For a long time, Stephen Bruner, known by his musical moniker of Thundercat, operated behind the scenes. In fact, he still does. Bruner has an astonishing amount of experience under his belt, including contributing production to Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly, frequently collaborating with experimental producer Flying Lotus, providing bass for crossover thrash legends Suicidal Tendencies between 2008 and 2013 and Kamasi Washington on his astonishing solo debut, The Epic, and so much more. Many of Bruner’s colleagues, including Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus, contribute to his latest full-length album, Drunk, but this record also boasts features from artists as diverse as singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins to Pennsylvanian rapper Wiz Khalifa. In many regards, Drunk seems to be Thundercat’s most ambitious project yet, not just as a result of the features, but this new album brandishes broader influences than his previous two records, and is much more fragmented, in that 50-minutes’ worth of material is spread across 23 tracks, making for a handful of very short snippets of music. Bruner’s tongue-in-cheek humour, which is reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s comedic stylings at times, is also much more prominent on Drunk, resulting in an animated and somewhat theatrical album that is undeniably engaging to listen to. Indeed, based on the singles leading up to this record, many of which are amongst some of my favourites from Thundercat yet, and the bevy of impressive features, I was greatly anticipating Drunk, but was nevertheless intrigued as to how some of the shorter cuts would work into the mould of the album’s broader narrative and stylistic themes. For the most part, Drunk is an incredibly buoyant and vibrant release that channels some of Thundercat’s most entertaining ideas yet. Even if this record comes across as slightly directionless at times, it’s an enjoyable ride that is arguably made even better by the fact that the listener has no idea where they’re being taken half the time.
More than ever before, Bruner’s humour, ranging from dark to obscene, really stands out on Drunk, and reminds me of much of the comedy to Ariel Pink’s music, but with the delivery of a Frank Zappa skit that he and his band would break into in the middle of an incredibly complex composition. The smooth vocals on Captain Stupido that sing “Comb your beard, brush your teeth / Beat your meat, go to sleep” are delivered with a very Zappa-esque sense of timing and silliness, especially given the crazy jazz funk tune the song devolves into, with Bruner’s extraordinary, bubbling bass lines fluttering around the cut, as glistening guitar licks and warm keyboard embellishments are peppered around the piece. Tokyo is most definitely an outstanding track thanks to Bruner’s comedic attempt at creating an otaku anthem, complete with lines comparing himself to popular anime protagonists, like Kenshiro of Fist of the North Star and Goku of the Dragon Ball franchise, and excitedly dreaming about spending all of his money on anime and eating enough fish as to make himself ill. Despite this track’s goofy nature, Bruner alludes to the darker side to his sense of humour, shown when he contemplates hiding in Aokigahara — referred to commonly as ‘suicide forest’ as a result of the area’s (often exaggerated) popularity as a suicide destination — as a means of escaping the torment of some previous bad decisions. All of these Japanese antics take place atop a throbbing synth funk groove that would certainly be a fitting tune for driving through the city centre of Japan’s bright capital at night time. The obscure and somewhat twisted comedy of Tokyo carries onto the succeeding track, Jameel’s Space Ride, which is presumably somehow inspired by, or maybe dedicated to, Thundercat’s younger brother, Jameel Bruner. At just over a minute in length, this song makes its point from its opening lines, in which a black man contemplates flying into outer-space as to avoid police brutality and live his life as a free individual.
Despite the absurd humour of a large amount of this record, many of Drunk‘s central songs maintain a much more serious tone. Walk On By, for instance, is most definitely one of the most pivotal moments on the record, primarily as a result of the returning collaboration between Thundercat and Compton-born MC, Kendrick Lamar. Bruner’s soulful, sung verses that appear over a relaxed and smooth instrumental deal with the burden of impending loneliness following a breakup, with the singer lamenting an incomplete reciprocation of romantic feelings. Whilst the laid-back beat on this track is not one of the highlights of the record, K-Dot’s verse is spectacular and boasts some incredibly witty wordplay that epitomises why Lamar is one of the most formidable rappers in the industry currently. Kendrick’s verse builds up to him expressing the guilt he feels for shooting an army veteran in the leg, following a misunderstanding that led the rapper to believe this person to be dangerous, thinking he had just been released from “the pen” (i.e. the penitentiary). Kendrick offers to make amends the only way he knows how; by writing a rap verse, or “right/writ[ing] [his] wrongs”, with “pen this verse” also being a pun on ‘pen’ as short for ‘penitentiary’. Friend Zone is another single from Drunk with a serious undercurrent, and displays similar themes to Walk On By, with Bruner reflecting on his efforts of pursuing a girl, which fell short and resulted in him being friendzoned. Despite the obvious lamentation demonstrated on this cut, Thundercat is nevertheless sure to decorate his lyrics with the odd bit of humour, professing to this girl that he would “rather play Mortal Kombat anyway”. Ultimately, the lyrical content of Drunk exhibits amongst Thundercat’s most playful and honest subject matters to date, and a great deal of the sheer enjoyment of this record arises from the humorous, dark, truthful and blunt lyrics that are sure to resonate with many listeners.
On the musical side of things, Drunk is most definitely Thundercat’s most diverse effort yet. Whilst many of these pieces are rooted in Bruner’s usual jazz stylings, with his impressive bass playing being as complicated and as crazy as ever, the stylistic influences featured on this record are vast, ranging from soft rock to psychedelic soul and from new wave to synth funk. What’s arguably most extraordinary is the continuously high level of musicianship that recurs across these cuts, with even the short snippets of tracks displaying some incredible playing ability. As an example, Uh Uh is a crazy jazz fusion instrumental, with a clean jazz guitar duelling with Bruner’s impeccable, wobbling bass runs, as some loose piano embellishments float over the top of the off-kilter freestyling. Show You The Way is certainly a musical highlight as a result of the features from soft rock powerhouses Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, both of whom perform very well on their respective vocal contributions to the song. The track most definitely retains an 80s R&B vibe that feels almost deliberately corny, but given that Thundercat is no stranger to comedic irony, this was likely deliberate and, if not, it still works to the benefit of the song. Them Changes is a noteworthy song, being lifted from Thundercat’s 2015 EP, The Beyond/Where The Giants Roam, and boasts one of the best instrumentals on the album. A wobbly synth bass is accompanied by a jazzy guitar and a solid disco drumbeat, as Bruner’s soulful crooning stands out as one of the best vocal performances on the record. The bright electric piano that bursts in halfway through the verse is also a lovely addition to the piece and, ultimately, everything comes together incredibly well to make a cut that is both well-textured and well-assembled. All in all, this describes much of the music on Drunk, with the vast majority of these tracks exhibiting vibrant songwriting matched with compelling performances and musicianship, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable record overall.
As much as I love the aesthetic of Drunk and how enjoyable it is as a record, there are certainly some reservations I have for the approach used by Thundercat that are rather general and apply to much of the record. For instance, Bruner has never been an exceptionally good singer; he can certainly carry a tune, but he has always stayed firmly rooted in his mid-range and seldom deviates from his vocal comfort zone to attempt anything more ambitious. This is not often a problem for individual songs, but when it comes down to a full hour-long project, his vocal performances begin to feel more and more tired, with certain songs towards the backend of the tracklisting being slightly unmemorable as a result. This is particularly true of The Turn Down, although this can be partially attributed to Pharrell’s incredibly forgettable performance on this cut. On the topic of features, whilst most of the personnel on Drunk are utilised very well, Wiz Khalifa’s appearance on Drink Dat is incredibly lacklustre, with the MC spitting rudimentary and quickly-forgotten bars about partying with little charisma. In fact, even Thundercat’s lyrics on this track are pretty forgettable, with little resembling the wit and banter provided on the best songs on the album. This just about sums up my issues with Drunk and, although they are limited and ultimately not enough to prevent me from thoroughly enjoying this record, these are nevertheless reservations I have always taken with Thundercat’s work, so I still await a project from the artist that sees him overcome some of these problems.
Overall, on Drunk, although Bruner’s influences are quite clear, he has continued to refine the unique Thundercat sound that distinguishes him as an incredibly able musician, songwriter and producer. As kooky as this album gets at times, it remains largely accessible for the most part, not solely thanks to the host of illustrious featured artists, but also because the abundance of jazz-funk grooves carry a smoothness that most music fans could certainly get down with. On a deeper level, there is much to be enjoyed in the lovely production flourishes, the impressive musical dexterity, the dark comedy and general crazy, charismatic and playful persona presented across the album’s narrative. Where this project ranks amongst Thundercat’s other works is certainly up for debate, but, at the very least, Drunk is a refreshing and essential addition to Bruner’s impressive discography.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10