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It Is What It Is
Thundercat may not be the most frequently talked about musician out there, but don’t let that trick you into thinking he isn’t anything special. Starting out at age 15, Thundercat’s musical career has stretched over two decades across multiple acts. Aside from his string of four solo albums, one of Thundercat’s biggest claims to fame is his heavy involvement with the iconic 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, of which he was considered a major contributor at its “creative epicenter”.
The last time Thundercat took the spotlight was in 2017, upon the release of his last studio album Drunk. The album was well regarded amongst fans, many of whom enjoyed the meandering funk-focused sounds at the forefront of the record. Almost three years later, Thundercat’s newest addition is It Is What It Is, a 37-minute, 15-track record that was heavily influenced by the place Thundercat found himself after the death of his close friend and collaborator Mac Miller.
There’s a lot going for this album, musically speaking – almost every facet of Thundercat’s style has been given its due dilligence.
The first two tracks, for example, exemplify Thundercat’s smoother and softer sides with mellow layered basslines and gentle vocals. This immediately turns on its head as “I Love Louis Cole” (featuring Louis Cole) kicks into gear with a warm, peaceful, but energetic sound. Imagine taking a ride in a convertible down the pacific coast highway, it’s sunny, the wind is blowing in your hair, there’s no traffic, and for the sake of this analogy, you’re a little buzzed. That’s the kind of carefree energy this track delivers as Thundercat and Cole go back and forth, simply reflecting on their friendship and the fun they have together.
“Black Qualls” is the first track on this record that really shines compared to the others. First and foremost, the instrumental is as punchy and groovy as it gets with Thundercat. Thundercat, despite being possibly the most prominent bassist in the scene right now, has often voiced a lack of interest in slap bass – but not on this track. The butter-smooth funk instramental is accented with excellent vocal tradeoffs from Thundercat and the first featured artist, Steve Lacy. This section is followed and improved on upon by a vocal feature from Steve Arrington, with a much more soulful and raspy vocal sound. The song’s hook reiterates briefly, before Childish Gambino’s verse provides the perfect conclusion, and the perfect contrast from Arrington’s more oldschool sound with some more modern production, higher pitched, and cleaner singing overall.
“Miguel’s Happy Dance” is a surprisingly mature track given its silly title – the lyrics remind listeners to stay calm and just do what they can to get by with whatever problems they have. At the end of the day, it’ll slowly get better. “How Sway” opens with a paradoxical bassline that’s somehow as fast as it is relaxing when paired with the laid back instrumental. As the song progresses, other instruments and synths enter the frame and the sound goes from mellow to manic. And it maybe sounds just a little bit like Mario Kart music… but in a good way. “Funny Thing” is about as Drunk-esque as any other track on this album, with fat bass and a loose aura. “Overseas” is a shorter, less self serious track about Thundercat flying around the world with his girl and a skit at the end in which twitter personality Zack Fox plays the pilot on whatever plane Thundercat’s on.
“Dragonball Durag”, another single, is the next landmark moment on the album for me. Everything about this track is Thundercat in a perfect, concise, and accessible package. The humor (“I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good”.), the funky basslines, the bright synth elements and other instrumental accents, and the good vibes are all there. “How I Feel” is a brief interlude track with cosmic synths and more otherworldly pass patterns, accented by soothing chimes and vocals. “King Of The Hill” is the result of a collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD catalyzed by Flying Lotus, one of Thundercat’s fellow Brainfeeder labelmates. With a similar instrumental vibe as “Dragonball Durag”, the track maintains the steady groove with moodier melodies, a woozier energy, and more creative production flourishes no doubt the result of BADBADNOTGOOD’s production wizardry. “Unrequited Love” is a more traditional track, with a cut-and-dry message about, you guessed it, unrequited love and a invigorating solo towards the end.
“Fair Chance” is another star-studded feature track with pop and RnB kingpin Ty Dolla $ign and rapper Lil B. This track is directly dedicated to Mac Miller, as all three artists pour their hearts out in memoriam. Ty’s voice is absolutely perfect for the track and meshes excellently with Thundercat’s higher pitched, more ethereal vocals. Even Lil B, not exactly known for being the most somber personality in hip-hop, opens his heart with an introspective and heartfelt verse. “Existential Dread” immediately follows, and is a direct continuation of the prior song’s conceptual ethos while being a bit more stripped down. This final stretch of the album concludes with the title track, “It Is What It Is”, an almost theatrical, two part, soft funk fuelled journey into Thundercat’s emotions and mindset in dealing with life’s challenges. The track has a eulogy-like atmosphere in its first half, with darker and more despondent sounding bass melodies. About halfway through, with little warning, Thundercat launches the second leg of the song with just two words, “Hey Mac”. The track takes on a vibrant, comforting sound briefly in the moment, leading me to wonder the purpose of “Hey Mac” – is this Thundercat paying homage? Is this a representation of the one day they meet again? Maybe a little bit of both. As the track finishes out, we’re given a drum solo and other instrumentals to bring the album to its close.
I like a lot about this album – there are plenty of great songs, the sound Thundercat pursues is unique and entirely his own in the current music scene, and the emotional content is excellent even if it’s not everpresent. Despite all the great things about the album, I find the experience a little bogged down by some of the more filler-y tracks, the sometimes flat or muddled mix, and a lack of many new risks taken or ideas brought to the table. Regardless, the pros most certainly outweigh the cons.
I give It Is What It Is by Thundercat a 3.5 out of 5.
Other New Releases
There’s not enough time for me to give a full review to every project that comes out – so here’s the rest of the new music that I listened to this week but didn’t have a chance to review. Releases with a star next to the title are the ones I liked most!
Find My Way ⋆
By DaBaby // Single
Pray 4 Love
By Rod Wave // Album
By Drake // Single