The Breakdown, Drunk by Thundercat

Micah: There is a Jazz/R&B renaissance happening on the West Coast and much of it is centered around Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder record label. Founded almost a decade ago, Brainfeeder has a lot of similarities to Peanut Butter Wolf’s legendary label, Stones Throw. They’re both independent and determined to push boundaries, taking chances on strange and experimental music that usually wouldn’t get backed. This approach has been incredibly fruitful for Brainfeeder. With a little help from his friends, including Thundercat, bandleader and saxophonist Kamasi Washington put out one of the best albums of 2015, and releases from other Brainfeeder signees The Gaslamp Killer, Jon Hopkins, Daedelus, and Lapalux have gotten a lot of attention.

Drunk is the latest album from Brainfeeder and it might be the best in Thundercat’s discography. Flying Lotus, who has played a huge part not only in putting Thundercat on, also has his hands in the creation of almost all of his music, shows up all over this new record. Whether he’s acting as an engineer, producer or mixer, the kinds of rhythms and changes found on Lotus’ You’re Dead have seeped into this album, and paired with Thundercat’s improved songwriting, singing, and one-of-a-kind basslines, making for a strange blend of heady and soulful.

There is a lot to like about Drunk. You wouldn’t know it was essentially a hedonistic slacker album if you just listened to the production. While the lyrics are crude, the compositions backing them up are meticulously composed and exquisitely performed. Take the first two songs after the brief intro. “Captain Stupido” is the story of either a bad hangover or psychedelic trip, full of feelings of unshakeable weirdness and wondering where you left your wallet, all while trying to comb your hair, brush your teeth and masturbate before going back to bed. These are lyrics I could see on some gritty 80’s punk song, but instead of blisteringly distorted guitar riffs the lyrics are accompanied by a fusion of jazz and soul. The next track then offers a lyricless journey of bass-driven breakbeats and heavenly oohs and ahhs sung by Thundercat himself. It’s really quite pretty, but the lyrics of the preceding song gives it a strange twist. I really like it.

 

Henry: You’re definitely right about the odd juxtapositions between the music and the lyrics here. Thundercat has always had a way of being colloquial and frank while also maintaining a strange poignancy with his lyrics, but this has a different feel than his earlier work. Everything feels less pastorally psychedelic and more bluntly urban, like these songs were written (as the title might suggest) wandering drunkenly around L.A. instead of tripping in a forest glade somewhere. What remains unchanged is the signature sense of humor, which mostly comes across in the way he makes little observations about people, moods, parties, and life in general. This album is genuinely hilarious, but the songs are arranged in such tender and delicate ways that it’s not immediately obvious.

It’s also worth reiterating that this is Thundercat’s longest release, with roughly double the number of tracks found on any of his previous projects, so it stands to reason that this is also his most diverse project by a far. The fact that both Kenny Loggins and Kendrick Lamar make appearances here is both absurd and awesome. Who else could bridge that musical gap?

 

Micah: The features really do make an impact on this album in a way they haven’t on previous Thundercat releases. As far as I can remember, this is the first time Thundercat has had big name vocalists on his album. I really dig what Kendrick, Pharrell, Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins bring to the table. It seems like a weird combination of characters, but it really highlights the different musical places Thundercat is drawing from when putting this album together. He’s got the weird, almost corny soft-R&B/Rock from Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, mixed with the flowery smoothness of Pharrell, all brought together with the esoteric, yet relatable force that is Kendrick Lamar.

The performances from most of the album’s guests feel genuine and true to the sound and concept of the album, but for me, the biggest disappointment on the album was the Wiz Khalifa feature. It just makes no sense. Wiz’s is out of his element and doesn’t add to the track aside from being another big name to slap on the tracklist. I would have much rather had Hannibal Buress, who Thundercat has worked with before, spit that verse. I think it would have fit much better with the whimsical themes of the album and kept it more inline with the sound and humor that makes this album great.

Speaking of collaborations, what really excited me in the liner notes was seeing that the relationship Thundercat built during his collaboration on To Pimp a Butterfly not only brought Kendrick to this project, but also brought Sounwave (who is criminally underrated) to produce on “Lava Lamp” and “Walk on By”. It’s rare to see him work on any project that isn’t released through Top Dawg and his appearance here shows how deeply connected the rap label is to the emerging West Coast jazz movement. I hope that relationship continues to grow, because they compliment each other so well.

Another pleasant surprise was how good the short tracks are on this album. Usually, any song less than a couple minutes is a throwaway interlude or just a means to push the album forward, but I’ve found myself seeking out “Day & Night” and “Jethro”, which might be my favorite track on the album, in particular. I found the same thing true on Frank Ocean’s Endless album, where “Comme Des Garcons” stole the show despite being just over a minute long. The harmonies on “Jethro” remind me of what Thundercat brought to the Flying Lotus track “Mmmhmmm” off Cosmogramma. It’s just magical.

 

Henry: True. One thing I will say, however, is that seeing Thundercat play this stuff live is an entirely different experience, and I wish that came across a little more on the record. I’ve seen him with his trio three times over the past few years, and the chemistry those guys have is next level. I guess that’s why you have to go to the show, but after hearing these songs played live, some of the album versions just feel a little bland. Dennis Hamm and Justin Brown are two of the dopest players out right now, and what I really want is a trio album where they all just cut loose. When you have producers on deck like Brainfeeder does, it’s hard not to let them tinker, but honestly I think a more classic approach would work better with a lot of this stuff. Just sit those three in a room and I guarantee they could do this whole album in one take and it would give it that awesome organic spontaneity that is the mark of all great jazz.

My other main criticism here is the inclusion of “Them Changes” for the second time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song, and it fits in this project just fine, but the track has been out since summer of 2015, and just recycling the hot single off of The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam seems a bit strange, especially since there’s no shortage of new material here. This could have been an alternate take or a live version, similar to how Kendrick re-worked “i” on To Pimp A Butterfly, but instead we just get the same song we’ve been listening to for almost two years now. For me, it’s a missed opportunity, and I can’t help but be a little disappointed as I imagine what could have been. Nitpicky criticisms aside though, I’ve been listening to this album all the way through almost daily since it’s release, which should speak for itself as far as how I feel about Drunk.

 

Micah: I can understand why it feels lame to simply slap a song that’s been out for two years on to a new project. It feels lazy and for long-time fans, it really adds nothing, a bit like Drake putting “Hotline Bling” on Views long after that song had its moment. The difference here is that while re-releasing “Hotline Bling” just felt like a way for Drake to boost his steaming numbers, this re-release by Thundercat comes at a time when his platform is bigger than ever, and he’s trying to introduce one of the best songs in his discography to a new fanbase. While I don’t think this fully excuses the laziness of slapping it onto Drunk, I get it.

As someone who hasn’t seen Thundercat perform live, your comments about the difference between how this album sounds on record and live is really interesting to me. While I like how Thundercat came through with his most polished and accessible album yet, I’m curious how he translates in the raw. I’d love to see Thundercat release a live album, maybe even with some of the big name features showing up. Just a thought.

Overall, I’m really happy with this release and excited to see where Thundercat goes next. I hope he continues to make beautiful and trippy music and collaborate with well-established creatives that compliment his unique sound. I’m glad to hear his singing, while it is a bit one dimensional, is better than ever. He’s writing some of his most compelling songs and was able to put together an album that is cohesive and quirky. I fully expect Drunk to continue to grow on me and reveal nuances of weirdness that I haven’t picked up yet.


Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain