Chances are, if you know Stephen Bruner – currently doing business as Thundercat -it’s from his side work: guesting on Kendrick Lamar albums, electric bass duties on Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. But there’s a lot more to Stephen Bruner than either of those.
Over this decade, Thundercat’s appeared on a shelf full of records and released a handful of solo ones. He’s played with everyone from Flying Lotus to Herbie Hancock to Michael McDonald and blazed one of the more interesting trails in modern jazz.
Thundercat’s new record, Drunk, continues this trend and is an early contender for album of the year.
Right from the get-go, Drunk is full of occasional bursts of colour. On “Captain Stupido,” he mixes Zappa-esque tricky rhythms with dirty jokes (“Still feel weird / beat your meat, go to sleep”). Meanwhile, he kicks into overdrive on “Uh Uh,” playing a sizzling bass lead against driving, double-time drums, and “Bus In These Streets” is a pop-tinged track, his reedy voice and chiming keyboards bringing to mind 70s acts like Todd Rundgren or George Duke.
But generally, Drunk, basks in laid back, retro-facing soul jazz. Warm, analog keyboards, sultry grooves and Bruner’s swooning voice are all over the record. It’s a step in the direction pointed at on 2015’s The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam EP, with it’s chugging rhythms and 70s aesthetic. Perhaps it’s at it’s most overt when Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins guest on “Show You the Way,” their vocal harmonies pushing the spacey, late-night soul into the stratosphere. It’s also telling they’re introduced mid-song, with a bit of canned applause.
Thundercat is never one to play things straight.
There are other notable guests here: Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell all show up at times.
Lamar’s turn comes on the spaced-out “Walk On By,” his rasp playing against a keyboard and a drum machine; Khalifa on the slow jam “Drink Dat.” And Pharrell’s there to remind you what Drunk might be ultimately about: in these tough times, remember to laugh.
In just a shade under an hour, Drunk takes listeners through a maze of styles and grooves, inside jokes and bass riffs. Throughout the 23 tracks, he’s constantly pushing at the edges and never lies back on what’s already been accomplished. At the same time, he’s not one to rest on his guest stars, either. Some of the best moments here are the quick bursts between proper songs. There’s swooning harmonies on “I Am Crazy,” a slick groove of “Day and Night” and “Jameel’s Space Ride,” starts with police violence and ends in interstellar orbit.
All in all, Thundercat’s Drunk is a stellar mix of grooves and 70s fusion influences, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes and occasional glimpses of frustration or fear.
It’s an album made for mixtapes, but it’s also introspective. I lived with it for a weekend and even on a fourth and fifth listening, I still heard new lines, caught another instrument in the mix. One of the best records I’ve heard this year, and likely one of the best you’ll hear this year, too. Recommended.