Apt doesn’t begin to describe the title to Thundercat’s latest LP. ‘Drunk’ offers a restless, whirling odyssey into its creator’s ostensibly altered mind that doubtlessly goes to some weird, bleary-eyed places. But from the outset, you never question that you’re in the hands of a master in complete control. By the end of this scatter-brained, 23-song epic, you’ll be glad you joined him on the journey.
Thundercat is one member of an unofficial collective (including Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin and others) that has been churning out some of the most acclaimed albums of recent years through the artists’ visionary fusing of black popular music forms. Jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, funk and hip-hop are all on the table, but no one in that esteemed group offers as seamless and inclusive a hybrid of these and more genres as the man born Stephen Bruner.
The songs on ‘Drunk’ refer to all of the aforementioned forms while still leaving time to dabble in 60s-esque pop (‘Bus In These Streets’), soulful electronica (‘Tokyo’) and adult contemporary (‘Show You The Way,’ amusingly/amazingly featuring veterans Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald). Many of the more outré genre experiments appear as little more than interludes (eight songs fall under two minutes) but remain compelling while shrewdly helping break up the action and keep a listener engaged through the lengthy track list.
[contentblock id=141 img=adsense.png]
Although boiling the sounds on ‘Drunk’ down to any one genre is an exercise in futility, the main musical language at play is undeniably jazz, though not as much for the strictures of the form than the improvisational qualities and liberation it espouses. Thundercat’s melodies are unorthodox and elusive, giving the impression of spontaneity, while unusual harmonies (usually courtesy of his distinctive, virtuosic bass playing) transfix throughout. He paints with an expansive sonic palette but, with the unifying sounds of his bass and smooth falsetto, conjures a coherent and subtly gripping image from first note to last.
In lyrics as well as music, Thundercat is unabashedly himself on every track and revealing of the complex currents of absurdity and severity within his mind. He meows while singing about being a cat on ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’ as coolly as he documents the angry despair at failure and heartache on ‘Them Changes’ and tackles the most dreaded of relationship locales on ‘Friend Zone’ with comic bitterness and surprising insight. ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’ stands out as a bubbly ELO-ish track that describes an escapist cosmic fantasy motivated by a very real fear of trigger-happy police, an incongruity in sound and subject that goes straight for the throat.
The song cycle interestingly becomes more deliberately sequenced in the album’s final stretch. ‘Drink Dat,’ featuring verses from Wiz Khalifa, starts as an apparent party anthem but grows disenchanted and uncertain by the end, resembling the album as a whole as we are led through ‘3AM,’ ‘Drunk,’ ‘The Turn Down’ and, forebodingly, ‘DUI,’ which repeats the music from opener ‘Rabbot Ho’ and renders the whole affair a sort of disillusioning Ouroboros.
Although sheer impulse often seems to guide Thundercat through this fragmentary, erratic and equal parts grim and goofy album, it’s clear that there are big ideas at play. Like a good drunk strips away social inhibitions, ‘Drunk’ presents an artist stripped of creative ones. It’s an enthralling trip.