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.”