Music Reviews

Review: Thundercat Grieves Mac Miller On “It Is What It Is”

The jazz icon’ latest effort is a heartfelt collection of grief-laden poetry.

The fourth project by funk-psychedelia polymath, Stephen Lee Bruner, has taken Thundercat's world of '80s funk and turned it into meditative reflection.

While 2017s Drunk was a chaotic odyssey of drugs, sex, and blackouts across Tokyo, It Is What It Is is contrastingly modest in its execution. With 15 songs at just 37 minutes, the album floats, only sinking its teeth in at opportune times before disappearing into space. "How Sway" is just Thundercat slapping the bass for a minute straight while Flying Lotus's production takes center stage. The project then goes relentlessly into "Funny Thing," another fast-paced 1:50 seconds, with Bruner asking bluntly, "Do you mind if I wild out a little?" (as if our answer would stop him).

Thundercat - 'Black Qualls (feat. Steve Lacy & Steve Arrington) [Single Version]' (Official Audio)

The project is full of these vivacious scraps, and at first glance, listeners might miss the existentialism. "Is this real? Is this real?" he asks repeatedly on "How I Feel." "It feels so cold and alone," he croons on the album's brief intro. Thundercat is hardened by the waves of grief that have polluted his life in recent years, but It Is What It Is moves with the fluidity of life. Its as if he's saying: "It's all so fast and vapid, this thing called living, and it requires acceptance that there will always be more questions than answers."

"Stuck in between, it is what it is," he sings with a shrug on "Fair Chance," Thundercat's somber dedication to the late Mac Miller. On "Existential Dread," Thundercat admits that even when dread sets in "loud and clear," he'll "adjust and simply let go." As wind howls in the background, Thundercat admits on the album closer that "sometimes there's regret," before diving into a fabulous closing solo. "Hey Mac," he calls out to his friend. There are moments of silly reprieve ("Dragon Ball Durag,") but It Is What It Is is a coming-of-age tale at its center. "Things became a bit realer to me," Bruner told The New York Times. "I was faced with a choice – to either follow suit or figure it out. And I guess this is me trying to figure it out."

It Is What It Is

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Taryn Dudley

After a year of festival performances and worldwide touring alongside Jazz dignitaries like Kamasi Washington and The Internet, the neo-soul trio Moonchild is finally having their moment.

Voyager was one of the smoothest albums of 2017. It had a slow rise to success, gradually seeping into dinner party playlists and the like, eventually ending up on NPR's shortlist for "5 R&B Albums You Slept On in 2017." The lead single, "Cure," became especially popular and remains the only song able to make a line like "love is a cure for heartache" sound genuine. The single's accompanying video racked up over a million views. "It's definitely exciting," said the band's modest lead singer, Amber Navran. "Three or four years ago we were opening for The Internet, and now we're playing in the same rooms but [as headliners.] It's crazy." The LA-based trio is now gearing up to release Little Ghost, their first release since 2017. Popdust sat down with the group to talk about the recording process, their new tour, and how it feels to be tiptoeing towards widespread fame.

So I remember you mentioned that part of the recording process for Voyager was done at a cabin in Lake Arrowhead. Did you return to the cabin for Little Ghost?

Amber: We did! It was pretty similar. It's just nice for us to all be in the same place when we record so we can bounce ideas off of each other quicker. [The cabin] has been a nice excuse to get away and just focus on the music without life getting in the way.

Tell me about your new single, "Too Much To Ask." It's a pretty calm song and is an interesting choice for a lead single. Why did you choose this song in particular to announce Little Ghost?

Amber: There are a lot of different ideas on the album, and I thought "Too Much to Ask" was a good representation of how we're blending all these different sounds together this time around.

Max: It represents how different this album is gonna be, with the guitar, and the special synths, and it's got a lot of groove to it without being too much in your face, which was really appealing to us.

Andris: We liked the idea of doing something a little more mellow. "Too Much To Ask" really draws you in.

It's really moving. What kind of emotional state were you guys in when you made this song?

Amber: It's about realizing you're in a relationship that isn't being reciprocated. When you start to pick up on the little things that do or don't happen.

Andris: I really like the chords in the song. It skates all around the key of E without giving you that resolving chord, and it has a strong emotional impact because of that.

You guys said that you all became obsessed with Neo-Soul around the same time in college. Now that you're a successful Neo-Soul group, where do you see the genre heading, and what do you bring to the genre as a whole?

Max: It seems like in the genre in general that the lines are fading. There are so many groups with elements of Neo-Soul. I think that's just a product of being in an age with unlimited access to music and information, so people are more all over the map creatively. Overall, though, I think it's a really good thing for the genre, 'cause it sounds really cool mixing soul with folk or anything else. As far as what we offer, we all started out as horn players –

Amber: – and Jazz lovers. We all love Jazz, and with each album, we try to branch out and phase in other music, which is unique.

Talk to me more about how Little Ghost is different than Voyager? Where did the title come from?

Max: Well, we wanted to go with a similar celestial theme. Voyager was based on the space probe we sent out in the '60s. So we were looking up celestial bodies and ended up on a list of nebulas, and Little Ghost stuck out cause it had sort of a human element to it. Nebulas are a collection of stardust from extinct stars, and they're always expanding, so we thought that would be a nice little ode to the album because we are taking all the elements from our previous projects and just expanding on them.

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