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You’d be forgiven if upon hearing “Dragonball Durag,” the lead single from Thundercat’s new album It Is What It Is, you assumed that his latest full-length would follow in the vein of his last one, Drunk. That is to say: If you figured he’d be up to his usual, haphazard, up-way-too-late-in-the-morning-getting-way-too-high shenanigans, you’ll likely receive some pleasant surprises from this project, which is a more mature work that spends a lot more time ruminating on love, heartbreak, and the inevitability of death.
Of course, maturity is relative; after all, there is still a song about flexing a haircare accessory adorned with a colorful pattern inspired by a Japanese children’s cartoon. There are even some songs inspired by the theme songs of anime like Dragon Ball, with the hard-driving “I Love Louis Cole” borrowing one of those high-energy Saturday morning guitar riffs and an adventure-teasing drum beat — courtesy of the titular drummer/producer, naturally. Clearly, Thundercat’s droll sense of irony remains intact on his latest.
But it’s also been weathered, both by age and by tragedy. In 2018, Thundercat’s close friend and collaborator Mac Miller passed away from an overdose. The resultant grief translates itself into a melancholy mood that permeates ‘Cat’s usual tongue-in-cheek lyrical musings. “Black Qualls,” a feature-laden jam session that employs Internet guitarist Steve Lacy, under-the-radar funk icon Steve Arrington, and the multitalented Childish Gambino, pays homage to Miller’s memory by echoing the life lessons he spoke to on his last two albums, Swimming and Circles. “I’m not living in fear,” Thundercat croons, “Just being honest.”
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Thundercat explained the impact Mac’s death had on him wanting to change his own lifestyle. “I mean, we were in trouble,” he said. “You don’t realize it all the time. It’s sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. It’s real. You ride the line, you don’t know how close you are sometimes… I’ve been drinking forever. It’s such a part of me. I was always that guy who’s missing one of his shoes, covered in blood, [but] I couldn’t do the same things I’d done before.”
He also revealed that in the span of just months, not only was he shaken up by Mac’s death, but he was also bludgeoned by the devastation of being dumped, leading to songs like the morose “Unrequited Love.” It’s the sort of song he would have cracked about making around the time Drunk came out, but is now full-hearted and sincere. He addresses the “Existential Dread” of feeling like death is right around the corner and could strike at any time (particularly poignant in the wake of global current events) and gives a mournful salute to his departed friend on “Fair Chance.”
And while that may sound the makings of a depressing album about depression, Thundercat’s deft, spacey bass noodling and dreamy falsetto keep the mood as light as pink cotton candy. The guests range from the smoky emotion of Ty Dolla Sign to the original blog rap troll Lil B, letting ‘Cat continue to at least smirk in the face of the heavier content, if not outright laugh at it. There are traces of that same, silly, devil-may-care artist in songs like “Dragonball Durag,” and even in the lyrics of “Fair Chance”: “So hard to get over it / I’ve tried to get under it / Stuck in between.”
The looseness of the overall construction allows the album to cover a lot of ground in its trim 14 tracks — many of which are under two minutes in length — yet the breeziness it sounding more focused than Drunk was. It’s smooth, but not soft, it’s airy but it has substance. It’s serious but not too serious, reflecting the times in which it was made — we’re all facing plenty of darkness, trying to find the light, and forced to accept that sometimes, it just is what it is.
It Is What It Is is out now on Brainfeeder. Get it here.