Dedicated to his best friend, the late rapper Mac Miller, the jazz-funk bassist's upcoming album It Is What It Is mixes harebrained humor with the agony of loss and love.

By Alex Suskind
April 02, 2020 at 02:58 PM EDT
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Space smells like burnt steak. Hundreds of miles above your head, an entire universe stinking like a charred ribeye. No one has direct proof of this, of course. If you slipped into earth’s atmosphere without protective gear you would promptly suffocate. The findings instead come from astronauts who have reentered the hatch from a space walk and reported a metallic, beef-like scent on their suits. 

“It’s one of my favorite things,” said the bassist and singer Stephen Bruner, one night in February, of the first time he learned that random interstellar factoid. “Smells like straight steak. I am like, I would like to smell that.” Bruner, who performs as Thundercat, was lounging on a sofa inside a grungy Hollywood studio space on Sunset Blvd., rehearsing for a tour that would never fully materialize due the impending pandemic. Wearing a royal-blue Vegeta tee and a phalanx of gold chains and medallions, the 35-year-old musician sat back and pondered his continued interest in cosmic material. “Why does space inspire?” he asked himself. “Because it's bigger than me. It's bigger than us.” 

His 2017 track “Jameel’s Space Ride” tackles this planetary immenseness head on. Like Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” for the 21st Century, Bruner dreams of an earthly escape from the daily anxieties of being black in America: “I'm safe on my block, except for the cops…. I want to ride away, off into space and into the sun,” he sings over ‘80s infomercial synths. He explores the same terrain through a different prism on “Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26,” the opener to his upcoming album It Is What It Is, out April 3. Feeling marooned, his falsetto echoes against a starry backdrop: “I know we’re not alone. But it’s hard to tell.” 

Bruner’s entire catalog can often feel otherworldly — a mix of goofball humor, love-lost ballads, and galactic bass riffs. Born into a family of musicians — his father was a drummer for Diana Ross and Jody Watley, and his mother is a flautist and percussionist; both brothers are also accomplished musicians — he began playing before he entered kindergarten, after his parents enrolled him in the Yamaha Music School. As a teenager, he joined the punk band Suicidal Tendencies, and later toured with Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg. But it wasn’t until 2011 that he branched off on his own. “I didn’t think of it as far-fetched,” he said of going solo. “But it was not like, ‘Some day I’m going to do my own music.’ That was never my goal.”

Since Thundercat's debut album, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, he has become particularly adept at toggling between genres — psychedelic funk operas, mellow R&B numbers, jazz-fusion freakouts — a skill he showcased to great acclaim on his 2017 project Drunk. That piece, along with his background work on Kendrick Lamar's seminal 2015 record To Pimp a Butterfly, introduced Bruner to a new crop of fans. His shows began attracting larger crowds, strangers would stop him on the street, Ariana Grande covered his song “Them Changes.” It was a level of success that hit Bruner in unexpected ways. "I feel like I woke up in it," he said.

Parker Day

It Is What It Is, out April 3, will shine an even brighter spotlight on his work. The record marks a creative apex, a funky, jazzy, existential brew of love and regret and anime references. It also serves as an extensive tribute to best friend and collaborator Mac Miller, who passed away in 2018 from an accidental drug overdose. The death shook Bruner, forcing him to reconcile his own substance use. A year after the incident, he admitted in a series of tweets to spending 15 years as “a raging alcoholic,” using it to cope with pain; the rapper’s death made him rethink what he was eating  (Bruner is now vegan)  and drinking: “I feel like even through the sadness of losing Mac, he changed my life," he shared on Twitter. "I know you guys may have noticed a bit of weight [loss]. I feel that was a lot of pain and alcohol I was carrying around with me.” 

Back on the rehearsal space couch, Bruner further explained the decision to stop drinking following Miller’s overdose. “Mac dying was very traumatic,” he said. “I just needed to come up for air.” He wrote a song soon after that tackled what he was going through. It eventually became the title track to his new album. Over a spare acoustic composition, Bruner sings with a heavy heart, “After all is said and done, and I'm all alone/When I sit back and reflect, from a broken heart/Sometimes there's regret/It is what it is.” 

“He was supposed to go on tour with Mac and all that was over and everything was just in shambles,” recalled Steven Ellison a.k.a Flying Lotus, of that particular time period. (Bruner is signed to Ellison's Brainfeeder label and has executive produced all of Thundercat’s releases). “I recall both of us didn't want to record, but we just had to push through. And then beautiful things happened. We just sat there and listened to it and cried for hours.”

Ellison and Bruner first met at SXSW — “I like to remember it in my mind like the scene in Nacho Libre when Esqueleto and Nacho meet,” said Bruner — and have worked on one another’s projects for the last decade. You can hear Thundercat's unmistakable bass thrumming on every FlyLo album since Cosmogramma. But the pair never sit down and plan to make an album; their creative process is more continuous, made up of persistent tinkering in the studio and challenging one another to invent something special. “I think that's part of the yin and yang as to how we work,” said Ellison. 

If there was a starting point to the new record, though, it was recording that title track. The song makes up a quasi-three-part suite honoring Miller. Another, “Fair Chance,” featuring former Miller collaborators Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B, is all about keeping the spirit of the late rapper alive. Bruner recalled the writing process as painful, and said recording it took the wind out of everyone in the room. 

But that feeling of overwhelming sadness also led to the album's title, It Is What It Is. The phrase, which appears on multiple tracks, is about acceptance, and pushing to get yourself through one difficult day after another.  “It feels like a place of rest, a bit, for me,” Bruner said. “Even saying it to myself sometimes makes things feel a bit better. It's a hard thing.” It’s similar in spirit to one of he and Mac’s favorite quotes: Just sit down and let it happen. 

Despite its weighty emotional toll, the new album wouldn’t be a true Thundercat project without Bruner’s kaleidoscopic musical style and propensity for pairing morbidly serious topics with harebrained humor. On It Is What It Is, there's the one minute interlude named after Kanye West’s legendary “How Sway” quote; the lead single “Black Qualls,” a funky throwdown about moving out of the hood that features the Internet’s Steve Lacy, Childish Gambino, and Steve Arrington of legendary funk band Slave; and “Dragonball Durag,” which looks at romance through the lens of anime, includes a line about being covered in cat hair during sex, and has an Anthony “Spice” Adams-inspired music video.

“Stephen's sense of humor is like if the LA riots were a musical,” said friend and comedian Zach Fox, who collaborated with Bruner on Drunk and directed the “Durag” video. “It's really vitriolic. It feels like he's in a constant tornado of black culture references, animated references, and anecdotal stories about pooping on himself.” (Even Bruner couldn’t help but poke fun at himself over his new non-drinking perspective, turning into “that dude awkwardly dancing in the club in the corner with a pocket full of fake chicken nuggets, talking to somebody about Inuyasha.”)

Ellison added that the dichotomy is what defines Bruner. “To do something that's super silly on one end of it and then super deep and vulnerable on the other end, it's who he is,” he said. “I'm glad that he was just super honest with himself.” 

That heart-on-your-sleeve approach is integral to the Thundercat formula. It’s what allows him to pull off playing a six-string pale pink bass on stage, to merge seemingly disparate genres into a coherent melange, to dress like he just barreled through a pile of merch from Hot Topic, Gucci, and GameStop, to look beyond the scope of what we know and imagine new worlds and characters and ideas. Thundercat's world isn't just made up of what's in front of him. As he said of space, “It always makes me feel better knowing that there is something more.”

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