Thundercat Gets Us ‘Drunk’ On The Splendor of Life

5 STARS

On March 2, a week after releasing his fourth album, “Drunk,” Thundercat posted to Facebook a review from music mag The Fader, titled “Thundercat’s Drunk Is A Revealing Look At The Ways We Cope.” He added the terse caption, “It is what it is.” This quiet unease about categorization appears forcefully in his interviews: When Fact Magazine asked if he would describe the music of Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald as “yacht rock,” Thundercat replied, “No. I would describe their music as ‘awesome.’… Just like [with] anything else, people have to compartmentalize things.” This resistance to pigeonholing manifests itself most thrillingly in his music itself, which is endlessly diverse in style, tone, and subject matter. It seems a singular injustice to confine such a capacious record to one interpretation, because “Drunk” encompasses everything. As Thundercat sings on “Where I’m Going,” “Everything and nothing / Twirling around in my head.”

Such a line urges any attentive listener to reflect on the incredible crucible that is Thundercat’s head—taking care, of course, not to partake in the same sort of pigeonholing. A direct descendant of such pioneering jazz bassists as Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke, Thundercat has contributed his talents to albums by Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and Kendrick Lamar; in fact, he was one of the primary architects behind Lamar’s 2015 magnum opus “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Yet Thundercat is also a dedicated weirdo: He took his stage name from the ‘80s animated series “ThunderCats,” after all. Off record, Thundercat regularly exercises his off-kilter sense of humor, engaging in bass battles with a robot Hannibal Buress on “The Eric Andre Show” and trading non sequiturs over Twitter with Zack Fox, the artist and Internet jester who allegedly inspired the album. He watches “Scooby-Doo” and “Dragon Ball Z,” plays “Diablo” and “Mortal Kombat,” and hangs out with his cat, Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally, to whom he has penned many a paean.

On “Drunk,” Thundercat seamlessly synthesizes the two parts of his personality, as though the virtuoso and the stoned nerd had performed the Fusion Dance from “Dragon Ball Z” before stepping into the recording studio. Shortly after the intro “Rabbot Ho” invites listeners to “go hard, get drunk, and travel down a rabbit hole,” the following track “Captain Stupido” offers lines like “I feel weird / Comb your beard, brush your teeth / Still feel weird / Beat your meat, go to sleep” over frenetic basslines that squiggle at breakneck tempos. Tossing in a couple time signature switch-ups and an expertly placed fart noise for good measure, Thundercat offers the best of both his native worlds while yanking the listener on what viscerally feels like a journey.

This interplay between musicianship and comedy yields songs both stunning and surprising. On “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II),” Thundercat establishes a melancholy mood well-suited for meditations on mortality, yet the song turns out to be another ode to his cat: The chorus literally goes, “Cool to be a cat (meow, meow, meow, meow).” The cheery, chiming “Bus In These Streets” tackles technology dependence “Black Mirror”-style, if “Black Mirror” eased off the fearmongering and developed a good-natured sense of humor. It also showcases Thundercat’s divine falsetto: Arguably the most gorgeous moment of the album comes when he disputes the necessity of Tweeting one’s every thought, crooning, “Won’t you leave some things to mystery? / Opening your mouth removes all doubt / So be quiet.” The peak of Thundercat’s hilarity arrives on the chugging, chiptune “Tokyo,” which tracks his fish-fueled spree through Tokyo’s Gundam Cafes and suicide forests (cue second terrified fart noise). It also includes this anecdote about the origin of his nerdy obsession with Japan: “This all started when I was a boy / I went to the dentist and he gave me a toy / It was Dragon Ball Z, a wrist-slap bracelet / Goku fucking ruined me.”

Yet Thundercat balances these bits of farce with moments of genuine pathos. These dominate the second half of the album, with Thundercat touching on madness, insomnia, heartbreak, and death. No song proves as moving as “Them Changes,” which opens with Thundercat anxiously singing this arresting first line: “Nobody move, there’s blood on the floor.” He mourns the violent loss of his heart over a hypnotic bass melody and an Isley Brothers drum loop, concluding with the brutal lines, “Now I’m sitting here with a black hole in my chest / A heartless, broken mess.” Thundercat also broaches social issues on “Jameel’s Space Ride,” in which a fantasy of riding a bike into space gets disrupted by the threat of police brutality: “I want to go right / I’m safe on my block / Except for the cops / Will they attack? / Would it be ’cause I’m black?” Throughout the album, Thundercat proves that he can handle the serious as well as the lighthearted.

Thundercat’s versatility extends to his musical arrangements as well. Name any genre, and he mostly likely draws from it: ‘70s funk, ‘80s pop, jazz, soul, RnB, hip hop, electronic music, etc. He traffics unironically and fruitfully in camp: not only does he get Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald to hop on first single “Show You The Way,” he also makes them sound fresh. The bossa nova groove of “Walk On By” sounds like Thundercat’s attempt to reclaim elevator music; that this effort succeeds, and that he also commissioned Kendrick Lamar to deliver a typically brilliant verse on it, attest to his genius. Thundercat effortlessly achieves a fusion of myriad disparate elements, one that anyone could find appealing. You could play this album in the car with your parents, and they would probably bob their heads and smile.

“Drunk” is an expansive and epic record, but it is relatively straightforward in its aims. While it certainly addresses coping, its purview is much greater. It’s all about the project of living, which happens to include confronting the ineffable weirdness he gestures towards on “Captain Stupido.” Thundercat gives us glimpses of the good and the bad, of highs and lows, of comedy and tragedy, and he encourages us to embrace all of it and forge on: As he sings on closing track “DUI,” “Sometimes you’re alive / Sometimes you are dead inside / With the time to read between the lines of life and death …You will see that it’s not so bad / There’s always tomorrow.” On “Blackkk,” he subversively avoids the contentiousness of the song’s title and offers lyrics that affirm life in the face of death, singing with infectious optimism, “I want to experience all the light has to offer me / Bathing in your glow…Don’t be afraid of death / We’ll be gone in the twinkling of an eye.” While the title “Drunk” suggests an inability to manage without self-medication, Thundercat seems instead to be channeling Baudelaire in his definition of “drunk”: “One should always be drunk. …But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.” Thundercat gets drunk on the complex beauty of life itself, and through his infinitely rewarding music, he allows listeners to share in this sensation for one euphoric hour.—Staff writer Jonathan P. Trang can be reached at jonathan.trang@thecrimson.com.

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