Thundercat Finds Healing and Some Laughs on 'It Is What It Is'

Thundercat Finds Healing and Some Laughs on 'It Is What It Is'
Photo: Parker Day
No matter the level of fame that virtuoso bassist Thundercat (aka Stephen Lee Bruner) attains, you get the sense he never forgets his roots. And by roots, we don't just mean his childhood growing up alongside his musical father, Ronald Bruner, Sr., and brother, Ronald, Jr., or even his high school years spent playing with thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies. No, we mean roots roots, as in the long lineage of musicians that have inspired Bruner's unique artistic vision and musical output.
"I think about guys like Miles Davis and Chick Corea and the body of work that they've done, and I feel like there's always a reason to create, you know?" Bruner tells Exclaim! "It reminds me that there's so much more to do."
It's hard to imagine a prolific artist like Bruner — who has released three solo albums, won a Grammy for his work on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly (arguably the 21st century's most influential hip-hop album), composed for Donald Glover's Atlanta, and collaborated with countless high-profile artists, including Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg — is preoccupied with the idea of adding more to the universal canon, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
"The idea is to add to, and not take away," says Bruner, whose fourth album, It Is What It Is, will be released on Brainfeeder on April 3. "That's genuinely my idea of what it is to create: it's a service. That's what [acclaimed jazz bassist] Stanley Clarke told me years ago, that what we do is a service."
It Is What It Is, co-produced by longtime collaborator and Brainfeeder label head Flying Lotus, deals primarily with themes of love and loss, and its ensuing ups and downs. While the album provided the opportunity for Bruner to pay homage to funk icons like Steve Arrington and add to his impressive list of collaborators (see Ty Dolla $ign, Childish Gambino, Lil B, Kamasi Washington, Steve Lacy, BADBADNOTGOOD, Louis Cole and Zack Fox), it also became a deep, personal reflection on the loss of a best friend. Specifically, the tragic passing of Mac Miller in September 2018.

"It was very difficult to watch happen, and I'm still healing" says Bruner, whose relationship with Miller often gave way to creative energies. "It's painful, but it's something for me to learn from, something for me to carry with me — his legacy. There's no way it's going to not come out in the music. There's no way."

In this sense, the heart of It Is What It Is — and there's a big one — centres on acceptance. Bruner doesn't presuppose to know any answers or offer solutions, but gently ruminates on the nature of change, its challenges and the ongoing struggle of just getting by. "I think there's a lot going on right now in the world that is overwhelming," he says. "Even before Mac passed, this was something that he was expressing. When he said things like 'it is what is it till it ain't' — it's being able to see things for where they're at."

In recent years, the deaths of young artists like Miller, Avicii and Juice WRLD have sent shockwaves throughout the industry, shaking the artist community to its core. Sadly, the pattern is a familiar one. The idea of the tortured artist, struggling to balance creativity and personal adversity, is nothing new.

"The world is broken. Art is imitating life right now," says Bruner when asked if he senses a recognition on the part of industry and broader community that something is broken. "Acknowledgement is the first step to being able to fix or repair, but at the same time, the troubled artist is not a new plight or story. I think that this is something that comes with the territory of being an artist. It's a difficult thing. People come from different places, and the things they do to bend and stretch their minds teeter [on] these lines of total meltdown and destruction. It's literally like the saying, 'it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.' Unfortunately, most of the time these things end up this way. But again, this is the way of the world I think."

While things aren't exactly at a good place, Bruner has often fielded uncertain times through the deliberate use of humour. "I've always tried to laugh at most things and find the humour in everything, because it's a better spectrum of feelings. Nothing makes up for a good laugh, you know?" says the "Dragonball Durag" singer, noting the unique relationship between music and comedy. "Being able to laugh at something can be a coping mechanism sometimes. It can be emotionally healing — physically, even. Simply put, laughing is fun. I mean, I prefer to laugh."
Bringing people together through music has long been one of Bruner's many talents. As a session player, co-writer and frequent guest artist himself, he is intimately familiar with the ins and outs of working alongside other creatives. "It's not something that everyone's into, but I've always been into it, because I feel it's always a collaborative effort on any level. As soon as somebody else touches it or becomes involved in it, it's a collaborative effort." Among the new faces featured on It Is What It Is, Canadian jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD make a welcome appearance. Having met by way of BBC broadcaster Gilles Peterson years ago, the two parties were finally able to connect the dots on "King of the Hill" — described as a "perfectly imperfect fusion."
This notion of perfectly imperfect is worth noting, as it applies to the way many artists continue to resist the categorical rendering of their work and prescribed listening experience, which increasingly discredits or devalues music by simply slapping a label on it. "I think Miles Davis was one of the people that was trying to change that," says Bruner, whose own views on the notion of genre align with many of his peers and predecessors. "He tried to get people to understand that this is meant to be a tool to move ahead. The moment you put something in a genre, it immediately gives you a chance to put it in a box somewhere and set it off to the side instead of letting it live and breathe and become something new."
When asked why Thundercat — after four albums — has been so successful at avoiding the box, Bruner answers simply with an all-knowing chuckle, "Cause I really don't give a fuck."
It Is What It Is, set to Thundercat's incomparable bass lines and funky beats, is group therapy for the modern listener. Honouring the contributions of past artists and building on the legacy of those lost too soon, the album is a powerful commentary on the role of art, love and loss. Bruner's usual eclectic and outgoing personality is a welcome salve, providing just the right amount of laughs to get us through the tough stuff.
It Is What It Is will be released on Brainfeeder on April 3.