Music like Thundercat’s doesn’t feel like it should be real. There’s an effortless smoothness to its complexities, an otherworldliness to its humanity. He’s the sort of singer and player whose songs seem to come into existence on the spot. They’re so intuitively musical that it’s hard to see them as the result of much planning, despite the fact that the rhythms and hooks on Drunk take a virtuoso to pull off.
His latest record solidifies how plugged into the spirit of jazz he is. Jazz is the booziest kind of music anyway. It’s the architecture of sound at its most honest and free, its most smooth and sloppy all at once. That’s not entirely fair to say. Thundercat is far from a sloppy drunk. But if this record is any indication, he’s the kind of guy who can throw them back and appear totally normal with maybe a little more confidence.
Some of that confidence has to come from the fact he’s part of a soulful musical movement critics and casual listeners alike think is one of the best things happening right now. He played on To Pimp a Butterfly, he’s on Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder and he’s gained the sort of notoriety where soft-rock icons are guests on his album. Before Drunk, any number of his songs seemed to cry out for a Kenny Loggins or Michael McDonald guest vocal. Now there actually is one, as both men appear on the album’s silken single “Show You The Way.”
Another element of Thundercat’s charm is counteracting his coolness with the cornier, maybe even creepier, aspects of his musical personality. With all the short tracks and enthralling throwaways, he seems a kindred spirit to Ariel Pink. Both share the same affinity for kitschy nostalgia, a winking sense of self-awareness and catchy soft-rock hooks.
This album also throws out references to anime and derides keeping things platonic when there’s romantic interest in the equation. “Friend Zone” is one of those songs intent on unsettling the listener with its relatability. Who wants to admit to their more lustful moments or their feelings of entitlement over other human beings, particularly after a few shots? When these sentiments are vocalized over this instrumental, it’s harder to ignore.
Drunk comes off as a little more ironic than his previous efforts. He’s always had a self-effacing sense of humor but it really seems to come through here. It makes sense given the crowd he hangs around. Kendrick has “For Free? – Interlude” to match “The Blacker The Berry” and Flying Lotus puts out all sorts of crazy, borderline heinous videos for each of his somber sonic explorations. This record is yet another entry into a catalogue as characterized by honesty and heartache as it is by dark humor.
Thundercat’s unique contribution to the Brainfeeder / Kendrick-acolyte clan is his devotion to conventional song structures, even as he subverts them. His music is exploratory but it’s never unrecognizable. Each track puts the song first and the experiments second. The same can’t be said of FlyLo, for instance. If the Brainfeeder universe is just starting to be explored, Thundercat is in charge of the tourist division. Drunk is the same kind of uncharted territory his colleagues are exploring but he’s done a great job of making it feel like home for the uninitiated.
It takes a special kind of artist to create a sound both familiar and groundbreaking. Thundercat continues his upward trajectory in that regard here. This is easy going soft rock for those who love the Footloose soundtrack and it could pass purity tests for the most uptight, pretentious hipster. You can call Drunk yacht rock but only if the yacht in question can fly straight to the Andromeda Galaxy.