Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole with Thundercat’s Drunk
Words Clayton d'Arnault
Bass player, singer and producer Thundercat earned a Grammy for his production work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly in 2016. He laid the foundations of jazz for that acclaimed record, which would in turn take home Best Rap Album. Then it was considered to be Thundercat’s greatest achievement as a session musician and producer. Now there’s Drunk, his third solo album, which shows his individual growth as a Great in jazz fusion, after working mostly in the shadows of others, including Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington.
“Absurd” might be the most appropriate description of Drunk. The whole project feels like an unguided tour through a drunk person’s mind. Thundercat sets the premise for this idea in the intro track, in which he sings about drinking and taking the listener down a rabbit hole to the bizarre and nonsensical. But fun fact: Thundercat himself doesn’t drink anymore.
It’s difficult to get a sense of what the hell we’re listening to. It’s a bizarre ride full of chaos, nerdy references, and fake-drunk gibberish: one moment we’re in the carefree existence of a cat, the next: a video game, Then we’re playing a Pachinko machine in Tokyo, and losing our wallet in a club. These are the sorts of subjects we’d expect from comedy records, but Thundercat has a serious side.
In his own words, Drunk is a contradictory work that’s “meant to be both serious and humorous.” True, there’s a sober edge to the album. The heavily synthesized ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’ conveys delight and happiness, yet the lyrics touch on the darker side of life like racial profiling and police brutality in America. While ‘Lava Lamp’ and the poetic ‘Jethro’ find Thundercat mourning a loved one.
Harmoniously serious yet drunkenly humorous, Drunk truly showcases Thundercat’s potential as a jazz fusion Great
Though the tone of the album is rooted in the spirit of jazz-funk, the composition also showcases rhythmic undertones of soul, electronica, hip hop, and psychedelic rock. A backdrop for Thundercat to be able to show his avant-garde take on music, his virtuosic tendencies rear their heads amidst the chaos. Take the intensely complex layering of celestial vocals and airy guitar twangs on top of deep ambient bass in ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’, and his insane bass line on ‘Uh Uh’ – so fast, that it sounds like fast-forwarding a VHS-tape.
Harmoniously serious yet drunkenly humorous, Drunk truly showcases Thundercat’s potential as a jazz fusion Great, drawing on what he’s learned so far being a session musician for Kamasi Washington (The Epic), Flying Lotus (Cosmogramma), Erykah Badu (New Amerykah), and Childish Gambino (Because The Internet). But this is a musician’s record first and foremost, for the cerebral listeners, which causes a lot less replay value than the albums he’s worked on as a session musician.
But after working as that musician in all seriousness for over a decade, it also sounds like a musician dying to put some fun back for himself in making seriously good music.
To put it in a fitting DC Comics reference: like The Joker said, Why so serious? Thundercat shows it doesn’t have to be. We’ll drink to that.