If you aren’t yet familiar with the bass-slapping maestro that is Thundercat then you’ve probably still heard his work somewhere. Perhaps you caught a listen of it on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Maybe you happened upon his tones on one of Flying Lotus’ jazz-psych epics. It could be that Kirk Knight, Ty Dolla Sign or Mac Miller are responsible for exposing you to a little TC. Or Terrence Martin may be the guilty culprit. Kamasi Washington, even.
Point being that Thundercat is a man in hot demand. If that record of yours needs an extra dose of funky bass then you give a call to this bloke. He’s put out a couple solo records before (The Golden Age of Apocalypse in 2011 and Apocalypse in 2013, as well as the 2015 mini-album The Beyond/Where The Giants Roam) but with the hype he’s built up through his features his new one, entitled Drunk, comes at a big time for Thundercat – a time when he’s earned enough favours to call in a couple of those famous friends to lend a hand.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s ya boy… Thundercat.
- Rabbit Ho – Droney soundbed? Check. Falsetto vocals? Check. Pulsing bass? Check.
- Captain Stupido – Cat’s feeling weird, better in then out they say.
- Uh Uh – Easy exhale intro, then snap into the virtuosity. That bass is covering more ground than N’Golo Kante and in half the time as well (sorry, football joke).
- Bus in These Streets – Bit of a shimmer and a glitter to this one. The first properly formed song here, for what that’s worth (not much).
- A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II) – Meow meow. Meow meow meow. Purr.
- Lava Lamp – Dropping down a gear into slow jam funk trip territory, the same place he found a couple previous career standout tunes. This one ain’t Heartbreaks + Setbacks but it’s pretty handy.
- Jethro – There’s a beat there, matey. Another one sub-2mins but worth the price of admission.
- Day & Night – 37 seconds of whoos and deep reverberation.
- Show You The Way – It’s ya boy Thundercat and he’s got friends (Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald). One of the few songs here that can float as singles and early favourite for best of the bunch.
- Walk on By – Yo what up, K.Dot?
- Blackkk – Not really sure what the title’s tryna say unless it’s a lynching lullaby… which is all kinds of dark and sardonic for an otherwise pretty song.
- Tokyo – Oh my God it’s Tokyo! Spend a night on the Japanese town with Thundercat and his Dragonball Z wristslap bracelet. A love affair with Tokyo.
- Jameel’s Space Ride – 80s syths and a kid’s space fantasy (and cop terror). Space sounds pretty awesome.
- Friend Zone – Subject matter = self-explanatory. Don’t call me up during Mortal Kombat hours. Bit silly, but definitely a jam.
- Them Changes – Borrowed from a previous release but still one of his best songs so no dramas. The album’s improved with its warbling tones.
- Where I’m Going – Switching it up with something just a little more… haunted? Melodic? Dunno exactly what… but I like it.
- Drink Dat – Pretty sweet late-night club boozer. Wiz Khalifa sorta phones it in lyrically but he gives it the right feel, this is the moment when your mates already crashed and you’re like: maybe just one more and then call it a night.
- Inferno – Travelling a bit of ground and stretching things out. The album’s probably starting to drag on a shade by now but this is one of the finer examples of what Cat does on his git-fiddle.
- I Am Crazy – Must be crazy, this one’s only 26 seconds and a single verse long.
- 3AM – Here we really kick into the late-night regrets, where the album earns its title. Wonder if there was a full album concept left behind somewhere in there.
- Drunk – “Don't care what you say. So many feels, bro. LOL, I'm so over it. 'Cause nothing is real”
- The Turn Down – Trippy and slow and wistful and doesn’t Pharell sounds like he’s been hitting the hash? He thinks so.
- DUI – A fitting and emotional climax, featuring some fluttering keyboards amongst all else. Fluttering towards the finish, fluttering free.
Okay, first… there are 23 tracks here. The album is only 51 minutes long but he’s squeezed in 23 tracks. Three of them are less than a minute long, only one reaches the four minute mark. What you get from that is an album that doesn’t feel fully formed. Like, there are ideas that don’t get fleshed out into full tracks like they might otherwise and despite a pretty solid jazz fusion background Thundercat keeps most of his rhythms very tight, not stretching things out but chopping impatiently between different compositions.
Yet at the same time the dude is too laid back to sell that as some restlessly creative and unfinished frenzy. It’s just Thundercat, making cool noises. His voice is fine, not the best range but he’s got his own style, while his lyrics come off like they were lazily scribbled down in the studio based on whatever the hell he got up to last night. Either draining some beverages or watching anime on the couch. He’s just being himself, letting it all flow in this natural way. It’s like chilling with the dude at 3AM (he’s probably playing Mortal Kombat anyway).
Like, Captain Stupido ends with snoring sounds and a fart. It’s a pisstake of a song but it’s fun. Then just in case you though he was bottling it on the back of some sharp production, here comes that trademarked bass brilliance of his in Uh Uh, strutting all over a high tempo beat with those magical fingers of his.
Of all the amigos that he’s worked with, Flying Lotus would be the closest. Cat’s signed to FlyLo’s Brainfeeder Records and Lotus is credited as a co-writer on most of these tracks. The pair also split time as producers (along with Sounwave and Mono/Poly) so you already know that there’s a strong electro-fusion-jazz element pedigreed here. FlyLo does most of the producing, Thundercat does most of the writing. Sounwave’s work is heard on three tracks (Fan’s Mail, Lava Lamo & Blackkk) while Mono/Poly lays the tracks on Friend Zone which was one of the singles.
Speaking of friends, he gives Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins some love on their guest single with a faux crowd intro. Doing his bit for a couple fellas who probably deserve a bit more street cred than they get. It’s a cool song too, McDonald’s voice brings a much needed gravity to the vocals. Not sure if the same can be said for the Kendrick collab though. Obviously K.Dot drops the standard poetic fire we’ve come to anticipate of him on Walk On By, which initially doesn’t seem to suit the tinny beat, as if they had to make something to suit Kendrick rather than Kendrick suiting the song. But it grows on you and we still get another strong Kendrick Lamar verse out of it so no money wasted.
Other fellas to guest along the way include Pharrell Williams (The Turn Down) and Wiz Khalifa (doing some run of the mill drinking on Drink Dat). Flirting with the big time, son. Even if this album doesn’t have any of those sorts of stakes.
At his best, Thundercat is able to slide along a groove like a fine liquor down the inside of a glass. He sings best in his falsetto, which is sort of all he does but that’s cool. He’s not making music that’ll find its way into karaoke bars, he’s making this smooth fusion stuff and the real star of the show is supposed to be his electric bass. Which, naturally, it is. Every song pulses with a heartbeat supplied from those strings.
If you look back in rock and roll history, the bass player is usually the lame one. When a band is going on telly they invite the lead singer and the lead guitarist. Drummers get ignored too but they’re psychos so they get their own reputations. Jazz bass players are kind of the same deal. Sure there are guys like Charles Mingus out there but usually they’re not the first dude you look for on stage. Bass is for rhythm, right. It’s usually an accompaniment. Thundercat doesn’t play some standard four string stand-up though, he’s all over the place with his instrument. He plays with effects, he experiments with different sounds he can produce, opening up all sorts of sonic boundaries.
Which are in turn allowed to flourish thanks to some typically reliable soundscapes beneath him. Of course Flying Lotus is on form with the beats, he always is. That guy is restless (can’t wait to see his new film, apparently it’s completely gross).
As an album, Drunk coulda done to be ten minutes shorter. It’s not so much that it drags on as that with so many tracks squeezed in they all blend together more than they should. If it ended at Where I’m Going then it might have edged up a few of the rankings (who cares about the critics though?). Granted then we’d lose out on the drunken coda of I Am Crazy/3AM/Drunk/The Turn Down/DUI where the record takes a more pensive note. It’s not as silly anymore, suddenly it’s kind of sad. On Drunk, the title track, he actually says the letters LOL and it’s tragic. That’s some good stuff there so I don’t really know what should’ve been left out. Probably nothing. It just feels too long is all. Slightly off that with so many songs, Them Changes found its way in here given it’s been released before. Hmm, but it’s a quality song. And it fits where it is. Ah well, defer to the master here.
“I feel weird… – Come your beard, brush your teeth! – Still feel weird… - Eat your meat, go to sleep!”
Although Drunk only made mild commercial headway in most places around the world (still early days yet) it did shoot up to third on the NZ Heatseekers chart. As in the “week’s fastest-rising titles outside the Top 40 Albums Chart”.
“Everybody wants to be a cat, it’s cool to be a cat”
It’d be insane not to take a second to say how great the album art is. There’s an ironic look of paranoia on his face which is almost laugh out loud funny. Half-submerged… the 70s era font… the quoted title… the spotlight on the water… the parsed brow… haha, so good.
“You can go or you can go/Because I'd rather play Mortal Kombat anyway, hey/I want a love like Johnny Cage”
“Look at the mess we’ve made, who’s gonna clean it up? Oh my God where’s Captain Planet?”
Full Kendrick Lamar verse:
From my eyewitness binoculars to Argentina and Africa
We mastered the pressure, hazardous, harassing us, you laugh at us
More accurate at bagging dimes, now we bagging rhymes
Bodybags, price tags on your fo'head
Nine times out of ten, young niggas are nine or ten
When the line becomes thin: be a killer or fireman
Fill up the lavish pen if I needed to right my wrongs
I can't deny sin, condolences through these palms
I remember when your cousin was coming home
My bitch, when we plotted to kill him 'cause we ain't know him
Unfamiliar faces make niggas nervous
Convicted court cases might hit the surface
Restricted territories might come through lurkin'
We ain't want none of that urgent call
Well, I'ma add terpene, fall on my identity, percocets
For all the headaches, I'm 'bout to bring confetti
Tumble out this barrel soon as it ring, you ready?
That was the word for we moved on 'em
Treat him like Joe the plumber
I wonder if someone come and can see this tool on him
Immature and retarded is what you call me
Yo' cousin wa'n't comin' home from the pen but from the army
If I can right my wrongs and pen this verse I read
Even though a bullet hit him in the leg, still walk on by
It’s hard to judge an album from a dude who has his complete own corner. Nobody really sounds like Thundercat so, like, what’s the point of comparison here? Tell you what: there isn’t one. Drunk isn’t a party record and it’s not a Sunday morning hangover record either. It’s completely its own thing and it’s completely weird. Weirder than Thundercat has ever gotten before and considering he turns up to live gigs with a wolf’s head cap on and has a proclivity for ponchos, the weirder the music the more honest it is.
Maybe that’s what Drunk is. His last full length album (and the mini-album as well) had a sense of maudlin to them, fair enough too given the passing of his best bud Austin Peralta (he only made one full album but it’s outstanding if you ever find a copy). But with Drunk we get more if a sense of the daily Thundercat. The guy who combs his beard and brushes his teeth and gets high on Friday nights. Probably a few other nights too, he’s a jazz musician after all.
His humour and irreverence shines through and the choppy nature of some of the tunes gives it this relaxed kind of vibe which seems to suit him (if not necessarily the album). The biggest criticism I’ve got is that some of the ideas feel half-formed, like he’s deliberately holding back on the ambition and with that Drunk isn’t likely to go down as his best record in a few years’ time. That’s okay, it doesn’t have to. This is another side of the same coin and if you’ve dug what you’ve heard from TC in the past then there’s plenty here that’ll get the ear drums throbbing with joy.