‘Drunk’ Thundercat finds his groove
Jack Riedy | Monday, March 6, 2017
Thundercat is ready to have some fun again. The vocalist and bass virtuoso born Stephen Bruner has spent the last few years lending his sound to generation-defining albums by Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. Bruner’s sinewy bass parts and keening backing vocals were a reliable source of warmth, but he was a part of a somber whole. Barring outliers, even his solo work has focused on dour themes like heartbreak and death. On last month’s new album “Drunk,” Thundercat finally brings his sense of humor front and center.
If you have ever listened to an MF DOOM album or watched Adult Swim after Seth McFarlane airs, you will settle in quite comfortably. Bruner’s lyrics have much in common with the West Coast stoner rappers he frequently collaborates with. When he is not dedicating a song suite to his cat named Tron, he is charmingly self-deprecating. One early highlight offers a compelling solution to those who feel weird: “Comb your beard, brush your teeth.” Still feel weird? “Go to sleep.”
That track, “Captain Stupido,” is less than two minutes long, not long enough for laughter to slip into annoyance. This 23-song album has only six that run longer than three minutes. That leaves plenty of room for a veteran like Bruner to mix it up.
Thundercat truly has the range. “Jethro” knocks like the best street rap, a neo-soul RZA production. “Tokyo” adds the chirping brilliance of 8-bit coins to a jittery dance beat that feels just like being pleasantly overwhelmed in a foreign city. And “Walk On By” builds a hazy groove with underwater drums, topped off by a signature Kendrick Lamar verse. K-Dot cuts through the fog of the bass rumble with chillingly docile paranoia. “Convicted court cases might hit the surfaces, restricted territories might come through lurkin’, we ain’t want none of that urgent call,” he raps. It sounds like a pounding at the front door inaudible from your smoked out bedroom in the back.
Compton’s native son is not even definitively the most famous artist to appear on “Drunk.” He shares space on the tracklist with Wiz Khalifa, basically his polar opposite at this point. Pharrell shows up on the back half of “The Turn Down” to follow Bruner’s drunken stupor with new-age hippie wisdom. The most puzzling collaboration, yacht rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on the same song, is one of the best. Of course, beatmaker royalty Flying Lotus appears throughout the album, continuing his longstanding creative partnership with Bruner.
Despite these cosigns, Thundercat is never overwhelmed. His bass playing has never been better. Sometimes he frantically arpeggiates above the 12th fret, and others his lines lumber through the low end. Performing live, Bruner does both simultaneously. He rarely relies on Sting-like gaps in his playing to concentrate on his vocals. Bruner’s singing has improved as well, adding palpable emotion to those high notes. How he sings while playing is a cosmic mystery befitting the sci-fi he clearly adores. He even comes close to redeeming a dubious concept like “Friend Zone” with “I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway.”
Though the hits outweigh the misses, this is still not Thundercat’s best work. The variety is impressive, but the album wants for a thematic core to string the tracks together. Some allusions to the titular state serve merely as bookends without any resonance. The best song here, “Them Changes,” was released as a single in July 2015 and as part of an EP that same year. While its groove has aged like wine, it is disconcerting that “Drunk” needed to be anchored by a song older than seven Future projects.
Regardless, the skill is apparent. Bruner’s career thus far suggests he will be a vital part of the scene for a long time to come. “Drunk” isn’t his “Mama’s Gun” or “Maggot Brain,” but it is a lot of fun.
Tracks: “Show You the Way” “Walk On By” “Them Changes” “Jethro”
If you like: Sampha, Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu