‘It Is What It Is’ underscores Thundercat’s brilliance and versatility as a jazz artist, while also serving as a heartfelt tribute to his late friend, Mac Miller.
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Jazz is a genre dating back over 100 years, and it sure has been fascinating to see it evolve and engage modern audiences in the 21st Century — be it by reuniting with old genres such as hip-hop, merging with newer genres like electronica, or any number of other possibilities.
One of the artists spearheading this contemporary development of jazz music has been none other than Thundercat. The Los Angeles native born Stephen Lee Bruner has spent over half of his 35 years as a dedicated performer and has an illustrious résumé to show for it. His bass-playing for local punk band Suicidal Tendencies did wonders for the group over the better part of two decades. His work with Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp a Butterfly helped to rekindle the long-dormant creative partnership between mainstream rap and jazz music in 2015. Along with his profound service to other artists, Thundercat has established a fine solo album collection, one which gained a critical entry this past spring with the release of It Is What It Is.
Over 37 minutes, listeners are treated to a hypnotic and musically vibrant soundscape, one which often feels like an exciting journey through outer space— and not only on the song “Interstellar Love,” mind you. Inside his fascinating world, Thundercat makes room for a tremendous flurry of instruments, honoring the long-applauded jazz tradition of welcoming players of many different crafts. On “I Love Louis Cole,” he lets the drums erupt to immensely exciting effects. The chimes and xylophones on “How I Feel” grant a tingling feeling of excitement to both songs. And all across the record, Thundercat demonstrates his skills with his go-to instrument— the bass— as well as his soothing vocal chords.
Some of the subject matter here is incredibly goofy, like when he attempts to court the ladies by flaunting his love of Dragonball Z. Others is every bit as solemn— Thundercat spends a fair amount of It Is What It Is recounting the pain he has felt in the wake of the fatal 2018 drug overdose of his good friend, Mac Miller. No matter the mood his songs convey, every one of them demonstrates their author’s astounding craft as a jazz musician and ability to appeal to his audience’s senses.
It Is What It Is makes the most of the impressive connections Thundercat has gathered across the Los Angeles performing arts scene. Champion California saxophonist Kamasi Washington maintains his decade-plus creative partnership with Bruner by lending his typically remarkable horn-blowing to a good number of tracks. Flying Lotus, another key figure from the To Pimp a Butterfly production team, shines once again as a co-producer this time around.
Even the artists who only stop by for a song or two make their mark. More of Thundercat’s fellow Angelinos, including Louis Cole and Steve Arrington, do their part to give the jazz music here some critical modern-day flavoring. As was the case with ‘Cat’s previous album, Drunk (2017), there are a couple of songs on It Is What It Is that open up the floodgates to guest MC’s. Childish Gambino helps to make “Black Qualls” among the most energetic of these 15 new tracks, while Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B join in the eulogy for Mac Miller on “Fair Chance.”
“I’ll keep holdin’ you down, even though you’re not around,” they sing together, while also interpolating some of the lyrics from Mac Miller’s “Hurt Feelings.” This much sets the stage for the closing song and title track. Over some gentle strings provided by Brazilian guitarist Pedro Martins, Thundercat lets his pain and regret flow freely— “I tried to make it work. My best just wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be helped,” he laments— and closes the track out with a vocal sample from the late rapper himself. How fitting to let his dear companion have the last word on It Is What It Is— a name inspired by a lyric from a previous Mac Miller-Thundercat collaboration, “What’s The Use,” moreover.
On It Is What It Is, we find a profoundly talented jazz artist grieving the loss of a good friend but determined to keep his creative career moving forward.
The result is a masterfully crafted record that showcases its author’s broad set of skills and music industry liaisons, all while promoting him as an indispensable figure in today’s jazz scene.
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? art © Eddie Alcazar
It Is What It Is
an album by Thundercat