Album Review: Thundercat – It Is What It Is

[Brainfeeder; 2020]

It Is What It Is is the fourth album from Stephen Bruner under his Thundercat moniker, and it’s his most solemn to date. From the title to the cover and into the music, this is Thundercat at his most reserved – although he still takes a couple of opportunities to show off his cartoonish flare too. In fact, It Is What It Is is at its best when Thundercat pushes it to either of these ecstatic or downcast polarities.

On the happy end there’s lead single ‘Black Qualls’, which invites Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington and Childish Gambino along for a funked-up examination of African American largesse, the infectiously bouncing rhythm coupling perfectly with the smooth persona on display. ‘Funny Thing’ sees a return of Thundercat the party animal, the playful melodies underpinning his buzzing high which brings him into the orbit of an attractive female: “I just wanna party with you all night.” The slick bop ‘Dragonball Durag’ finds him feeling fly, entirely comfortable in himself and all of his quirks: “I may be covered in cat hair / But I smell good.”

Providing the counter ballast to these moments are the more sombre tracks, where his soulfulness comes to the fore. These are all placed towards the end of It Is What It Is, like the sloping come down from what’s come before, and it yields the strongest portion of the album. ‘King Of The Hill’ is a brooding portrait of someone “wasting his time chasing cheap thrills,” cast against a gloomy backdrop of cascading voices and twinkling keys. Following song ‘Unrequited Love’ laments the hollowness of Thundercat’s heart, as he mewls over plaintive bass and lumpen beats – it’s a similar theme to ‘Friend Zone’ off previous album Drunk, but in a more subdued and wallowing setting. ‘Fair Chance’ might be the strongest track on the album, as Thundercat arranges trilling samples and lush guitars over which Lil B and Ty Dolla $ign perform a sad boy rap about losing your loved one to other commitments.

Unfortunately, the flow of It Is What It Is is interrupted by a bunch of songs that seem less complete. The opening couplet of tracks are both space-themed, an area Thundercat has successfully exploited before, but songs about feeling “lost in space” or envisioning an “interstellar love” hardly feel fresh. His odes to his friends, ‘I Love Louis Cole’ and ‘Miguel’s Happy Dance’, are both carefree fun, but eminently forgettable. ‘How Sway’ and ‘How I Feel’ seem to have placeholder vocals that never got replaced, leaving them as unintentional interludes – although they do both give Thundercat a chance to show off his instrumental prowess.

It Is What It Is ends with the title track, which also seems to be something of a goodbye to the departed Mac Miller, similar to his farewell to Austin Peralta that ended his 2013 album Apocalypse. We’re left with the knowledge that beneath his larger-than-life persona, Thundercat has a giant heart, and It Is What It Is is the best display of his enormous empathy yet, even if it does have a few unnecessary goofs along the way.