Photo by The1point8
Thundercat’s New Album Is A Balm For Troubled Times
Stephen Bruner, A.K.A. Thundercat, is sprawled on his stomach on a large bed in a hotel room in the Lower East Side, just like a cat. Khruangbin plays softly on speakers in the background, and a video game is paused on a TV mounted to the wall. A pair of brown fluffy cat ears lay on the nightstand.
It’s mid-February, and Bruner—like most of us at that time—is blissfully unaware of the global catastrophe that’s about to strike. But the Angeleno has always created through crisis—he’s probably doing it right now.
Bruner's fourth and latest studio album, It Is What It Is (out Friday via Brainfeeder), reflects on various personal turmoils involving love and loss. His latest single, “Fair Chance” (featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B), was written in ode to his friend and frequent collaborator, Mac Miller, after the artist’s untimely death in 2018. “Them Changes,” Bruner’s biggest hit to date (from his critically acclaimed album Drunk), is also about heartbreak, albeit the romantic kind. "Nobody move, there’s blood on the floor," he sings ominously over a swampy, slowly descending bassline.
As one of the most in-demand bass players in the world, Bruner is cherished for his vision and versatility, collaborating with everyone from Kendrick Lamar (with whom he won a GRAMMY for “These Walls”), Flying Lotus (with whom he’s made numerous award-winning albums), Erykah Badu, Travis Scott and many more. In a sea of session musicians, he’s carved a niche as an innovative artist in his own right, building songs from intricate, otherworldly basslines.
"It always starts with the bass," Bruner says, gazing through a curtain of bleached dreadlocks, his silver facial piercings glinting in the sun. Bruner’s songwriting approach is intuitive, verging on spiritual, and requires only three things: his bass, his computer and his beloved cat Tron. "That’s the way the music gets created, with the idea that it will show itself when the time comes. I try not to overstep that and just let it form how it does."
This approach has seen him become the conductor of galaxies of sound, fusing jazz, funk, soul, R&B and hip-hop to create a futuristic new style. Through his dense and impossibly funky new songs come feelings of warmth, optimism and possibility, regardless of lyrical content.
On initial reading, the album’s title It Is What It Is signals apathy and resignation, which feels out of step with the album’s bright and bubbly songs, but Bruner says those five words provide possibility too. "Even when it feels like there are moments you can’t do things… There are moments that you can try to move towards something, but at the same time it’s not meant for you to figure out," he says. “Like, let’s say a meteor does crash into Earth, which is looking like it’s gonna happen!" he laughs. "It’s like, what are you gonna do? Try and turn the Earth faster? Like, ‘It looks like it’s gonna crash in the middle of Africa! Okay everybody, move outta the way!’" he laughs. "No. Some things are just bigger than you."
Bruner didn’t yet know the catastrophic events that would unfold not long after this conversation. But his sentiments are timely: we never know what’s around the corner, and we must be okay with that. "The truth is, saying ‘It is what it is’ is a comforting thing that’s like, what are you gonna do?" he continues. "Trying to be okay, sometimes that’s all you can hold onto."
This is where comedy comes in handy. If the cat ears on his nightstand didn't already give it away, Bruner has a surreal sense of humor. It permeates his entire being and everything he does, from his Adult Swim-like comedic music videos to the colorful costumes he wears onstage. Like a grinning anime prince, surrounded by suitcases overflowing with vibrant colorful clothing, he cracks jokes while contemplating mortality. His Dragon Ball Z-embellished durag—the namesake of his recent silly, sexy single, "Dragonball Durag," is "around here somewhere," he says, gesturing at the piles.
Bruner is pragmatic even in humor, knowing that you can’t have comedy without tragedy. It Is What It Is balances both, but the most affecting moments come from the saddest ones. Lyrically, "Fair Chance" is deeply touching, while musically it continues the soft, slow-drip of emotion that made his 2017 song "Show You The Way" (with yacht rock pioneers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins) so alluring.
"Me and Ty were both very close to Mac, and it [Mac’s death] brought us together even more," Bruner says, his tone immediately shifting to become more serious. "For a lot of the artist community in general, but especially the ones that were very close to Mac, it made us very cognizant of each other and the shit that we go through. You know… There was one moment after Mac died where Ty was looking at 15, 20 years in prison, and it broke my heart. I was like, 'No way. Not like this,'" he shakes his head.
"But even more than that, me and Ty would always connect with each other through music. I’ve played on many Ty records, and he's also a bass player, and his dad's also a musician. We grew up real similar. He's real hood. I’m one of those guys that’s from the hood, but was always more of a weirdo," he laughs, the mischievous glint in his eye coming back. "The sh*t he be singing about… he says the sh*t that’ll get you in trouble!" he laughs again. "But, in this moment, it was somber for both of us—and Lil B. He was definitely a close friend of Mac too."
Bruner sent the song to Lil B to record his verse remotely after he'd been in the studio with Ty Dolla $ign. "Being there when Ty recorded it [his verse], I could see it was gut-wrenching for him," Bruner recalls. "And when he finished his verse, I got all teary-eyed, because I could hear Mac in his lyrics. So I think that it’s a magical song in the sense that we get to say goodbye to Mac."
In a way, It Is What It Is does shrug off life's cruelties as a matter of survival. Bruner has adopted this common mantra as a coping mechanism. But more powerful than that is the message of unity and empowerment that comes through in his album's first single, "Black Qualls." Not only is it buoyed by another fantastically funky bassline, but it also unites generations: funk pioneer Steve Arrington and the Internet’s Steve Lacy share vocal duties with Bruner. The chorus offers a new, much more fitting affirmation for the uncertain times we all find ourselves in: "No more livin' in fear."