For all of his musical talent and professionalism, it’s hard to take Thundercat seriously. From his pink noodle braids to the stoner-chic of his hoodie/shorts combo to his iconic oversized bass to songs titled “Oh Sheit It’s X” and lyrics like “If you’re not bringing tacos I suggest you start to walk away/B***h don’t kill my vibe.” There’s all of that even after getting past him sharing the name of an 80s cartoon show. Thundercat is one of the most talented and versatile artists in music today, there’s just a personality hump one has to get over to truly appreciate that talent. So as the world sits home with a constant cloud of dread hanging over it, a new album from a kooky funk freak might provide some much needed levity. But despite his persona, Thundercat feels tough times as much as anyone else.
Of course he feels it in his own lackadaisical way, hence the title and delivery of his fourth studio album. It Is What It Is is a brisk 38-minute party at Thundercat’s house that’s not as wild or funny as expected. Produced with Flying Lotus, Thundercat spends most of the front end of the record doing speed runs of jazz (“I Love Louis Cole,” “How Sway”) or spacing out to atmospheric R&B (“Interstellar Love,” “How I Feel,” “Funny Thing”). He still knows how to make tight grooves: Lead single “Black Qualls” features crisp drums and layered guitars from Steve Lacy, while “Funny Thing” has a drum and bass two-step mixing with spacey synths making a great bounce. “Dragonball Durag” might be the funniest (on-purpose) slow jam ever crafted with Thundercat’s smooth vocals (especially when they’re double-tracked singing the title) bring romanticism to “I may be covered in cat hair/But I still smell good.” Even “Overseas,” which has the base of elevator music, uses Thundercat’s low bass and harder electronic drums to bring a funny twist to the song.
Most of It Is What It Is sounds like business as usual for Thundercat, admittedly missing the throughline mood and scope of his last album Drunk. But then, for the album’s last six tracks, the party dies down and everything starts to hit him. It acts as almost an entirely different EP, with the chimes and foreboding bass of “How I Feel” setting up the existential dread he’s about to feel. “King of the Hill” sounds like it could be the fade-out to Cowboy Bebop with its muffled organ and restrained John Bonham drumming soundtracking Thundercat’s confrontation of success (“the world got time for games with you/Playing with your money and your heart/Just admit you don’t know what to do”). Another personal crisis is heard on “Unrequited Love,” an aching ballad where Thundercat stretches out his bass parts with the echoing boom-bap drums and an eloquent string section. The only odd ball is the Mac Miller tribute “Fair Chance,” with its lo-fi Travis Scott-esque beat and giving more room for Ty Dolla $ign’s soulful voice (“We were just gettin’ lifted/Yesterday, yesterday/Now we just reminiscin’/On yesterday, yesterday”), which is unfortunately hampered by a groggy Lil B verse.
The more fitting tribute to Mac’s memory is the title track. Backed by the haunted strumming Brazilian guitarist Pedro Martins, Thundercat looks back on his career longingly and heartbroken over what could’ve been different (“I tried to make it work/My best just wasn’t enough/It couldn’t be helped, the end/The things I would do for you”). But then at the two-and-a-half minute mark, Thundercat utters “Hey Mac” and carries out the rest of the song with a quick jazz run and a revolving bass line. Despite the weight on Thundercat’s shoulders, he’ll keep going because he can still hear his friend when he plays. Despite the fun times not feeling as great as they used to and whatever emotions he’s not willing to confront, Thundercat still knows how to craft a record. And for whatever he’s lost or missed along the way, it is what it is.