Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, isn’t the most famous musician in the world, but for those who know, he is a jazz-playing, funk-producing, soul-singing triple threat. Fame doesn’t appear to matter in the grand scheme of his passions and the music projects he pursues. As a GRAMMY-Award winning musician, Thundercat is distinguished, respected, and celebrated, but he isn’t in the mainstream and doesn’t appear to have any desires for commercial recognition.
Thundercat’s latest solo album, It Is What It Is, comes three years after Drunk, his critically acclaimed third studio album. With classic collaborations with Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, Kendrick Lamar, and the late Mac Miller, and three experimental, forward-thinking projects, the Los Angeles-born bassist has one of the best resumes in the business.
After a brief time apart, what does Thundercat bring to the table? More jazz? More funk? Or does he change the game and switch up to something new? Let’s find out.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Shoutout Lion-O.
1. “Lost In Space/Great Scott/22-26”
The sweet voice of Thundercat. He’s asking, “Is anybody out there?” It sounds like we have left Earth. Production is quiet, but building. Not sure of the direction, but it’s leaning toward something. Thundercat would’ve been a great cast member for Star Trek. “Go and start the show.” Starting to think It Is What It Is might be a rock opera?
2. “Interstellar Love”
The intro didn’t give us much, but I like the build-up here. Ah, I know Flying Lotus when I hear Flying Lotus. FlyLo and Thundercat are the Batman and Robin of cosmic funk. The production reminds me of You’re Dead! Is that a sax? He’s turning it up. The drums are wild, moving like they’re in a high-speed chase. It’s expressive and untamed but still contained, like the music is going out in a blaze of jazzy glory.
3. “I Love Louis Cole” feat. Louis Cole
Soothing strings. It’s like the start of a brand new Legend of Zelda. The rhythm is captivating. Galactic rock. Percussion is moving! “I Love Louis Cole” makes you want to move, but it’s also elegant. Thundercat’s singing is weightless, an interesting contrast to the stampeding drums. I have to admit, I don’t know Louis Cole, and I’m not sure why Thundercat loves him, but the song is good. So much color in one song. I wonder what Beethoven would think if he heard Thundercat’s music? He’d be captivated, I’m sure of it.
4. “Black Qualls” feat. Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington & Childish Gambino
The bassline is sleek with the cool of an old-school Cadillac. I’m loving “Black Qualls.” “No more living in fear.” It’s like a hug. The singer sounds underneath the production. His voice is buried underneath the beat. “Just moved out the hood,” that sounded like Gambino. No, that’s Steve Lacy. There’s Childish, with the background vocals. “Black Qualls” could’ve been on “Awaken, My Love.” It’s a bit busy. It’s a lot to grasp at once, but it felt good. I’ll revisit it.
5. “Miguel’s Happy Dance”
Yes, yes, yes. “Miguel’s Happy Dance” has a lot of character. I feel like I’m inside a Gameboy. The old school Gameboy, before the handheld console came in color. Back when Space Invader and Dr. Mario ruled the playground. “It’s okay, everything’s gonna be alright.” Wow, how did Thundercat know the world needs to hear a comforting, encouraging voice right now? What if the TikTok influencers hear this and make “Miguel’s Happy Dance” the new “Renegade?” Highly unlikely, but it would be nice.
6. “How Sway”
I love the title. A classic moment in pop culture. The bassline is so jubilant. And these chords, they’re full of life. Flying Lotus has to make all his beats on a Gameshark. Musically, “How Sway” is fluid and colorful, like being on a psychedelic shroom trip inside the world of Tron. It’s animation for your ears.
7. “Funny Thing”
A nice start. “I’m just a little drunk.” A little drunk is important to note, vastly different from a lot of drunk. Thundercat makes the simple facts of life into funk-drenched anecdotes. I can’t imagine him singing this song over a production palette that’s contemporary in sound. There’s an absolute uniqueness necessary to dress up Thundercat’s singing with the proper outerwear. His music is constructed to be pleasurable, but not conventional.
8. “Overseas” feat. Zack Fox
My President and my Vice President on a song together. Ha, “Overseas” is a love song about taking a love interest on a vacation to other countries. The lyrics don’t hit the same during Rona, but it’ll be a love song for all the traveling couples when the quarantine is wrapped up. Zack Fox with the interlude. “He got all his chains on and a durag.”
9. “Dragonball Durag”
“Dragonball Durag” is one of the greatest song titles of all time. A durag anthem in the same month Rihanna made history for being the first person to wear a durag on the cover of British Vogue. Rihanna for President. This record is a jam. There’s a gracefulness to the production. It’s a subtle bounce, romantic, but groovy. I need to see rollerskate routines to this. “I may be covered in cat hair.” Thundercat is going to be the next sex symbol of funk. It Is What It Is is a pleasant album—whimsical, encouraging, with a touch of sex.
10. “How I Feel”
There’s no rush with Thundercat. He’s always singing at a pace that’s unhurried. “How I Feel” feels like a Flying Lotus interlude. I love the sparkling chords. He’s singing, “Is this real?” Every day I wake up and ask the same question, Thunder.
11. “King of the Hill”
Starting to feel like It Is What It Is is a shroom-induced drug trip. It’s been a good trip, though. I’m liking this build-up. It’s been great. A bit haunting, but it’s gripping. A beautiful groove. “The king of the castle, the king of the hill, wasting his time, chasing cheap thrills.” Who is the king of the hill, Thunder? Feels like a song that would be on a rock opera. Such a good song. A keeper. I like the forewarning “King of the Hill” brings to the album, very Shakespearean.
12. “Unrequited Love”
Beautiful build-up. It Is What It Is is starting to get more ominous. There’s been a turn in the third act. I like the slower tempo, though. The atmosphere is much heavier. How Thundercat is delivering this hook is familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. Doing two 1-Listen Reviews in a week will fry your brain. I like “Unrequited Love” a lot. “Baby you are the one, the one who got away.” Thundercat made sure to make regret sound just like the feeling. Loving how it’s fading out. A cinematic touch.
13. “Fair Chance” ft. Ty Dolla $ign & Lil B
This is a lineup. Instantly infectious. Is this an album about love? Love is a recurring theme. It sounds like he’s saying goodbye. Ty Dolla! So much soul. Ty doesn’t stop working. He’s also a one-man choir. “I been getting richer, only made me crazy.” The Based God! He needs to save us. He’s doing this rap/singing thing that I’m not sure about... I prefer my rappers to pick one. Production has been exquisite. So much great music will be inspired by Brainfeeder. “It is what it is.”
14. “Existential Dread”
We have made it to the existential dread. I’m captivated. He’s got me. He’s kept me all album. “I know I’ll be alright.” He’s so uplifting. The voice the people need.
15. “It Is What It Is”
A five-minute finale. “When it all comes to an end.” I need to know Thundercat’s inspiration making this album. His heartbreak sounds like the end of the world. I guess that’s how heartbreak is supposed to feel. His playing is comforting. The music has become a locomotive of erupting energy. “It Is What It Is” is how you go out, how you end the film.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Thundercat’s It Is What It Is
Thundercat’s It Is What It Is is a trip on an immersive level. It’s intoxicating, but not like being drunk. It’s more subtle and internal, a shroom trip with a friend who plays in a futuristic jazz-funk band. Thundercat is that wise, wild friend who comes with a Dragon Ball Z du-rag and a loving heart, existential commentary, and encouraging openness over exquisite production.
The production is arresting throughout the album, full of soul-drenched textures and shoulder-swaying grooves that soak into the experience. It Is What It Is isn’t a long project, but it’s a slow burn, an album that moves with patience and precision. The 15 songs are cohesive enough to build a complete painting, one that shifts with vibrant brush strokes.
I’m not exactly sure what the album means from start to finish, but I know the album is comforting. During a period of uncomfortable change, Thundercat’s It Is What It Is is right on time.