We’re lucky enough to be living through something of a jazz-funk renaissance right now, and at the heart of it all, among a group of incredibly talented producers from Flying Lotus to Kamasi Washington, is Stephen Bruner. Known for his versatile bass stylings on collaborations with the aforementioned, among many other artists from Eryhak Badu to Kendrick Lamar, Bruner goes by the stage name Thundercat, the moniker under which he released his fourth full-length solo album, Drunk, on February 24.
The album gets off to an unconventional start, as Thundercat’s wandering but grounded bass carries an 8-track streak of pieces under 3 minutes in length. The lead vocals are almost exclusively in a high-pitched, soulful falsetto, matching the dreamier aspects of Drunk’s overall mood. “Uh Uh” is a frenetic, jazz-heavy piano-and-bass solo, while “Bus In These Streets” features bright, twinkly chimes over the top of a backbeat, live drum track and some insightful but non-threatening lyrics about social media, “where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?”. “Lava Lamp” marks one of the album’s most atmospheric moments, as moody and emotional chords elevate Thundercat’s vocals to a place of heartfelt, late-night nirvana.
“Drunk showcases not only his ability, but a list of featured artists who must make his phonebook look like a Who’s Who of contemporary talent”
Single “Show You The Way”, released a few weeks before the album, is a symphony of washed-out, phase-heavy synths and harmonised backing vocals, but the song’s real talking points are the contributions of Kenny Loggins, and an addictive guest verse from none other than Michael McDonald, blue-eyed R&B legend and staple of adult contemporary radio stations everywhere. McDonald’s smooth, timeless vocal syncs perfectly with the song’s laidback nature, and this match made in heaven is followed by “Walk On By”, a track built around another choice guest verse, this time courtesy of Kendrick Lamar. The Compton rapper comes through with a typically nuanced and provocative set of rhymes about life in his city and the morality of his former lifestyle, “Fill up the lavish pen if I needed to right my wrongs / I can’t deny sin, condolences through these palms”. In anticipation of a new Lamar album, this is an extra piece of To Pimp A Butterfly, and it fits beautifully.
The album progresses into its second half with another few skit-like pieces, such as “Jameel’s Space Ride”, where Thundercat lends his dulcet tones to more comical lines like “through all that bullsh*t with the wind in my face, miss me with that nonsense”, and “Tokyo”, which features references to Dragon Ball Z, “the suicide forest”, and his plans to “blow all my cash on anime”. “Friend Zone”, another single (released on February 14), is a fully-realised piece of neo-funk, as Thundercat uses a bed of rising, electronic synth runs to lay into any girl who ever “got comfortable” stringing him along – “I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway, I’m all about my Johnny Cage”. Thundercat actually drops a number of standout lines on this track, declaring “don’t call me, don’t text me, after 2am, unless you plan on giving me some / ‘Cause I’ve got enough friends“.
“Them Changes”, released all the way back in 2015, has the album’s squelchiest bass sounds and a drumbeat straight out of “Footsteps In The Dark”, the legendary soul-funk Isley Brothers anthem sampled by Ice Cube for “It Was A Good Day”, while “Drink Dat”, Drunk’s 17th track, takes on a more conventionally hip-hop based beat for its guest appearance by lackadaisical rapper Wiz Khalifa. Wiz’s guest verse is a doozy, as the LA wordsmith rhymes about smoking, drinking, and partying like there’s no tomorrow, “Live for the moment, ain’t worried what it end like / Go to the roof and hit the bong, have a good night”.
Drunk closes out with a volley of short, sleepless cuts, and the album winds to a natural conclusion with “The Turn Down” featuring contributions by hitmaker Pharrell, and “DUI”, reprising the melodic signature of Drunk’s opener, “Rabbot Ho” – “one more glass to go, where this ends we’ll never know”. The album’s theme of alcohol-induced late-night reflectionism fully comes across by the end of its 51-minute run, but where Drunk truly establishes itself is in the sheer range of its luscious and easy-going instrumentals. It’s the audio equivalent of neon lights and scented candles, it’s woozy and coolly detached but diverse enough to keep your engagement. As a progressive, infectious, groundbreaking genre, jazz-funk is making 2017 its own, and Thundercat knows what’s up.
Josh Will Eden