Thundercat may be one of the world’s greatest bass players, a singular voice at the forefront of the modern jazz movement and one of the primary colors Kendrick Lamar used when crafting his opus “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but before all of these things he is a pure neckbeard.
His music draws from a spectrum of influences so broad and disparate they could have only been parsed from hours of web surfing. He draws on not only Rick James, The Isley Brothers, Herbie Hancock and Dr. Dre, but also anime culture, fantasy video games and 1980’s cartoons. At shows he can be seen wearing children’s Pokémon costumes as pants and one of the most popular tracks of his last LP Record, “Apocalypse,” was “Tron Song” about his pet cat.
Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, is not nerdy in the cute, likeable Zooey Deschanel way — he is genuinely strange. His unpretentious and quirky personality shines through fully in his work, and this is apparent more on “Drunk” than ever before. But as anyone who has ever read comments on Reddit, YouTube or even 4chan can attest, there is an ugly side to the homestuck pop culture fetishism practiced on today’s Internet. In parts of “Drunk,” Bruner can seem deranged, sophomoric and even misogynistic. But these moments are rare enough that “Drunk” is still a relatable, charming and undeniably genius record.
Much ink has been spilled over the years about the supernatural creative relationship between Thundercat and his longtime friend and legendary LA producer Flying Lotus. Bruner’s features on classic Lotus tracks like “MmmHmm,” “Tiny Tortures” and “Coronus, the Terminator” provide the bedrock groove upon which Lotus’ stratospheric textural experimentation is grounded.
Perhaps this capacity for creative symbiosis is what brought so many amazing collaborators to “Drunk.” The album’s producers include Top Dawg Entertainment beatmaker and engineer Sounwave, fellow Brainfeeder signee Mono/Poly and of course, Lotus, who contributed to nearly all of the record’s 23 tracks.
On the first single, “Show You The Way,” the listener is treated to vocal turns from Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins which feel almost too good to be true. Bruner is heavily indebted to their smooth yacht-rock, and they seem right at home against the track’s electric keys, strutting bassline and drum break. Kendrick Lamar stops by for “Walk On By,” flowing better than he has since “How Much a Dollar Cost.”
Throughout the album is aural comfort food — snappy drum machines, airy synths, buttery Rhodes piano and Thundercat’s effortlessly fluid six-string fretwork. Harmonically, however, listeners spend much of the record in a state of limbo, thanks to Bruner’s uncertain, searching modal progressions.
The cloudy, irresolute harmony coupled with the frenetic drumming of Louis Cole and drum programming of Flying Lotus help Thundercat convey his millennial anxiety. “Bus In These Streets” is an acrid, tragicomic commentary on our smartphone addiction. On “Tokyo,” he details his love affair with Japanese culture, expressing doubts about its impact on his life. “Goku f—king ruined me,” he laments.
In this track listeners catch the first whiff of misogyny from the intrepid bassist, as he recalls trying to get a girl pregnant only to leave her on the next flight back to the U.S. This is a soft, Drake-esque reduction of the opposite sex, as listeners learn on “Friend Zone,” in which Bruner details cutting off a female friend because she isn’t interested in him sexually.
After a while, Thundercat’s lyrics feel pretty immature, which contrasts rather starkly with the supreme sophistication of his music. But for Bruner to pass himself off as a deep lyricist and not merely a goofy, yet deft player and composer would be dishonest. “Drunk” is most rewarding and enjoyable when you give him the benefit of the doubt.