Is there anyone since the turn of the new millennium as influential as Stephen Lee Bruner, a.k.a Thundercat?
Proudly toted as a corner of the Brainfeeder family, Thundercat’s influence can be heard throughout some of the more soulful releases of 21st-century hip-hop and R&B, from Frank Ocean and Tyler The Creator to Childish Gambino and Rich Brian – the crossover of Motown disco, jazz and the flower-power elements of 70’s psychedelic folk.
Some might credit P.M Dawn as originators/initiators of that sound back in the late eighties. You could be right – time is, after all, a flat circle.
Then there are the more direct influences Thundercat has had; a session musician for Erykah Badu and Brainfeeder founder Flying Lotus, then moving on to work with Kendrick Lamar as the “creative epicentre” of the critically acclaimed (dare I say, also a landmark moment in modern hip-hop) To Pimp A Butterfly back in 2015.
If Thundercat was “best-kept secret” in hip-hop’s arsenal, his Grammy win for “These Walls” off Lamar’s album all but confirmed the importance of Bruner as a creative.
April has now seen the release of his fourth album, It Is What It Is. Audiences have already been treated to five cuts from the album, one of which dating back to 2018 (“King of the Hill”, which appeared on the Brainfeeder X compilation).
Each subsequent single that dropped through the start of the year just seemed to heighten the anticipation and the excitement towards It Is What It Is. This was the album that was to solidify Thundercat’s status as a pivotal member of the hip-hop and R&B community; from accomplished multi-instrumentalist to superstar.
A superstar to those who have yet to drink the Kool Aid that’s been on offer since 2017’s Drunk at the very least. Hey, 6 Music called it their album of the year – how often have they been dead wrong about something?
January’s soulful cut, “Black Qualls”, which featured Childish Gambino, Steve Lacy of The Weekend and Steve Arrington of funk pioneers Slave, gave a glimpse not only into a start-studded affair the album promised, but also served as a testament the sheer respect Thundercat has earned within his peers and supporters.
Such uplifting, euphoric moments throughout the album though have come from a place of hurt; the passing of rapper Mac Miller back in 2018. By Thundercat’s own admission, he’s revealed that the death of Miller “[…] sobered me up. I had to take that pain in and learn from it and grow from it.”
The starkness of tracks like “Innerstellar Love” and the dedication to Miller with “Fair Chance”, featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B, juxtapose from those bouncier numbers without denigrating from the overall pace of the album. “Fair Chance” in particular manages to be more poignant and sensitive rather than maudlin overly-sentimental.
Kind of the antithesis of many, more well-known dedication songs in hip-hop (coughI’llBeMissingYoucough…)*
Which is the mark of not just a good composer, but a good conductor – know when to bring the pace down, knowing when it’s apt to be introspective and knowing when to bring the energy in a movement is pivotal to the overall listening experience.
Very much like a seasoned orchestral conductor, or a leader of session musicians. One of which Thundercat has done, and the other something that if accomplished would hardly be a surprise if it happened.
Yet, despite the low-key sombreness of those tracks, you end up with Thundercat still retaining his quirky, Adult Swim sense of humour. That he’s friends with Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress makes sense – it’s that Dadaist approach on humour that informs both the track “Dragonball Durag” and its subsequent video.
Because ultimately, despite the critical praise, plaudits and ascension into those upper echelons of modern music, Thundercat is still relatable: he still likes pop culture references, bass riffs pumped through a Baseballs style filter and the philosophical saga of harnessing an immense amount of power by virtue of just doing what you enjoy.
That last part is more a reference to the Dragonball saga – though if you want to draw something allegorical from it, you go right ahead.
It Is What It Is, as mentioned, is the album that is meant to make Thundercat the superstar many thought he should be, which makes it a little hard to call it a start-making performance when you’re already a huge fan and understand his importance.
But it is a star-making performance. Illustrious guest appearances aside, from a sonic standpoint Thundercat has managed to craft an album that has such an effortless flow throughout at no stage during repeat listens to you feel an urge to skip a track.
We know that Thundercat is capable of in terms of song-writing though; in terms of performance as a vocalist, he managers to captivate. It’s almost as if the performer wanted the music to be at the forefront and the vocals there to add a layer to the atmosphere he wishes to convey.
Lyrically, the words are pertinent to the songs themselves – but they manage to not just compliment but embed themselves seamlessly. They are a big part of the songs themselves, rather than being at the forefront at the sacrifice of the music or, even worse, an afterthought completely.
Those elements may be in part the addition of Flying Lotus as a mixer alongside a production credit; and given FlyLo’s habit of creating intricate, layered works is perhaps a little bit of his polish added to the betterment of the album.
It Is What It Is is without question a fantastic album that should rightfully place Thundercat front and centre to even then most ardent of cynics regarding his importance on music. Not just a select genre or community, but songwriting and composition as a whole.
What else can be said? It’s nigh on perfect from Thundercat. Yet again. Seems to be a common theme from the musician these days…
It’s the album we need, given everything happening at present in the world; a brief respite to look out of the window of someone else’s home to see how they are viewing everything. It Is What It Is has cultivated a gleeful, positive disposition we all can benefit from, even if parts have come from a place of sorrow.
*The author would like to point out that they were and still are a big fan of the Puff Daddy and Family single, “I’ll Be Missing You”, and the use of this example more to highlight the broader mainstream view on the type of song mentioned, rather than ridiculing the track itself.