Three years after his 2017 opus *Drunk,* Bruner returns with more fleet-fingered jams and abstracted musings, this time a little more unpolished.
Thundercat the bassist and Thundercat the lyricist arise from separate sides of Stephen Bruner’s brain. The former is a fleet-fingered virtuoso, plucking out lines as dazzling and complex as a star system. The words on top of those basslines, meanwhile, are far less methodical, fraught with hazy existential questions, references to getting so smashed he can’t find his shoes, and shout-outs to his cat. Together, they form songs that sound equally enchanting and unfinished, frivolous and deep. Drunk, his 2017 opus, effortlessly toed the line between Bruner as mighty bandleader and introverted doodler, with immense funk grooves slotted next to sonnets about feeling strange.
It Is What It Is could serve as a companion piece to Drunk, even though it arrives more than three years later. Bruner is still getting tipsy and pondering what waits for us in the beyond. There’s growth and acceptance in that wonder—the title suggests as much— but not necessarily in the songwriting. The album lacks the anchoring power of a full-bodied jam like “Them Changes,” “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” or even his 2011 George Duke cover “For Love I Come,” leaving us lost inside Bruner’s mind.
That isn’t always a bad place to be. “I Love Louis Cole” (featuring—who else?—Brainfeeder artist Louis Cole) could score the Willy Wonka Tunnel Of Terror with its ominous strings and increasingly wild-sounding drums. It ends abruptly, just as Wonka’s boat trip does, on an orchestral flourish. On the other end of the spectrum, “King Of The Hill” is the most pared-down we’ve heard Bruner in a while, as he hums over a refreshingly simple and spooky beat made with the help of Flying Lotus and BADBADNOTGOOD.
His bass playing remains captivating. “Unrequited Love” opens with a swirl of strums and intricate jazz fills before giving way to a reverberant instrumental accentuated by heavy snares. “Funny Thing” highlights his trademark low-pass Moog tone, which he’s honed to imitate the croak of the oldest and nastiest-looking toad you could imagine. And “How Sway” is a masterclass in lightspeed chord changes.
But “How Sway” also features two words total—“ayy” and “yo”—which indicates how unpolished some of these compositions feel. “How I Feel” starts off promising, with a subtle bass melody, lovely bell plinks, and a magnetic synth line, but it stays in place for the rest of its brief runtime. On “Overseas,” dippy lyrics about meeting up with a woman in Russia and joining the “mile-high club” on the plane ride stumble into a clip of comedian Zach Fox imitating an airline captain—funny, but not necessarily compelling.
Singer Michael McDonald, who collaborated with Bruner and Kenny Loggins on 2017’s gleaming “Show You The Way,” recently told the New York Times that Bruner reminds him of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who were “Top 40 radio darlings” but also had songs that were “so strange, and so sophisticated.” Here, Bruner has the attitude and the aptitude, but he’s mostly missing the songs.
“Fair Chance” comes close, with its weightless keyboards, gentle drums, and heartbroken hook about loving someone even though they’re not around—a reference to the late rapper Mac Miller, with whom Bruner was extremely close. But despite its sincerity and strong guest spot from Ty Dolla $ign, the song slides off the rails when a well-intentioned (but struggling) Lil B warbles out a shaky final verse. “Black Qualls” cooks along with a groove featuring ’80s boogie figurehead Steve Arrington, but loses its momentum midway through.
Then there’s “Dragonball Durag,” the most effortless song here. Over a breezy beat featuring a billowing saxophone provided by longtime friend and collaborator Kamasi Washington, Bruner sings playfully to a girl about his silky headscarf. It’s undeniably silly (“I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good,” he purrs) but also feels complete, one of those moments where Bruner’s goofiness complements his musical prowess. There’s evidence to suggest he can do this when he wants; there’s also plenty to suggest the contrary.