ALBUM REVIEW: Thundercat Juggles Joy and Pain on ‘It Is What It Is’

The bass virtuoso drops another fantastic voyage that’s even better than than its predecessor.

The times may well be a changin’, but one thing remains the same, and that is the incredible talent of Thundercat.  The relentless, unfair, why-him-and-not-me brilliance of the guy. Do you know how many hours I’ve put in on the bass guitar? Why am I not able to tap into the same level of excellence? 

Okay, so maybe it’s because my hours on the bass guitar are somewhere between none and one. Although in my defense, if I’d known that albums as sublime as this were possible, maybe I’d have started practicing.

Thundercat has been knocking out absolutely incredible music since childhood. Joining Suicidal Tendencies as bassist whilst still in his teens, he went on to make significant contributions to albums by Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus (who assists here), Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar, as well as releasing a series of brilliant solo albums. This is number four.

The vibe is similar to his previous work (with the exception of Suicidal Tendencies). The sound is warm and funky. There’s lots going on, but it’s not distracting. And while it slots in with those recent gems by FlyLo, Kendrick et al, it also sits alongside Steely Dan’s Aja, Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind and maybe Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.  It feels simultaneously fresh and as if it’s been around forever. 

The credits for the album read like a who’s who of modern R&B and cutting edge jazz: Childish Gambino is here. So is Ty Dolla $ign. Flying Lotus of course. Badbadnotgood is all up in the place. Is that Kamasi on sax? Louis Cole? Lil B? They’re all here. The magic of the record is that none of them ever tries to draw focus away from the main order of business. This is an atmospheric record and the last thing it needs is a name coming in for a guest verse or two that wrecks all the great work that’s been done to create this gorgeous, thick soup of sound. 

Thundercat and FlyLo do the work of ensuring the vibe stays right. Warm breeze. Clear skies. Clean sheets. Enough sleep. All of this and more.  And yet, like 2017’s Drunk before it, this is a record that shifts between happiness and melancholy. While success has benefited him materially, and his enjoyment of those nice things is evident (the Gambino assisted “Black Qualls” for instance, or the effervescent “I Love Louis Cole”) there is also an undercurrent of grief.  “Lost In Space,” which references the death of close friend Mac Miller, or “Miguel’s Happy Dance,” where Thundercat needs to “dance the pain away.”

This happy-sad mood is something the album shares with Drunk. It’s better on two counts though. Firstly, there is a mania to Drunk that made it feel skittish and unsettled. This albums is tempered and flows more consistently, rather than seesawing between extremes. Secondly, Drunk was looooong.  This is 40 minutes—concise and elegant.  It doesn’t outstay its welcome, and you’re left wanting more, not waiting for it to end. And that instant familiarity helps. That bass sound is so familiar, so reassuring. There is an effortless sumptuousness to it. 

So, if I put the effort in with the remaining weeks of lockdown, you can expect me to drop a similar masterpiece in time for the summer.  Yeah, right…

Score: 🐱🐱🐱🐱🐱 / 5

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