In his latest solo project, Thundercat wraps his disregard for traditional songwriting conventions in a bubbly, well-polished exterior. Drunk, jazz bassist’s third studio album, is a comprehensive investigation of his experience in life, from the high points in love and at parties, to the lows of racial conflict and heartrending breakups.
“Let’s go hard, get drunk, travel down a rabbit hole” sings Thundercat, opening the album and setting the surreal, whimsical tone for the next fifty-two minutes. Thundercat begins on an everyday low, complaining “I feel weird” and failing to find a solution despite advice to “comb your beard / brush your teeth” and “beat your meat / go to sleep,” but layers this discomfort over a peppy beat, finally resolving to let “Jesus take the wheel.” As we progress further into Thundercat’s pointed musings about modern society, a nagging feeling moves from the listener’s subconscious to the fore of of his or her thoughts throughout the album: Thundercat does not really know how to write rhyming lyrics.
He addresses interesting, relevant aspects of the modern addiction to technology, sarcastically wondering “where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?” on “Bus in These Streets,” but then never follows up his ideas with developed lyricism. “I wish I had nine lives / I bet it feels real nice” he sings in his typical falsetto, then remarks “It’s cool to be a cat.” Replacing advanced philosophical ruminations with stream of consciousness mutterings, Thundercat appears to be aiming to connect with everyday feelings and aspirations. “Lives, nice, and cat” are not hard words to rhyme, but Thundercat does not seem interested in even trying to do that or inject catchy refrains and memorable verses into Drunk.
Features from Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell, which are rife with complex internal rhyme schemes, vivid imagery, and relevant subject matter, are like water in the desert, providing much needed lyricism in an album that comes up surprisingly short in that respect. Even Wiz Khalifa feels like a rhyme-smith and steals the show on “Drink Dat,” a slow, bassy track that perfectly encompasses the feeling of ending up alone in a stranger’s house surrounded by drunken compatriots. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald also make unexpected but strikingly appropriate appearances on “Show You the Way.” The featured artists on Drunk often overshadow Thundercat’s falsetto, primarily because his lyrics careen between juvenile elation, “Oh my God it’s Tokyo!” and obtuse metaphor, “Bathing in your glow / Patterns in the light / Pressing your frontiers.” On songs like “Blackkk,” Thundercat passes up the obvious opportunity for pointed social commentary, only to explicitly bring it up in “Jameel’s Space Ride” two tracks later. This inconsistency, paired with the improvisational melodies he croons each line in makes it sound like Thundercat is making up each song as he goes.
The challenge with judging Thundercat, however, is that his songs sound incredible. Thundercat reclaims a classic 1970’s sound in lush, vibrant form that is uniquely his own. Throughout the album, his impressive bass skills and production chops are on full display, and make his shallow lyrics seem especially out of place. When people hear good music such as this, they expect to hear a meaningful message. “Friend Zone” perfectly encompasses this cognitive dissonance. Over a captivating beat with rolling, catchy keyboard that circles around the song’s funk undertone, relentlessly immature and cringeworthy lyrics perpetuate simple sexism; it is utterly bewildering.
However, Thundercat has moments of inspiration; “Them Changes” is funky, catchy, and thoughtful enough that the song’s lack of rhyme scheme is easily overlooked. “Walk on By” sounds like a conversation between Lamar and Thundercat, who, after working together on a number of projects including the inimitable To Pimp a Butterfly, are extremely comfortable together, and sound natural sharing a beat. Altogether, the album projects a unified sound and investigates the vicissitudes of daily life. “DUI” rounds out the album with the same melody as “Rabbot Ho,” which opens the album. The last line of “DUI” proclaims “One more glass to go / Where this ends we’ll never know,” restarting Thundercat’s journey and emphasizing how this investigation of daily life will continue with no clear end in sight.
Voice’s Choices: “Them Changes,” “Walk on By,” “Show You the Way”