review: thundercat - drunk

By Henry Smith

He’s not the kind of person you forget. I first saw him about seven years ago playing bass for Erykah Badu, wearing intergalactic shoulder pads and an eagle-feathered Cheyenne Indian war bonnet.
— Jeff Weiss, Rolling Stone Magazine

Imagine a jazz genius, whose range of fashion challenges his range of genre-hopping, casually conveying his stream of consciousness through a somewhat ironic, while smooth and nuanced falsetto sung over his mesmerizing bass playing. Put that to 70’s funk music meets a little jazz meets Childish Gambino / Frank Ocean instrumentals meets Stranger Things keyboard meets whimsical string cascades, whistling ascensions, farting, and meows. Covering topics from twitter to police violence to losing a wallet while drunk at ‘the club,’ Thundercat’s new album, Drunk, establishes a new relationship between artist and listener. His fluency with honesty and production yield a rare intimacy. Flying Lotus’ production doesn’t hurt either. Each sound isn’t meant to “sound good;” it is meant to further communicate his obscure vision.

Born into a family of musicians, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner had a minor hit at 15 in Germany and left his band, ‘No Curfew’, for an LA metal band called Suicidal Tendencies in 2000. He also became a session musician, producing and playing on albums for Childish Gambino, Ty Dolla Sign, Terrance Martin, Mac Miller, Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and, most famously, Kendrick Lamar.

Kamasi Washington, who grew up with Thundercat said of him: “Stephen was different before it was cool to be different.” Thundercat, along with childhood friends and fellow Jazz musicians, K Washington and Terrance Martin, were integral pieces to Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered. Thundercat’s contributions are obvious: either ripping winding, rugged basslines, putting his falsetto to work on background vocals, or producing on ten of the sixteen TPAB tracks as well as four of eight Untitled Unmastered songs.

Thundercat’s vehicle, the bass, is about creating an interesting rhythmic pocket. A Funk, R&B or creative Jazz bassist plays notes around the beat to give the listener and fellow musicians a different relationship to the beat. Thundercat does this with staggering swag and precision. His bass-playing style is difficult to place, perhaps because of its originality, complexity or eclectic inspiration. Possibly, as a result of spending a couple years writing about extinction, it conjures some fleeting darkness. Drunk is an album of contradictions.

Thundercat’s previous albums Apocalypse (2013) and The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam (2015) are concerned with the afterlife, following the death of his friend and collaborator, Austin Peralta. His new album, Drunk, is a musing of contradictions. The album seems a departure from his serious style and an entry into the mainstream, 3rd wall-breaking, individualistic movement epitomized by movies like Deadpool. However, his thoughtfulness is consistent over the 23 songs of the album, most of which are under 3 minutes long. His points are succinct, but draw a larger picture of himself. For him, music is sharing and nothing more – reception is irrelevant. He has a duty, and for this album, it is to ‘travel down a rabbit hole.’

Captain Stupido familiarizes listeners with the speed at which he will communicate thoughts. Full of random modulations and melodic restatements of his line, “I think I left my wallet at the club,” the song forces you to play observer to his random dogmas and question your own lines of thought, as well as the bizarreness of certain bodily functions, namely farting. Are we supposed to be rational? Songs like Bus in the Streets and A Fan’s Mail – in which he meditates on the thesis that “it would be cool to be a cat” – both point toward some greater statement of the absurd. As does Show you the Way – a vintage-sounding funk fantasy in which Thundercat introduces himself, Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald before each of their verses. Uh Uh shows Thundercat’s insane bass chops, with a flying piano playfully coasting by, absent of lyrics.

As the album continues, it shifts from considering the playful randomness of consciousness, to a darker and potentially more musical theme. Thundercat is questioning his own sanity, staying out late, burning bridges, and getting drunk. The true product of the album is realized by this section, as it adds a dimension to his honesty and to our understanding of his personhood. It is not a happy ending. Or are we meant to understand the levity of extinction?

Standalone Bangers
Them Changes
Show You The Way
Uh Uh
Walk on By