- More inspired modern soul from the LA artist on Flying Lotus's label.
- In a recent interview, Thundercat talks about the first albums he can remember buying. "It was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack on tape. It was Ninja Turtles or Jaco Pastorius." The LA native has spoken about blowing the earnings from his early gigs with Young Jazz Giants (his early 2000s group with Kamasi Washington, Cameron Graves and his brother Ronald) at Amoeba Records, so it stands to reason he might have picked up the Jaco and Turtles tapes at that Sunset Boulevard landmark. Amoeba is a two-story behemoth where George Duke records sit alongside anime VHS tapes, where comic books and toys are given equal footing with new jack swing 12-inches and dollar-bin Michael McDonald LPs. In a way, the store's disorganized pop culture sprawl can be seen as a metaphor for everything Stephen Bruner has done since.
And he's done a lot. He played a crucial role in Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, to say nothing of his work with Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino, Jhené Aiko and Travis Scott. His sound—indebted to giants of fusion like George Duke, blue-eyed soul singers like Kenny Loggins and '80s synth-funk acts like Slave—has had an improbable impact on the charts and the radio.
Even so, Bruner's solo records are insular, hit-averse affairs. "I've done things, I've been involved with things that have a bigger… whatever you would call it," he told The Wire, "but this is actually me and it can only be that for me; that's what it really is." To these ears, Bruner's solo records have given us two could-be hits over the years. "Them Changes," off 2017's Drunk, was covered by Ariana Grande. On It Is What It Is, the potential smash is the wonky synth-soul rave-up "Funny Thing," Bruner's second ode to MDMA following 2013's "Oh Sheit It's X." Even here, his silky-smooth falsetto lyrics hit serious blue notes: "Then I'm gonna ruin the fun / That's not your problem because I’ve seen too much baby / Sorry if I get a little PTSD."
With his solo records, Bruner isn't making jams for the radio, he's world-building. His music, to greater and lesser degrees, is a showcase of his unparalleled virtuosity. Tracks like "I Love Louis Cole" are prog-punk epics that mix instrumental mastery with the hurtling speed of his old band, Suicidal Tendencies. "King Of The Hill," which begs for an extended edit, includes a brief clavinet solo that could have been on Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters.
The album is full of attempts to lighten the mood, like Zack Fox's cameo on "Overseas," or Bruner's expressed desire to "smash in my durag" on "Dragonball Durag." But like many of the greatest comedians, Bruner's jokes are an attempt to distract from deep sorrow. While tracks like "I Love Louis Cole" are a tribute to hedonism, the last four cuts on the album wallow in bad times. "Unrequited Love" is about just that. The title track squares up with the loss of Bruner's best friend, the rapper Mac Miller. Bruner calls out "Hey Mac" before the outro, and we hear a response from Miller, echoing somewhere out in the void.
Disguised as a party record, It Is What It Is is actually Bruner's attempt to deal with loss, to avoid getting "lost in space," as he says in the intro. Bruner's career, like Pastorious's before him, has been touched by tragedy. On It Is What It Is, Bruner—unlike Pastorious—finds a way out, channeling his pain into great, uplifting art.
01. Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26
02. Innerstellar Love
03. I Love Louis Cole
04. Black Qualls
05. Miguel's Happy Dance
06. How Sway
07. Funny Thing
09. Dragonball Durag
10. How I Feel
11. King Of The Hill
12. Unrequited Love
13. Fair Chance
14. Existential Dread
15. It Is What It Is