By JORDI FAXON
To the rap and jazz community at large, Thundercat is a bass icon with idiosyncrasy pouring from his whole person. His newest album returns with his characteristically soulful, falsetto voice and expansive, overreaching bass lines.
It is in part an elegy for Mac Miller, a rapper and friend of his who died in 2018 from a drug overdose, as well as an elegy to the colors of wonder at life that fade as one grows older. At the same time, it’s also a celebration of ridiculousness and absurdity, reminding us that sometimes it’s important not to take things too seriously.
The first track, “Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26,” behaves like an ambient piece, with time floating vaguely and imprecisely, and with ambiguous lyrical content. “Innerstellar Love” retains some of the celestial character of the first track, but the entrance of drums defines a steady tempo and grounds it down to earth. The bass line appears more prominently, and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, fellow member of the West Coast Get Down, offers a plaintive, spiritual saxophone solo that makes the song grow into a headstrong, burnout jazz tune.
Thundercat invests in a hip-hop/R&B sound on “Black Qualls (feat. Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington & Childish Gambino),” the most stylistically distinct song from the rest of the album, with soulful clavinet grooves and background vocals. After that diversion, “Miguel’s Happy Dance,” named after instrumentalist and friend Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, returns with classic Thundercat stamping down directionless chords and singing with an almost taunting vocal attack.
Thundercat maintains the dreamy quality of the album on “Overseas (feat. Zack Fox),” singing about wanting to spend time with a significant other in places around the globe and get raunchy on the plane ride. “Dragonball Durag” is a spiritual companion to the piece from before; one can infer he’s addressing the same woman, asking her if he looks good in his durag, because he wants to get intimate. A celebration of unbounded self-confidence, this track also features some of the absurd lyrical content that makes a lot of Thundercat’s appeal: “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good / Baby, let me know, how do I look in my durag?”
The longest track, “It Is What It Is (feat. Pedro Martins)” is a melancholy ending to the album, where rubato chords punctuate Thundercat’s speech, a reluctant resignation of goals unfulfilled and hope lost for the future. The lyrics end halfway through the song with “So many things I wanted to say / This is the end,” and then after a pause, “Hey, Mac,” which he expresses in his liner notes as a chance to say goodbye one last time to his friend.
Thundercat mentions in an Apple Music Interview that the last couple of years have been an emotionally trying time for him, most notably from Miller’s death, but a lot of this despair has influenced the musical substance of the album for the better. “It Is What It Is” has more than enough to be excited about if you already love the eclectic, distracted energy of his anime-punk-jazz-fusion sound, but it also has an inkling of something new, a deeper discussion on the meaning of life and death, which makes it, too, a distinct and interesting record in its own right.