Thundercat - Drunk

by Jon Burke Rating:9 Release Date:2017-02-24

Drunk is an apt title for the latest intoxicating, beautifully scattershot, offering from Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat. It’s becoming increasingly clear with each consecutive record that Bruner’s aim is not merely to transform the bass guitar into an instrument worthy of center stage. Instead, Thundercat seems to have Quincy Jones-level goals, seeking to redirect pop music as a whole. Along with his peers, Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus, Thundercat is playing music unlike anything else being heard today and yet deeply reverent to the past. In this way, Drunk plays like a mixtape ode to Thundercat’s predecessors while also unveiling a path forward to a musical future.

Drunk is a challenging record to review if only because so much of what’s present on the album is the sonic equivalent of a you-had-to-be-there moment. There are, of course, Thundercat staples, the Adult Swim-esque humor (“Captain Stupido”), the bass-jazz showcase (“Uh Uh”), the silly slowjam (“Drunk”) and the tribute to/improvement upon 1970s yacht rock (“Show You the Way”). But what is to be made of “Bus in These Streets” – a chiming, whimsical jingle decrying the inherent idiocy of reactionary social media? How can one contend with “A Fan's Mail (Tron Song Suite II)” – a tune opening with Thundercat singing a series of “meows” that features a dusty hustler’s groove and serves as a legitimately touching tribute to Bruner’s cat, Tron?  Tron, whose full name is actually Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally seems to be the inspiration for much of Thundercat’s work and affection. Speaking of affection, another puzzling track, “Friend Zone”, uses some rap putdowns to effectively tell would-be suitors that Thundercat would rather play videogames (namechecked here: Diablo, Mortal Kombat) than be stuck in the “friendzone” – a sexless and lonelier place than solitude itself. The song comes across as an emotional drunken rant after an introspective night out. The challenge in writing about these songs is there is no base to touch, no historical referent; Drunk places listeners far out in the sonic wilderness and it’s gorgeous, scary, funny and deeply moving all at once.

Drunk features more guest spots than previous Thundercat recordings. Kendrick Lamar turns in yet another brilliant turn on, “Walk On By”, proving once again why he’s the best in the game right now. Wiz Khalifa shows-up for the smoked-out slow-jam, “Drink Dat”. Though “Drink Dat” is a fine tune, it pales in comparison to the pair’s previous collaboration, “Something Special” from Khalifa’s, 28 Grams. And, speaking of pale, blue-eyed soulsters Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald appear on the spaced-out jam, “Show You The Way”. What’s remarkable about “Show You The Way” is its complete lack of irony, the range exhibited by both Loggins and McDonald and the music which brings the two relatively irrelevant greats roaring back to life with a freshness and funk they’d been missing since the Reagan-era. Should Thundercat ever decide to pull a Rick Rubin, he could easily resurrect any of the classic yacht rockers in much the same way Rubin helped to bring Johnny Cash back into the critical and commercial limelight.

Drunk does, fittingly, stumble occasionally. “Tokyo” is nice-enough, musically speaking, but lyrically the song reduces a trip to Japan to a very Western view of the nation as merely a memetic, anime-referencing, fantasyland for sex and videogame tourists. Additionally, some of the tracks on Drunk seem unnecessary (“Rabbot Ho”, “Drunk”) and, while fun, don’t add much to what is mostly a deeply thoughtful, challenging record. From the race politics of “Jameel’s Space Ride” to the sexual politics of “Friend Zone” to the personal struggles with depression and anxiety that are peppered throughout Drunk, Thundercat has created an artful mishmash of topical lyrics sung over funky grooves. The whole affair is a heady trip into intoxication that will leave listeners excited for whatever Thundercat decides to do tomorrow morning, after he’s sobered-up and laser focused.  

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars