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It Is What It Is Zara Hedderman , April 8th, 2020 08:39

With stomping bass lines and celestial synths, Thundercat's It Is What It Is makes an expansive record for intensive times, finds Zara Hedderman

“Hi, Hello? Is anybody there? Let me know if you can hear me. It feels so cold and so alone.” This prophetic introduction to Thundercat’s fourth record, It Is What It Is immediately resonates as this call for contact reflects our recently adopted quarantine. Suddenly, the Los Angeles-born multi-instrumentalist and producer’s tongue-in-cheek decision to name his first two albums The Golden Age of Apocalypse and Apocalypse feels a little too on the nose given the current climate. Moreover, song titles such as ‘Unrequited Love’ and ‘Existential Dread’ on his latest offering don’t do much to ease the listener into what lies ahead. Despite this, Thundercat, in the company of a strong cast of collaborators including Childish Gambino, Ty Dolla $ign, and Kamasi Washington, to name a few, brings forth a tremendously expansive record for optimum escapism.

In recent years, Stephen Brunner, under the Thundercat alias, has cultivated a carefree persona to complement kaleidoscopic compositions which often incorporate strands of 1970s jazz and funk. Whether he’s performing alongside yacht-rock pioneer Michael McDonald on Jimmy Fallon or failing to seduce Kali Uchis and the Haim sisters by stating, “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good” in the recent ‘Dragonball Durag’ video, his endearing comedic streak never compromises Brunner’s acute talents across his ambitious arrangements. This streak trickles into his musicality via recurring motifs that consistently crop-up in Thundercat’s discography. Deft and smooth bass lines? Absolutely. Amusing juvenile-level bawdy jokes? You best believe. Frantically charged synth parts that herald 1980s video game muzak? More than likely. Aside from these fail-safes, it’s the out-of-character moments where we strike gold and take solace.

Once again, production duties are shared with Flying Lotus, who Brunner refers to as “the other half of [his] brain.” These fifteen tracks tread towards maximised soundscapes stabilised by his idiosyncratically dense bass lines, a foundation which enables a myriad of brightly-toned textures to take centre-stage, sometimes with frenzied results. Take the noodling instrumentation of ‘Miguel’s Happy Dance’ which runs rings around the listener or the chaotic atmosphere of ‘How Sway’, a claustrophobic and clunky arrangement that makes you feel as though you’ve been transported into a game of Tetris where cascading blocks quickly close in on you.

Fortunately, It Is What It Is takes the listener’s needs into consideration by counteracting giddy one-liners heightened by energetic accompaniments with introspective ruminations coupled woven into sultry arrangements. In adjusting to the shifting sonic plains, the listener is presented with a gloriously rewarding stretch of tonal stability in the record’s third act. The fairytale twinkle of vibraphone descends onto the fleeting ‘How I Feel’, announces the arrival of sophisticated instrumentations. This continues with ‘King Of The Hill’, featuring Canadian jazz quartet BadBadNotGood; an immediate highlight. Here, a relaxed Brunner heralds Danger Mouse’s recent work with albums from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O and Michael Kiwanuka, respectively, honing in on a David Axelrod-like production style featuring lush spacious arrangements tinged with celestial synths and spiked keys. These mellower moments provide a welcomed contrast to Thundercat’s otherwise over-the-top vivaciousness. Fitting nicely into this soothing soundscape is the up-tempo ‘Black Qualls’, featuring funky Steve Lacy guitar licks conversing seamlessly with Thundercat’s stomping bass lines. It’s smooth and silky, proffering a glimpse of what’s in store in the final sumptuous moments of the record.

By the end of the record, It Is What It Is becomes Brunner’s mantra; entering the lyric sheets of several songs in quick succession. The titular track, a lullaby comprised of a beautiful interplay between a longing guitar melody and swirling strings melds the two moods of the record culminating in Thundercat’s synonymous quickened bass encouraging an onslaught of a galloping percussion. All this noise is reassuring for Brunner as he strides towards accepting his solitude; “I know, I know, I know we’re not alone but it’s so hard to tell,” he intones. It is what it is.