The newest release from Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, It Is What It Is, straddles a number of extremes. At once contemplative and comical, theoretically rigorous and messy, the album features both short song “concepts”, or interludes, and jazz-hip hop infused odes to love and friendship. In terms of lyricism Bruner’s songs are either existentially harrowing or ironically merry, as is evident in titles like “How Sway” versus “Existential Dread”. These mood swings are a tough listen for the less experienced ear, but Thundercat regulars are in for a treat.
The aforementioned interludes are not without their context. Flying Lotus’s album Cosmogramma (2010), also released on Brainfeeder and on which Thundercat plays, features similar songwriting that shirks the expected arc of a more standard three to five-minute-long song in preference of minute-long sketches. Instead, the immediacy of these shorter tracks is a refreshing take on how songs can be written and consumed. A friend, frequent collaborator, and Brainfeeder label boss, Flying Lotus produced It Is What It Is, which, combined with Thundercat’s distinct brand of songwriting, grants it its texture: funky midtempo grooves, complex melodic excursions, interstellar sound design, and of course, lightning-speed bass noodling. Thundercat’s high-octane mock-pop returns in all its absurdity.
Dedicated to Bruner’s close friend, the late Mac Miller, It Is What It Is occupies itself with partying and the many sides of grief. Bruner notably connects the two in “King of the Hill,” produced with the assistance of BADBADNOTGOOD. The album’s first two-thirds are highlighted by tracks that more or less stick to themes suggested by the title of Thundercat’s preceding release Drunk (2017), tracks such as “I Love You Louis Cole”, featuring Louis Cole’s inimitable drumming, “Black Qualls”, featuring Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino, and “Dragonball Durag”, one of five singles released before the full album. The tone dips in the last third to consider the loss of friends and, to reference a final track, “Unrequited Love.”
With brief, complicated tracks, bright energy, and moody, philosophical brooding, the album lacks thematic consistency. If we are to hold Thundercat to the intention of a concept album, then, it falls short. Then again, where the storytelling might be wanting in rigor it excels in compositional originality. It Is What It Is is caught between two worlds: the theoretical world of the concept album and the hyperactive bliss of music-making.
On the other hand, the album’s title, a quote from Mac Miller, suits this indecision. It speaks to a balance between extremes, the idea that we occupy the space between grief and celebration, and that life continues with Thundercat’s persistent playfulness. But that might be too totalizing a conclusion to an album that is, above all, deeply entertaining for both the mind and the body.