Stephen Bruner’s fourth album as Thundercat is shrouded in loss—of love, of control, of his friend Mac Miller, who Bruner exchanged I-love-yous with over the phone hours before Miller’s overdose in late 2018. Not that he’s wallowing. Like 2017’s Drunk—an album that helped transform the bassist/singer-songwriter from jazz-fusion weirdo into one of the vanguard voices in 21st-century black music—It Is What It Is is governed by an almost cosmic sense of humor, juxtaposing sophisticated Afro-jazz (“Innerstellar Love”) with deadpan R&B (“I may be covered in cat hair/But I still smell good/Baby, let me know, how do I look in my durag?”), abstractions about mortality (“Existential Dread”) with chiptune-style punk about how much he loves his friend Louis Cole. “Yeah, it’s been an interesting last couple of years,” he tells Apple Music with a sigh. “But there’s always room to be stupid.” What emerges from the whiplash is a sense that—as the title suggests—no matter how much we tend to label things as good or bad, happy or sad, the only thing they are is what they are. (That Bruner keeps good company probably helps: Like on Drunk, the guest list here is formidable, ranging from LA polymaths like Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Louis Cole, and coproducer Flying Lotus to Childish Gambino, Ty Dolla $ign, and former Slave singer Steve Arrington.) As for lessons learned, Bruner is Zen as he runs through each of the album’s tracks. “It’s just part of it,” he says. “It’s part of the story. That’s why the name of the album is what it is—[Mac’s death] made me put my life in perspective. I’m happy I’m still here.”
Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26 "Me and [keyboardist] Scott Kinsey were just playing around a bit. I like the idea of something subtle for the intro—you know, introducing somebody to something. Giving people the sense that there’s a ride about to happen."
Innerstellar Love "So you go from being lost in space and then suddenly thrust into purpose. The feel is a bit of an homage to where I’ve come from with Kamasi [Washington, who plays the saxophone] and my brother [drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr.]: very jazz, very black—very interstellar."
I Love Louis Cole (feat. Louis Cole) "It’s quite simply stated: Louis Cole is, hands down, one of my favorite musicians. Not just as a performer, but as a songwriter and arranger. [Cole is a polymathic solo artist and multi-instrumentalist, as well as a member of the group KNOWER.] The last time we got to work together was on [Drunk’s] 'Bus in These Streets.' He inspires me. He reminds me to keep doing better. I’m very grateful I get to hang out with a guy like Louis Cole. You know, just me punching a friend of his and falling asleep in his laundry basket."
Black Qualls (feat. Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington & Childish Gambino) "Steve Lacy titled this song. 'Qualls' was just a different way of saying ‘walls.' And black walls in the sense of what it means to be a young black male in America right now. A long time ago, black people weren’t even allowed to read. If you were caught reading, you’d get killed in front of your family. So growing up being black—we’re talking about a couple hundred years later—you learn to hide your wealth and knowledge. You put up these barriers, you protect yourself. It’s a reason you don’t necessarily feel okay—this baggage. It’s something to unlearn, at least in my opinion. But it also goes beyond just being black. It’s a people thing. There’s a lot of fearmongering out there. And it’s worse because of the internet. You gotta know who you are. It’s about this idea that it’s okay to be okay."
Miguel’s Happy Dance "Miguel Atwood-Ferguson plays keys on this record, and also worked on the string arrangement. Again, y’know, without getting too heavily into stuff, I had a rough couple of years. So you get Miguel’s happy dance."
How Sway "I like making music that’s a bit fast and challenging to play. So really, this is just that part of it—it’s like a little exercise."
Funny Thing "The love songs here are pretty self-explanatory. But I figure you’ve gotta be able to find the humor in stuff. You’ve gotta be able to laugh."
Overseas (feat. Zack Fox) "Brazil is the one place in the world I would move. São Paulo. I would just drink orange juice all day and play bass until I had nubs for fingers. So that’s number one. But man, you’ve also got Japan in there. Japan. And Russia! I mean, everything we know about the politics—it is what it is. But Russian people are awesome. They’re pretty crazy. But they’re awesome."
Dragonball Durag "The durag is the ultimate power move. Not like a superpower, but just—you know, it translates into the world. You’ve got people with durags, and you’ve got people without them. Personally, I always carry one. Man, you ever see that picture of David Beckham wearing a durag and shaking Prince Charles’ hand? Victoria’s looking like she wants to rip his pants off."
How I Feel "A song like 'How I Feel’—there’s not a lot of hidden meaning there [laughs]. It’s not like something really bad happened to me when I was watching Care Bears when I was six and I’m trying to cover it up in a song. But I did watch Care Bears."
King of the Hill "This is something I made with BADBADNOTGOOD. It came out a little while ago, on the Brainfeeder 10-year compilation. We kind of wrestled with whether or not it should go on the album, but in the end it felt right. You’re always trying to find space and time to collaborate with people, but you’re in one city, they’re in another, you’re moving around. Here, we finally got the opportunity to be in the same room together and we jumped at it. I try and be open to all kinds of collaboration, though. Magic is magic."
Unrequited Love "You know how relationships go: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose [laughs]. But really, it’s not funny [more laughs]. Sometimes you—[laughing]—you get your heart broken."
Fair Chance (feat. Ty Dolla $ign & Lil B) "Me and Ty spend a lot of time together. Lil B was more of a reach, but we wanted to find a way to make it work, because some people, you know, you just resonate with. This is definitely the beginning of more between him and I. A starting point. But you know, to be honest it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances under which it comes. We were all very close to Mac [Miller]. It was a moment for all of us. We all became very aware of that closeness in that moment."