Brian Josephs is more underrated than DMX’s second album.
In 2012, the great Robert Glasper famously said that jazz needed “a big-ass slap.” He was bored by the staid interpretations of Miles Davis and Charles Mingus and how hip-hop and R&B and jazz gradually became foreign cousins to each other. He was exhausted that the thought of anything new — whether talent or ideas — was immediately met with suspicion from the genre’s curmudgeonly defenders.
Three years later, jazz got a popularity boost from erudite, intermittently-rapping rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper. Those in the know are aware that Brainfeeder, Madlib, and The Robert Glasper Experiment have been holding it down for a while. If To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t just put you on, you’re aware Flying Lotus has been infusing his jazz heritage into album-length explorations of complex concepts for years (a west coast life, death, the cosmos, etc.). Saxophonist Kamasi Washington pulled off a three-disc, three-hour album, leaving nary a note without a sense of thrill.
Then there’s Thundercat, the collective’s mystic anime hero-in- residence. You could probably spot him in the crowd—he’s been seen in chieftain garments and wearing wolfskin hats. He sometimes looks like a secondary character in an RPG game and sometimes like a modern-day folk hero. But no one really needs to talk about how he looks when you can play like that. Listen to his solos on “Never Catch Me” and “For Love I Come.” Both of his albums are great.
His third, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam is an ethereal golden-haloed 18 minutes in which Thundercat strikes a balance serene and whimsy, the abyss and fluorescent, exaltation and hymns. Death jazz fusion floats in which the sky alternately turns orange, purple, magenta, and naturally filled with smoke. They’re like taking LSD in your last seconds of life to go out in a blaze or color.
Thundercat brings labelmates Mono/Poly, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Washington, and Flying Lotus along with him. It makes the album a smooth family reunion, kindred spirits kicking out mystic jams and offering votives to the older gods in a new language. “Them Changes” is about feelings, but delights in its weightlessness. Backed by Herbie Hancock-flavored funk, the jam attacks like a beautiful curse.
“Now I’m sitting here with a black hole in my chest/ A heartless, broken mess,” Thundercat says, shunning eloquence for relatability.
Your lone holy-shit-Thundercat-can-play moment comes at the coda of “Lone Wolf and Cub,” the one that actually does feature Herbie Hancock. Contemplative trudge turns into addictive arpeggiated gem. The next two tracks act as the denouement: “The Moment” is a world-weary exhale and “Where the Giants Roam / Field of the Nephilim” carries a sense of finality within its dissonant lilt.
It’s all a trek from fantasy to reality. You can even argue that it’s kismet. Jazz’s thrills lie in its complexities rather than formalities. You hear stories of band members almost telepathically communicating with each other through delirious soloing and intricate progressions. The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam is not the epochal example of that magic, but a perfect example of the communal pursuit of imagination’s possibilities.