Thundercat has never taken himself too seriously, or seriously at all. The bassist, singer, and producer made a career out of pairing astounding instrumental talent with inebriated dorm-room style. Live, he dons neon socks tucked into open-toed Nike sandals, coyote fur draped over his head, and a giant grin that’s almost always credited to the blunt he hit before walking onstage. In the studio, he could very well rock the same look, but without the image in front of you, his music pours out like the work of a bass virtuoso — in part because he is one — letting soul pour into jazz and R&B fusion material. His skills earned him work as a session musician for Erykah Badu, a metal bassist for Suicidal Tendencies, and a Grammy win for collaborating on a To Pimp a Butterfly track.
Despite all those collaborations and being active in the music world since 2002, Drunk is only his third studio album. Thundercat treats it like he does the rest of his own material: with quick fingers on his bass and strong production, but this time, infantile, gamer-style humor pokes through its rests. The album is packed with exemplary melodies that allow Thundercat to show off his dexterous musicianship. On “Tokyo”, he sprints through a chunky, wobbly bass sound. For the entirety of “Uh Uh”, he lets loose, cramming as many notes into a measure as he can while pianist Dennis Hamm darts around him, the two never once losing their breath. Yet Thundercat never overdoes it. Drunk is free of pretension where it very well could choose to be, giving him a leg up once again on fellow contemporary bassists.
For those who turn to Thundercat for escapism, he still provides that here, courtesy of Flying Lotus’ production. “Lava Lamp” rolls over a slow-burning percussive beat. “Jethro” pairs warm vocal harmonies with open-cymbal drumming. “Where I’m Going” combines the best elements of the duo’s work, lacing trippy rhythm with electronic undertones, glossing over Thundercat’s voice so everything feels like a nostalgic dream. Even elevator interludes like “Bus in These Streets” bring merriment to his liquid bass, so they fit the mold of the album. Then there’s the hip-hop partnerships. With Wiz Khalifa on “Drink Dat” or Kendrick Lamar on standout “Walk on By”, Thundercat finds his groove, using space to bounce off the work of others to create a dense, intricate sound. There’s no long, wandering tracks — the average track runtime is around two minutes, and the longest, “Inferno”, is a reasonable four — to get lost in, but that’s what makes it great. Thundercat opts for quick bites that stack for a filling meal, a structure that fans can devour in one sitting or while at a party. Why else would it be 23 songs long?
Over the course of the runtime, though, we do see growth: in his voice. Instead of letting a coarseness overtake his throat, Thundercat delivers some of his most tender lines, even when, unfortunately, the lyrics detail teenage gags. The aging soft-rock croons of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, two of his heroes, blend with his voice with hilarious ease on “Show You the Way”. Then there are songs like “Blackkk” where Thundercat lets his voice stretch wide, slinking into the fuzz of a velvet blanket and wrapping listeners in it.
Drunk is rife with absurdist comedy in the guise of hyper-cyclical deep web humor. Much of it feels cheap and, as a result, like he’s pawning off your time, laughing at listeners for entertaining songs that don’t take themselves seriously. To some extent, he is wasting time, but for the better. The mood of a song doesn’t have to be dictated by what’s said, but rather how it’s delivered. So what comes off as super-stoned bro jokes mocking anyone who feels passionately about a serious topic (like him using the refrain “jesus take the wheel” in “Captain Stupido” and then bookending it with a fart) often turns around to oversaturate the joke so it loses its humor (by repeating meows on “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”, he dumbs the phrase down, a nod to the cold numbness of repetition and the sensation of a cat’s purrs, though it’s not nearly as derisive as typing this out makes it sound). Thundercat employs the type of comedy that’s mocking the mocking of mockers and then passes it all off as blasé commentary as thin as the smoke they can’t hold behind their lips because they’re on the verge of a giggle-fit. At best, it’s worthy of a high-five. At worst, it ruins what could’ve been a standout track (RIP “Friend Zone”).
Drunk is what we’ve come to expect from Thundercat, which is to say it’s a welcome release. On his third album, he embraces his sound, stereotypes and all, so that teenage humor lights up otherwise overly-heady bass. There’s no intent to reinvent himself. It’s a steady climb in sharpening his skills that’s easy to applaud him for. He hasn’t graduated from his stoner adult phase because he doesn’t want to, and that’s what lends Drunk its chilled-out charm, not to mention a heart-eyed fanbase. What should be a blow to his credibility — “Because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway,” he sings on “Friend Zone”. “Bitch don’t kill my vibe.” — becomes a point of pride, and Thundercat’s ability to shrug off that juvenile content makes you do the same. In that time, Thundercat has evolved his sound. And yet, the core styles of his music — bass lines that feel full of whole notes even if he’s scaling the neck feverishly, stacked vocal harmonies that stay within his normal register, elastic electronic production that blows a ring of smoke around it all like a frame — remain the same. Maybe that’s why he included “Them Changes”, originally on his 2015 EP The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, here. Thundercat doesn’t plan on embracing change, but rather producing content he’s proud of. If it sits well with him, it sits well with his listeners, and in that, Drunk is a record of R&B fusion that feels good from start to finish, masturbation jokes included. A good reminder that no serious person can overlook talent, but everyone can benefit from not taking themselves, or their importance, too seriously.
Essential Tracks: “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”, “Show You the Way”, and “Walk on By”