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Christine Imarenezor/VIBE

Meet Jay IDK: The DMV's Breakout MC Here To Change The Game

Jay IDK talks with VIBE about his upbringing, creative process and new project Empty Bank. 

On a Wednesday afternoon at VIBE's Manhattan headquarters, Jay IDK is casually saying what's up to everyone before getting comfy in the main conference room. He appears to be a casual, laid back dude with little worries and a personable spirit. But don't let the chilled demeanor fool you. As soon as we get down to business, he makes it clear that he doesn't plan on simply coasting his way through this music industry; he's planning to shake things up.

For the rapper who calls the DMV area (although he usually reps DC to outsiders) home and claims to bridge the gap between Gucci Mane and A Tribe Called Quest by "Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge," his interest in music stemmed from a culmination of influences. There was Kanye West's "I Don't Like," which he cites as a pivotal moment that worked its magic on his ear for music and a brief stint in a Go-go band, which he rather not relive. But it wasn't until he was incarcerated at the age of 17 that he decided to pick up a pen and write music of his own.

As Jay IDK sat behind bars as a young adult, he began writing as an R&B singer, but over the course of three separate incidents of incarceration when he was 17, 19, and 20, he developed his sound into that of a rising rapper garnering much attention. Today, Jay IDK delivers a matured sense of reflection on his troubled past, which has led to the creation of his new album, Empty Bank. A 12-track listen boasting of features from Ab-Soul, Fat Trel and Saba, its message, while giving the people something to bob their heads to, also aims to send a message: it ain't all about the money.

And while the tunes will definitely speak for itself, we sat down with the rapper to get his full story from his upbringing to the creative process behind his new album, straight from the breakout star's mouth.

VIBE: Let's talk about your upbringing in the DMV. What was that like?
Jay IDK: I grew up in – I’ll say this with quotation marks – a middle class home. We lived in a good neighborhood, but I don’t know if we belonged there because we went through things where we couldn’t afford to live there. It was a period of time where we were there off of a generator and no hot water. So it was a weird, middle class kind of thing.

How’d you start rapping?
I went to a bad school and hung out with kids who did bad things. I ended up going to jail, and that’s when I started rapping. I was just bored and wanted to write music. And people kept asking me to rap for them. When I rapped for them, they liked it so I stuck with it.

At the time did you know you had talent?
I was just doing it for fun. I would listen to my radio and hear beats that were playing and memorize them in my head. So when I would get back to my union, I would start writing to whatever I remembered the beat was. I always had a thing for writing. Even when I was in school, I was always good at writing. But when I first went to jail, I was writing R&B songs. I was 17 at the time. I don’t think I can sing that well, but I can hold it down a bit. That’s really where it started. I went to jail and I wasn't charge as a minor, so I was 17 in an adult jail. They had to separate me at one point, and I was on 23-hour lock down, just writing songs.

What made you want to transition from R&B to rap?
I don’t know bruh. I just started rapping; I just started writing rhymes. When I was doing the R&B stuff, I was kind of throwing some raps here and there. So I guess that was part of it. But that’s just what I felt like doing at the time. I wrote in my book that when I got out, I was going to try to make a mixtape and here we are today.

If a stranger stopped you on the street and wanted to know who Jay IDK is, how would you describe yourself as an artist and your sound to them?
[I have] a lot of live instrumentation. I try to take the foundations of what music is and add some type of twist to it. And then some of the beats that have modern twists already, I like to bring it back to earlier stages of music and add live instrumentation. I like weird beats that are musical. I want it [to sound] weird but it’s still like this guy knows what he’s doing from a technical aspect.

Being that there is such a small group of well-known artists from the DMV area, many people might group you all together. What do you think separates you from a Goldlink or a Wale?
We’re not the same people. We don’t have the same interests nor do we make our make our music the same. Like Goldlink, we have totally different sounds. That’s my homie, but music-wise, we have two totally different sounds. He does what he does and I do what I do. It’s not too hard for me to be different. I guess that's just because who I really am. I like to try and be outside of the box or do things that other people aren’t doing.

Going into the industry, did you have a support system? Or was it more people cheering for you to fail?
Oh man. When I first started, I had this app that would [let] me send mass texts to all 1,000 contacts. I used to send all my music and half of the people wouldn’t respond. One-third would be like, ‘Stop texting me.’ But I had a support system in terms of immediate friends. And recently, when I started getting a management and team around me, [I got support]. But at first, it wasn’t like that.

You've got a new project out, Empty Bank. What was the creative process like? 
Well, I’m sure you’ve never been to hell before, but that’s exactly what it was. It was one of the most difficult things ever, but at the same time, it was very fun. It was a lot of back-and-forth, lots of changes. But it’s just me being a perfectionist with everything that we did. If you were to hear it one day, you’d hear a song that you’d think is done, and then you’d hear it another day and all this other stuff is on it. It was layers on layers of different things on specific songs. I’m very involved in the production as well as the lyrics so I always add and change and bring other musicians in to do different things. It’s a very collaborative process.

What’s the vision behind your album art? Where did the concept come from?
That was so last minute. I had a whole other concept; I just didn’t like it. It’ wasn’t coming together right. So it was a couple days before I had to drop the cover art, and I was like, 'What can I do in one picture that’s going to be impactful enough to make people [shocked] and also describe the project in one [image]?' I was trying to get this Gullwing Benz. So what if I was sitting on this Benz with black overalls, white shirt, black hat, black and white shoes, and I had a noose around my neck and a dead president was holding it? I said the idea to the people that were doing my graphics and they were like, ‘Yo, that would be crazy.’ So I hit up Benjamin Franklin and set up the photo shoot and shot exactly what I saw in my mind. It’s basically about people being slaves to money. It’s that simple. And not even just people, me [too]. Me putting it in the picture shows that I see it for what it is now. But me not seeing money for what it is, is what that picture reflects. It’s just the truth.

What can people expect from Empty Bank?
You’ll hear growth in my music in my voice and everything. I’m more conscious of what I make. I study a lot of artists that are a lot bigger than me. I find ways to be able to compete with them. Well, not so much compete them, but when you play my music next to theirs, mine’s doesn’t sound mediocre.

If there was anyone you'd love to collaborate with in the future, who would it be? 
I really like the Gorillaz and Arctic Monkeys. I don't know how our collaborations would be for sure, but Gorillaz, I would for sure murk one of they songs. Kamasi Washington, I like him too. 21 Savage was supposed to be on this one, but he didn't make it in time. Busta Rhymes, Tyler,  the Creator definitely, Erykah Badu, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's a lot, but those are most of the people.

Rumor has it that you want to be the first rapper to win the Nobel Peace Prize. How do you plan on doing that?
Yeah, that would be sick. I don’t even know [how]. I just know that I talk about things that you should really pay attention to and understand. And I think that one day I will make an album that could open that door. Rap is such a part of pop culture now. The President is all up in the rap scene. So it’s not impossible. There’s a lot of things that I try to do with my stuff that’s unprecedented. Some stuff works, some stuff is crazy. But at the end of the day, because some stuff works, I won’t limit myself.

Do you think it’s important for artists to speak on social issues?
Hell yeah. [As an artist] you have the most reach out of everybody. Some people turn it into a thing where it’s just about money, fame, popularity, being cool. But I think the best artists can balance both. I think what matters the most is not how much money you make, but how much you’re able to impact the world and some one’s vision with what you do. Rap music is very influential; not too many things more influential than that. So if you’re going to make rap music, and you have so much influence, why waste that on just bull****.

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Afro Nation

Women Of Afro Nation On Evolving Dancehall and Afro-Pop Connections

Last summer, thousands of music lovers of African descent gathered on the sands of Portimao, Portugal, waved their beloved countries’ flags and witnessed performances from the best in afro-pop, reggae, and hip-hop at Afro Nation, the premier traveling beach festival unifying music of the African diaspora. This was a euphoric scene for acts who had never performed for a large Black festival crowd, Afro Nation co-founder and U.K. music industry veteran Obi Asika tells VIBE. Nigerian promoter Adesegun Adeosun Jr., aka SMADE, and business partner Asika saw a need for a space to celebrate African music in Europe and created a globetrotting festival as the answer. Most of the featured acts have been from Nigeria, where the music industry is rapidly growing, the U.K., and Jamaica. As the festival evolves, Afro Nation will feature more artists of African descent from Europe, Central Africa, Latin America, and more.

“I want this event to be reflective of all African people,” Afro Nation co-founder and U.K. music industry veteran Obi Asika tells VIBE. “I also want it to pay homage to the countries that the events are in,” he adds. Afro Nation is expanding to reach fans of the diaspora in more regions. In December 2019, the festival was held in Accra, Ghana. In March, Afro Nation was scheduled for San Juan, Puerto Rico, but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-day line-up would have featured 30 artists representing afro-pop, dancehall, soca, and hip-hop. Afro Nation still has festivals scheduled in Portimao, Portugal, in July, and Baja California, Mexico, in September. There are plans for at least one more location in the future, Osika says.

Afro Nation’s platform thus far reflects a global moment in which musicians across the African diaspora are blending sounds in new ways that are changing popular music. Connections between Afro-pop and Jamaican dancehall are especially evolving according to artists on Afro Nation’s line-ups, such as Jamaican dancehall artist Shenseesa, South African rapper Sho Madjozi, and Nigerian pop artist Teni the Entertainer. “Afro Nation is major for the continent, the culture, and the commonality that we share no matter how far we have all drifted into different parts of the world,” Teni, who performed at previous Afro Nation events, wrote in an email.

For Women’s History Month, VIBE spoke to the three sensations about their latest music, why Afro Nation is a game-changing platform, the evolving musical connections between Jamaican and African artists, and their women inspirations in music.

SHENSEEA

Shenseea, a versatile singjay, deejay, rapper, and singer, grew up in Jamaica’s capital city Kingston. The 23-year-old broke out as dancehall’s most promising star in 2016 with the flirty “Loodi” featuring Vybez Kartel. Since then, she has released a steady stream of energetic records, showering each riddim with conviction and lyrics of self-reliance that speak to women and girls like “Shen Yeng Anthem,” “Trending Gyal” and “Blessed.” Shenseea is inspired by fellow Jamaican dancehall artist Spice, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna, who she calls “a complete boss.”

Thus far, Shenseea has collaborated with dancehall veterans like Sean Paul, and internationally with Trinidadian soca star Nailah Blackman and American rappers Swae Lee and Tyga. American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall artists are common cross-cultural link-ups. But now Shenseea says there are more musical connections between popular Jamaican dancehall artists and African-based artists too. “I feel like it has been going on, but more so between the reggae artists,” she says. “Now it's evolving more between dancehall artists and African artists.”

Here is a quick history. Popular music in the Americas, including Jamaica’s biggest musical export reggae, is rooted in West African music. Reggae has several influences including Jamaican folk music mento and American R&B, and its predecessors ska and rocksteady. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved West Africans brought their rhythms to Jamaica and subsequent generations reimagined the sounds that circled back to Africa. Late reggae legend Bob Marley, a Pan-Africanist, and The Wailers toured the continent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this era, artists like Ivorian musician Alpha Blondy created a marriage of their traditional sounds and stories of home with the socially-conscious riddims birthing African reggae.

As technology digitized music production, dancehall music evolved out of reggae and dub music and  defined a younger generation in Jamaica. It would also inspire African artists, too. In the 2000s and 2010s, dancehall influenced “Afro-dancehall” artists Shatta Wale and AK Songstress of Ghana, and Patoranking and Wizkid of Nigeria. Ghanaian hiplife’s soft synths and dancehall’s percussion are said to have influenced the popular Nigerian sound “pon pon,” in 2017, according to OkayAfrica. DaVido’s inescapable “If,” is the most commercially successful “pon pon” track. Mr Eazi’s “Banku” style also borrows from Nigerian and Ghanaian pop and dancehall. With this has come more collaborations across the genres. Like Jamaican dancehall hitmaker Popcaan enlisting DaVido for “Dun Rich” in 2018, and Burna Boy collaborating with Serani and Jeremih on “Secret” in 2019.

The marriage between these sounds is impacting how Black fans experience music worldwide, which is especially pushed by second and third generations of people who migrated from Africa and the Caribbean to the Americas and Europe. In major cities, you’ll find Afro-Caribbean parties, where DJs play music across the diaspora. Afro Nation takes it to the next level by bringing these artists together on a bill.

The innovation of this sound is a diaspora-wide project. In the mid-to-late 2010s, UK, British artists J Hus and Afro B popularized the fusion of Afro-pop, dancehall, American and British hip-hop, and R&B music, in new genres known as “afro bashment” or “afroswing.” In 2019, Jamaican-American DJ Walshy Fire’s 2019 Abeng brought together afro-pop, with soca, and dancehall artists. Shenseea has some diaspora link-ups on the horizon. She already worked with Shatta Wale, the African dancehall king, on “The Way I Move” in 2018. Recently, she recorded an unreleased track with Mr Eazi and is in talks to work with Patoranking and Davido, she tells Vibe.

TENI THE ENTERTAINER

Teni is also tuned into these evolving connections between the Caribbean and Africa. “You can hear it in the drums and melodies,” the 27-year-old singer and songwriter says. “We love to have fun and dance and that extends into our music.” In 2019, the New York Times dubbed Teni a member of the new guard of Nigerian musicians. In October, she released her Billionaire EP which showcases her afrobeat fusion. The title was inspired by her time in Los Angeles. "I saw all these great cars and I just imagined a world where we can all afford things we like no matter the price," she says. On the Pheelz-produced afrobeat, she croons her wealthy ambitions. On the earnest “Complain” she singraps over JaySynths' afroswing beat.

Teni’s entertainment career began with her comedic viral videos. Her breakout hit was the 2017 “Fargin,” which spoke out about the harms of rape culture. Teni admires African music legends Brenda Fassi, Angelique Kidjo, and Mariam Makeba. Them "using the power of their music to influence governments and shape economies is beyond incredible,” she says.

In the future, Teni wants to experiment with more Caribbean artists. “I have gotten into the studio with Kranium and I'd like to still do a lot [more] with him,” she said of the Jamaican singjay who fuses dancehall and R&B. “I'd love to do something with Koffee. Her music is amazing,” she added.

SHO MADJOZI

Koffee, a Jamaican reggae artist who won over the world with “Toast” last year, and is the first woman to win a Grammy for best reggae album, is on South African rapper Sho Madjozi’s wishlist too. For generations, South African artists like Lucky Dube and NC Dread have embraced reggae and dancehall. The 27-year-old wants to contribute to this tradition by recording with Koffee and rising reggae singer Lila Ike. "The song would be about the fact that our joy does not come from having no problems,” she wrote via email. “It comes despite going through tough things.” Bringing her pain to the studio has proven to be viable for Madjozi.

On her biggest hit, the viral “John Cena,” named after her favorite WWE wrestler, she raps over a hard-hitting gqom beat, the popular South African electronic dance music, about heartbreak. On her 2018 debut album Limpopo Champions League, which is dedicated to the northern province she hails from in South Africa, you can hear more of her sonic influences which include the high-energy gqom on "Wakanda Forever," trap on “Wa Penga Na?” and R&B samples on “Going Down.”

Although Sho Madjozi and fellow artists are fusing the diaspora sounds in their music, she sees the Afro Nation platform as a necessary space for people of African descent to share these cultures in person. In these moments, “we notice how strong we really are" and "how powerful this gift of culture is,” she says. Hip-hop queen Lauryn Hill is her icon and inspired her to stand firm in her truth. Madjozi’s realness shapes her assertive lyrics and her vibrant style. She performs in “xibelani” skirts to pay homage to her Tsonga heritage, a group of people native to Mozambique and South Africa. She adorns her hair with her signature colorful Fulani braids. “My whole statement is to be free,” she says. “I hope it shows Black girls everywhere to not be shy or small. This world is ours as much as anyone else’s.”

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Courtesy of Universal Music Latin Entertainment

Karol G On The Magic Of "Tusa," Working With Nicki Minaj And New Album

Karol G's devoted intentions have kept her ahead of the history books.

As Women's History Month comes to a close, the reggaeton titan solidified her position just weeks prior on Internation Women's Day as Spotify included her in their list of the Top 10 Most-Streamed Female Artists. Others included were Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande in addition to iconic women of color like Nicki Minaj. But Karol's presence on the list proves just how she's been able to bridge the gap between Latin and pop music as the only woman on the list who primarily performs in Spanish.

It's something Karol, born Carolina Giraldo Navarro, has done since coming up in the male-dominated reggaeton scene. While plenty of her hits over the years have earned a coveted spot in the hearts of millions, it was her recent recording with Nicki Minaj that reminded everyone of her power.

"I grew up listening to her and we were sitting at the table across from each other," Karol says of "Tusa" and its insanely popular video that has 669 million views and counting on YouTube. "That was an iconic moment for me."

The song's title is Colombian slang for heartache after a breakup. On the regal reggaeton bop, Karol has Minaj rapping in Spanish as they promise to one another to eliminate those feels on the dance floor. The Tusa-terminators made history in late 2019 with the release as the song is the first collaboration by women to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart.

On the all-genre Hot 100 chart, "Tusa" impressively peaked at No. 42. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, self-quarantines in Panama were recently singing the song together from their balconies.

¿Cómo lleva el #ToqueDeQueda Panamá? Pues que más que con @karolg y #Tusa #COVIDー19 #PTY #QuedateEnCasa pic.twitter.com/jSNsEeaoUW

— errol (@erscr) March 23, 2020

For Karol, success like this has been over a decade in the making since signing her first contract in 2006 under her G stage name. At that time, reggaeton music was reigning over the globe thanks to Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" setting the movement ablaze in 2004.

The música urbana genre was very much a man's world with a few women who were able to rise to the level of Yankee like Ivy Queen, someone Karol cites as an influence. "With the urbano music I wanted to do, there were not a lot of women," she says. "I love urbano rhythms. They've always fascinated me."

In the early steps of her career, Karol took advantage of the art of collaboration with Nicky Jam on 2013's "Amour de Dos," Ozuna on "Hello" in 2016 and a budding rapper by the name of Bad Bunny on 2017's "Ahora Me Llama." Her method was mindful and direct as she gained new fans in every pocket of reggaeton's wide-ranging cloth.

"They had a big audience and following," she says. "The way I got my opportunity as an artist and was able to be heard more was, in part, thanks to them." Later that year, Karol's debut album Unstoppable landed at No. 2 on the Top Latin Albums chart.

As she became the feature queen in her own right, Karol dropped "Mi Cama" in 2018 which led to her winning the gramophone for Best New Artist at the Latin Grammy Awards that year. "I love to sing in reggaeton, but it's not the only thing I do," she says about her diverse palette. The spirited 2019 release of Ocean showcased the vastness of her artistry with urbano, reggae, and pop influences.

With "Tusa" previewing her third album, VIBE VIVA spoke with Karol about her musical journey so far and what's coming next.

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VIBE: On physical copies of Unstoppable, there's the #GirlPower stamp. What inspired you to include it? 

Karol G: I have that tattooed on one of my arms as well because for me, it was a frustration that people in the media were telling me, "You're a woman. You don't have anything to do here. You can't enter here." There are women that can achieve things around the world. That's where my motivation comes from: to show that we, and myself as a woman, can do it. That was important for me to put on the album to show my support for this movement.

"Mi Cama" became one of your biggest hits without a featured artist. What's the story behind that song?

I loved that song because it has the attitude that I feel right now. It's a song about a woman talking to her ex-boyfriend who left her for someone else. It has the attitude to keep going, to keep dancing, or perrear (a twerk-like dance associated with reggaeton). In Mexico, I was in a press conference and a female reporter said, "I don't respect how you as a woman are singing about your bed making noise. You have to think about the children." I said, "This isn't music for children." It's a song that's exaggerated. I'm not swearing on it. I always tell that story at my shows and people love it.

How did you feel to win the Latin Grammy for Best New Artist?

That's one of the top five moments in my career. I dreamed of that moment since I was a little girl. When I was nominated, that was huge. I didn't think I was going to win. When I won, my mind went blank. I took my dad on stage with me because he's been supporting me since the beginning. After winning the grammy, my mindset has been what else I can do in my career that's even bigger.

You have recorded a lot of music with your fiancé Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA. How do you like working with him?

We're a super team. We complement each other well. We understand each other well because we've enjoyed many great moments together. We've gotten to travel together. We did a tour together. It's a beautiful thing. We keep each other focused and motivated with our feet on the ground.

What do you think about the reaction and all the memes around "Tusa"?

I felt in my heart the song would be successful, but I never thought that it would be a global hit. It opened doors for me in markets where I've never had songs hit before. It's charting in countries that don't speak Spanish like France, Italy, and Sweden. Seeing all the memes from the people has been muy brutal (Puerto Rican slang for "beyond awesome"). It's been incredible to see so many men connecting with it. To see all the people dancing and singing to it has been a surprise. I hope my next single will be like that, but for now, it's nice to enjoy what's happening with "Tusa."

Speaking of men, many gay men been bumping "Tusa" too. I was wondering if you had a message for your fans in the LGBTQ+ community.

I love having part of my following from that community. I love people who can go out into the world and be fearless. I'm very proud of that because the world really lacks people like that: people with personality, attitude, and a strong will. That's something I admire very much from that community. They have a beautiful energy.

What are your plans for the rest of this year?

I'm happy because I'm working on a lot of music. I've gotten great invitations to work on projects with other artists. Right now I'm collaborating with artists in the Latin and Anglo markets. There are songs that are coming out very soon. It's a year for expanding and globalizing my name. We have a tour in Latin America and one in Europe again. We're going to end the second semester of the tour in the US with the release of my next album.

What do you see for the future of women in reggaeton music?

There's things I hope to evolve a little more, but I feel like we knocked over the door. That we've come through and people are hearing us. People are coming to our concerts. Artists are inviting us to their shows. We're here. I try to stick up for myself more as a human being. We're all talented in our own ways. I feel like women are demonstrating that. It's an era where women are taking chances and going for bigger things.

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The1Point8

Thundercat Learns To Let Go

It’s an unseasonably warm day in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, balmy enough for locals to start thinking about grilled food and beaches, but cool enough to remind us it’s still winter. It’s mid-February; the thud of a global pandemic hasn’t hit the city just yet. People are still outside, milling around without masks, latex gloves, and pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer. Upstairs in the Sixty Les Hotel, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner looks right at home, sitting on a loveseat in a red pullover hoodie, red patent leather sneakers, and leopard print Chanel earmuffs. His fingernails are painted purple, his eyes are hidden behind tinted glasses with big white frames. There’s a designer duffle bag by the window, the clothes inside it spill out across the counter. The intro of a 16-bit version of “Mortal Kombat” plays through a video game console in a loop on a wall-mounted TV.

The clothes and the room scream “Thundercat,” the iconoclastic bassist, producer, and vocalist from Los Angeles, who, in recent years, has worked with everyone from rappers Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller, to singers Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae. Whatever the feature, you know Thundercat is there: his swift, fluttering basslines always cut through the arrangement, no matter the voice on top of it. The style of Thundercat’s solo music goes back 30-plus years—to a blend of funk, jazz fusion, and soul evoking the 1980s when luminaries like Zapp, Cameo, and The Gap Band were mainstream stars. Mix that with the headbanging vigor of hardcore punk and metal, along with the childlike joy of old Saturday morning cartoons, and you just might get to Thundercat’s sound. It’s complex like the man, though he’s never taken himself too seriously. Still, he’s evolved over the years, from producer Flying Lotus’ eccentric sideman to a headliner with big font on the marquee.

But today this is a different Thundercat—he’s equally reflective, profound and optimistic. As he walks through the making of his cathartic fourth LP, It Is What It Is, he’s honest about the bumpy road leading up to it, and how addiction nearly derailed his life. “I had to acknowledge that I was an alcoholic,” Thundercat says. “It doesn’t mean that you have to confess it over yourself, but it’s one of those things where, if you don’t do it, that’s what causes the poison to seep through you. Erykah [Badu] used to say to me, ‘You’ll stop when you’re tired.’ And I got tired. I realized it was the same thing over and over and it was fun for a long time. I wouldn’t drink to stay in the room. I’d drink to be on the Space Needle right now.” It Is What It Is follows Thundercat’s 2017 album, Drunk, a whimsical LP that trekked through the ups, downs, and residual effects of drinking. While the album found Thundercat navigating the absurdities of everyday life, it also provided a glimpse into the artist’s own challenges. “I was there around Drunk and he was literally drunk,” says friend, producer, and collaborator Mono/Poly. “He told me that the times I thought he was there, he said he was still blacked out. He said he would drink to the point where it wasn’t the same Steve. It was literally a different person.”

***

The genesis of Thundercat’s solo career dates back to 2010, to a song called “MmmHmm,” where he played bass and sang lead on one of Lotus’ most popular tracks. Thundercat then released his debut album, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, a lean, mostly instrumental set of rubbery funk jams and evocative jazz fusion. Through songs like “For Love (I Come Your Friend)” and “Walkin’,” he came off like a new-age Jaco Pastorius, an emerging talent bringing light to an instrument meant to stay in the background. His sophomore album, 2013’s Apocalypse, signaled his breakthrough: powered by the MDMA-loving ode “Oh Sheit It’s X,” Thundercat became a star in underground circles and a fave amongst crate-digging music nerds. But there was a dark cloud hanging above the album: before its completion, his friend and collaborator, pianist Austin Peralta, died of viral pneumonia aggravated by drugs and alcohol. The record’s latter half dwelled on his passing. The album’s closer, “A Message for Austin…,” was a somber goodbye to one of L.A.’s most promising musicians. A 2015 EP, The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam, examined death from the void. “Where’s this cold, dark place?” he sang from the imagined perspective of a soul in purgatory. “This must be the end / Time to shed some skin.” A year later, Thundercat won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Performance for his work on “These Walls,” one of several stellar tracks from Lamar’s groundbreaking sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat was a major player on the LP, producing or adding vocals and bass to 10 of its 16 songs. He was part of a cohort of musicians who gave Butterfly its lush jazz aesthetic.

A different spirit looms over It Is What It Is, that of beloved rapper Mac Miller, who died in 2018 of an accidental drug overdose. He and Thundercat had become close friends in recent years, and others say Miller’s death was a catalyst for Thundercat changing his diet and getting sober. “It was so quick,” Mono/Poly recalls. “I saw him after a few weeks and he was just skinny and shi*t. Then he told me later on, he was like, ‘I couldn’t eat. My girlfriend broke up with me, Mac died, I was forced to change.’ He said it was literally because of all those events happening to him that he felt differently.” As a result, It Is What It Is feels more serious than Thundercat’s previous LPs; it contemplates personal losses from somewhere in the cosmos. Featuring Childish Gambino, Lil B, Ty Dolla $ign, and Zack Fox, it’s subdued and more mature than Drunk, which tackled adult themes through LOLs and tongue-in-cheek songwriting. This album strips the veneer and dives right into the anguish. “Just need some sort of sun,” he yearns on “Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26.” Then on songs “King of the Hill” and “Unrequited Love,” Thundercat leans further into the breakup that partially fueled his evolution, looking inward and outward to assess how the whole thing dissolved. On the former, he shuns blame: “Say you ain’t got time for games … just admit you don’t know what to do.” On the latter, he laments: “Nothing feels the same ‘cause there’s no one like you.” But like any Thundercat release, the album has comedic moments that lighten the mood. “Dragonball Durag” is a body rolling slow jam with a subtle shout to his cat (it wouldn’t be a Thundercat album without one). “I may be covered in cat hair,” he sings, “but I still smell good.” The song is also quite literal. “It’s about finding a f**king Dragonball durag,” Thundercat says with a laugh. “You gotta search for sh*t like that. I lost my mind and bought all of them so nobody else could buy ‘em. It’s like anime nerd sh*t, ya know? The joy of finding a Dragonball durag for me was like, ‘There’s nothing better to end this moment ever.’”

The song “I Love Louis Cole” unpacks a weird night: during a hangout with Cole, Thundercat allegedly punched the producer’s friends before falling asleep on some laundry in his room. “We really do have such a nice time when we hang out,” Cole writes in an email to VIBE. “[We] get into deep conversations or watch weird videos or record together. My verse in the song is about real-life events that have happened when he’s come to my parties.” But that’s just Thundercat being Thundercat: Mono/Poly remembers a time when the bassist bought a 7-Eleven hot dog en route to a vegan cafe. “He doesn’t finish it fully,” Mono/Poly says. “Then we go to SunCafe and a waitress comes up and he has this f**king 7-Eleven hot dog in his hand, and she’s like, ‘Do you want me to throw that away?’ I was just dying, like, it’s typical Steve sh*t.” Funk legend Steve Arrington appears on lead single “Black Qualls” as a guiding light through Thundercat’s fear of prosperity. In an interview, Arrington says he’s long been a fan of Thundercat’s ability to bend genres while giving a distinct flair to the bass. “Not only does he have the dexterity and the ability to play what he thinks, he’s a new voice,” Arrington says. “I look at him as a guy like Herbie Hancock and others who were tremendous voices on their instruments and then developed their own artistry. I think Thundercat is that for today.”

***

Midway through the album’s title track, drifting from airy ambiance to stampeding percussion, Thundercat salutes Miller before letting the melody fade into the clouds. “Hey Mac,” he says softly, Miller’s voice rising in response. It was his way of saying farewell to a dear friend. “Mac’s death was traumatizing,” Thundercat admits. “It was really painful because I’ve seen it happen before. Me and Mac became friends on the back of Austin Peralta dying. With Mac dying, I genuinely got angry and sad. I was heartbroken. I started slowing down [on the drinking] before his death. The album is called It Is What It Is because it doesn’t get any easier. I just try to cherish the moments I had with him.”

Ultimately, It Is What It Is scores two transitions—Thundercat’s and Miller’s. It finds Thundercat dismissing destructive habits for a more enlightened reality. It’s also his way of honoring a friend who’d want him to keep going. As he discussed Miller, his breakup, and his music, Thundercat seemed incredibly vulnerable, his spirit becoming lighter as the conversation unfolded. In years’ past, maybe he’d deflect with a joke, but because he’s gone through so much, maybe it’s time to fully embrace the hardship. “I learned that sometimes you gotta let go. I learned that it just hurts,” Thundercat says. “You can pray for guidance through these moments, but sometimes it’s just meant to stick to you. I learned that it is what it is.”

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