moog One. Released in October of 2018, the instrument is the first of its kind to be released by the legendary synth manufacturer in over 35 years. Also, the title “Great Scott” is in reference to keyboard player Scott Kinsey who co-wrote the piece.

Innerstellar Love: Kamasi Washington recorded his performance on this song while “sick as a dog” according to Flying Lotus. It was also written on Flying Lotus’ birthday, and originally intended for his own new album, but ended up on Thundercat’s after Ellison heard his vocal recording.

I Love Louis Cole: This song was written as a letter to Louis Cole, and all the stories told on it are true.

Black Qualls: This cut was pre-released as a single in mid-January with a notable exclusion. The single version of Black Qualls did not feature Childish Gambino’s verse at the end of the track, and even though it was announced that he would have a feature on the album version early on, it still provided an element of surprise and excitement leading to the album’s release. Also, Black Qualls was performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live as an album promotion with Flying Lotus playing keyboard. Funny enough, thanks to the features from Steve Lacy, and Steve Arrington, there were four Stevens on this track including Stephen Bruner and Steven Ellison.

Miguel’s Happy Dance: The titular Miguel is in reference to composer/arranger and fellow Brainfeeder artist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. According to Flying Lotus’ twitter, the song was inspired by a session with Ferguson after “he had just fallen madly in love and it was spilling out into the music.”

How Sway: Thundercat often includes at least one track on his albums that showcases his remarkable virtuosity. This song joins other classic Thundercat shred cuts like “Uh Uh” and “Seven”.

Funny Thing: This song was almost cut from the album during production for having themes that were more consistent with the narrative on Drunk.

Overseas: Comedian Zack Fox’ feature was highly anticipated following his hilarious viral appearance on producer Kenny Beats’ YouTube series, The Cave last year. The song sees him playing the part of an airline pilot at the end of the track. According to Flying Lotus, Thundercat originally wanted Dave Chapelle to do the skit, but eventually decided to invite Fox at the insistence of FlyLo.

Dragonball Durag: Kamasi Washington makes a return appearance at the end of the track. Dragonball Durag is also the only track with an accompanying music video as of this review’s publishing. It’s pretty funny, I’d recommend checking it out if you like the song.

How I Feel: The bells on this track closely resemble the melody and aesthetic of Gene Wilder’s “Pure Imagination” from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack.

King of the Hill: This song was released in 2018 as part of a major compilation album celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Brainfeeder record label.

Unrequited Love: This song was originally written for the soundtrack to a television series by Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe. Thundercat couldn’t come into the studio to record it because he was on tour, so he recorded his parts on the road.

Fair Chance: This is another song that was almost excluded from the album during production. According to Flying Lotus, the song showed little promise in its early stages and required a lot of tinkering to get right.

Existential Dread: This song was considered as a possible album closer during production.

It Is What It Is: Thundercat’s instrumental tribute to rapper Mac Miller at the tail end of his album is reminiscent of Flying Lotus’ similar track from the end of Flamagra called “Thank U Malcolm”