DRUNK by Thundercat
Genre: Psychedelic Soul
Favorite Tracks: “Captain Stupido (featuring Flying Lotus),” “Uh Uh (featuring Zack Sekoff),” “Jethro (featuring Flying Lotus),” “Show You The Way (featuring Flying Lotus, Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins),” “Blackkk (featruing Sounwave),” “Drink Dat (featuring Taylor Graves and Wiz Khalifa)”
Though most know Stephen Bruner from his work with Kendrick Lamar on 2015’s TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY, or from his collaborations with Flying Lotus, the mighty Thundercat exists in musical multitudes. Bruner’s bass virtuosity has taken him through modern jazz with Kamasi Washington, thrash metal with Suicidal Tendencies, and now here, to a unique and self-referential strain of electronic R&B. His instrumental prowess and distinctive, chordal style of bass playing, his nerd culture-friendly, reference-filled lyrics, and his Adult Swim sense of humor make this record different, if nothing else, and Thundercat is a distinctive artist without necessarily having to try to be one.
Nevertheless, DRUNK is a record filled with big ideas that could, perhaps, use some more fleshing out. The album doesn’t nail down a consistent tone, but Thundercat is constantly toying with his listeners’ expectations in a way that feels timely after five solid years of the R&B genre being dominated in the mainstream by stiff Frank Ocean-influenced (imitating, in some cases) PBR&B vocalists. Even if DRUNK is a bit lacking in sonic diversity and feels undercooked at times, Thundercat still manages to mostly zig when you expect him to zag, and DRUNK feels most transgressive when he is able to get out a step ahead of his listener.
DRUNK’s consistency issues are emphasized by the high quality of the album’s best material, making the lows seem even lower. “Show You The Way,” which features blue-eyed soul titans Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on vocals, comes across as part tongue-in-cheek joke, part sincerely made schmaltz-fest made by somebody who really understands music and loves to play around with it. Thundercat’s ironic reclamation is more Father John Misty than Mac DeMarco—more openly smartassed and jokey than passive and aloof. Musically, it is a pitch perfect caricature of the light but over-the-top adult contemporary that his guest vocalists have put out in the past, though it still has his distinctive musicality written all over it. It’s not necessarily the same style, but its playful exaggeration of the “yacht rock” genre’s tropes (the sultry whispers that introduce each singer on the track are hilarious and directly out of a weird Fred Armisen sketch) drive the joke home just enough to reinforce it without taking away from the listener’s ability to actually enjoy the song, which is fun both in spite of and because of its numerous cliches.
Having the breezy lead single “Bus in These Streets” and “Show You the Way” as our first tastes of the album made it reasonable to expect a lot of that signature Thundercat goofiness on DRUNK, and there are quite a few places where he delivers. After an intro track, the album kicks off with “Captain Stupido,” a bizarre composition that recalls the perverse weirdness of Frank Zappa, or even a 21st century version of Brian Wilson’s SMILE. We get the requisite pop culture references on “Friend Zone,” in which Thundercat ponders how he’d rather play MORTAL KOMBAT than harbor an evening companion, and compares himself to Goku from Dragon Ball Z in a line echoing Kanye West’s “I feel like Pablo.” The album takes a more serious turn to the end as Thundercat hints at an alcohol problem, but even then he takes steps to undermine his expression of negative emotion with humor as he feels “so many feels, bro.”
The closest that Thundercat gets to truly capturing the irreverent invocation of tropey musical nonsense besides “Show You the Way” is the late album Wiz Khalifa feature, “Drink Dat.” Though it’s decidedly more of a stretch to imagine Wiz’s inclusion as a goof than it is for someone like Michael McDonald, Wiz’s verse checks off so many Top 40 party rap song cliches that you can’t really be blamed for interpreting the song as such. Driven by a laconic synth organ, “Drink Dat” musically reflects the pleasant, floating feelings of a healthy substance buzz almost perfectly, so it still sort of works on its own, but without the lingering sense that nothing about it is to be taken seriously, it would be far less compelling.
Compositionally speaking, the album can get highly repetitive, and the songs (seemingly intentionally) blur together into six or seven sections, but it’s almost never dull and always bouncy and, frankly, a lot of fun. So much of this is tied to Thundercat’s bass playing (check out “Uh Uh” and “A Fan’s Mail” for some of the tastiest licks), often taking advantage of playing full chords, giving an incredibly smooth quality to it that, combined with his penchant for spacey bass effects, makes it sound more like a keyboard synth than a bass guitar. Unfortunately, several of DRUNK’s artist cameos, which include Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell, fail to make an impression on the listener, a disappointing development, especially considering Thundercat’s reputation as a quality collaborator.
DRUNK is, when all is said and done, one of the best and most distinctive releases of the year so far. Listening to a master of his instrument play is always a joy, and Thundercat matches that proficiency with a unique musical vision. It would be nice, however, to see Thundercat embrace his personality even more in his music. DRUNK probably falls short of being as clever as it could be, but it is certainly smart enough to convince anyone that Thundercat’s voice as a writer is almost as sharp as his musicianship, and that he could be the progressive, Zappa-esque weirdo that takes some of the air out of what has become an over-inflated and often self-serious R&B scene. Even if he is stuck in a few too many layers of irony for a clear thesis to emerge from DRUNK, Thundercat is able to both make us laugh and spin genuine emotion through a conscious detachment from his album’s serious subject matter.