“It is what it is.” American musician Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, firmly stands by this life mantra. “It helps with comprehension. Accepting that’s true, present and real. It always offers a chance to laugh. That’s why it is what it is,” the 36-year-old says.
That is the title of his latest album (released last year) that the Los Angelean native adopted. “It’s like a metaphor for life, to some degree,” Bruner explains. “There are things that you can’t do anything about and there are some things that are bigger than you. And it’s okay. It’s not always meant for you to understand. [That] can be tiring to help myself to be okay on overcoming one of the hardest moments in my life and I didn’t have answers to that. So, it is what it is. The conclusion you come to about most things. That’s how this album came to be.”
His best yet, this genre-blurring album was honoured ‘Best Progressive R&B Album’ at the Grammys early this year. Although Thundercat scored his first gramophone back in 2016 alongside Kendrick Lamar for ‘These Walls’, this time around the spotlight is solely on him. “I felt emotionally complicated winning an award in the midst of a pandemic. It’s weird to win a Grammy sitting on the couch and not allowed to move. I didn’t know how people felt about the album. I didn’t know how well it would be received. [My] future shows were getting cancelled and that broke my heart,” he admits.
“Because I had been through a series of trauma before that. For example, the person that I was planning on marrying left me and my best friend [rapper Mac Miller] died. Also, I was really looking forward to getting on stage to perform. When it all got taken away, it felt very complicated. But I channelled my energy to a different place, I did some boxing and started doing therapy. That helped me through it and I realised that I was going to be okay. It’s just a different chapter in my life. But to see it all happen from the couch that still doesn’t feel real sometimes.”
To pigeonhole It Is What It Is as just R&B would be a disservice. There are heavy jazz elements that focused on Thundercat’s bass playing. But he doesn’t mind labels being attached to it. “People put titles for it to make sense. So I’m okay. I make music and I always hope that it’s good music.” Besides heavyweight musicians like Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington and Childish Gambino featuring on the funky disco ‘Black Qualls’, his pals including Kamasi Washington, BadBadNotGood, Dennis Hamm and Taylor Graves guest on the album too.
Friendship matters in Thundercat’s books. Knowing music greats such as Lamar and off-kilter comedians like Erica André and Hannibal Buress inspires him and even led him to attempt in humouring his friends. “I always feel like we need each other. Music and comedy are similar. There’s a saying that every musician wants to be a comedian and every comedian wants to be a musician. And I think it’s true. Because there’s a lot of honesty that has to happen in both. It’s a skill to be good at them, like telling jokes. It’s very similar to musicianship. I have a lot of respect for people that go on stage and do comedy because it’s very brutal. Because if you’re not funny, you might get hit with a chair. That’s going to be the way they remember your jokes.”
Now, to highlight the genius jazz arrangements embedded on the album. From the ties to the genre from years of playing music with Washington, Graves, and also Reggie Andrews who was a music teacher at Locke High School that he attended, Thundercat often taps into his improvisation qualities when creating music. “It’s weaved in the fabric of whatever I do. So a part of me will have such openness,” he says. “Because of it being the root of how I was raised, there’s a part of me that always wants more. Being able to have the freedom and having such knowledge help me to flow through the creative process of writing.”
Reception to It Is What It Is was mostly positive with it appearing on most critics’ best album charts last year. But TikTok (or rather, its users) also had plans for it. The psychedelic ‘Funny Thing’ found its way to the social media platform and went viral with its uplifting tune which users groove along as its backing track. “I’m happy that people like [‘Funny Thing’]. That song was written about a person that I was in love with and I’m glad it translated its message to them because I felt happy writing that song,” Bruner says. “Social media is fun. I sometimes act goofy on social media myself. So it’s nice to know that people like that song. It really made me smile.”
Another track that’s uniquely Thundercat is ‘Dragonball Durag’. Injecting humour and irreverence, it reveals the colourful side of the musician too. This declared his love for the classic Japanese anime and manga Dragon Ball, the OG series which got him attracted to this medium. Furthermore, there are many instances that Japanese anime meant the world to him. Keen eyes would have spotted his iconic one-of-a-kind Pikachu and Kirby-skinned Bass and various anime accessories that accompanied Thundercat whenever he’s touring live.
“The first time I experienced anime was from that only one job I had previously. I worked at a comic store across the street from my school during summer when I didn’t have summer school because of bad grades,” Bruner recalls. “For about three to four summers of my life, I would work at this store and saw its progression of, including Japanese animation. I call it the Japanese invasion of everything from Super Nintendo to Game Boy. Everything kind of made a grand entrance in the ’90s into American culture. They always had a big screen TV with a projector in the back. I remember being there over the weekend and the first anime I saw was Chun- Li’s exaggerated bosoms in Street Fighter. I had never thought in my life that I would see something like that. And a particular shower scene in the Street Fighter movie changed my life, man.”
We never know what’s going to happen in life. Thus, Thundercat takes it in his stride. “That’s the magic of [fate], the known and unknown. This is what we need. Nobody knows what’s coming next. But at the same time, you have choices you can make and create. So I don’t resign to fate easily. I still have excitement about life. I am still hearing music, I’m always wondering what can be written with the feelings that come to mind. I’ve always been excited about music, so I don’t think I’ll ever lose that. It’s almost like us, somewhere in between is where we exist. That’s what I feel I’m at right now.”
It Is What It Is is available for purchase and streaming on digital music platforms including Apple Music.