A Happy Dance to Fight Existential Dread: Thundercat’s “It Is What It Is”

Chris Robinson goes in on the Los Angeles bass virtuoso's newest album.
By    April 1, 2020

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Chris Robinson might be covered in cat hair, but he still smells good.

There was a night a few weeks ago when in the space of an hour the NBA had suspended its season, Sarah Palin sang “Baby Got Back” in a furry pink bear costume on prime time television, Trump wheezed his way through an Oval Office address, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson revealed that they had contracted covid-19. Not long after every major sports league and tournament was either cancelled or postponed, the stock market tanked, and now the only way to hang out with friends is with a virtual Zoom happy hour.

Times are weird, scary, unprecedented, and perhaps above all, absurd. So it seems perfectly fitting that we can look for guidance from an artist who is steeped in the slippery, absurd, and hard to categorize. His latest album, It Is What It Is, helps us come to terms with events that we can’t explain or begin to know how to deal with.

It Is What It Is keeps many of the traits that made his 2017 breakthrough album Drunk a success: a stellar roster of guest artists, unadorned lyrics, Thundercat’s unabashed embrace of his quirkiness, and music with just enough wrinkles to raise an eyebrow. Where Drunk felt like it could go in any direction at any time and was often laced with Zappa-esque absurdity, It Is What It Is is more focused and concise. It may not be as much fun as Drunk, but it has a depth that offers some coping mechanisms for those of us who could use them.

From the album’s ominous opening moments it’s clear that Thundercat is starting in the deep end. Surrounded by spacy and dreamy keys, he asks if anybody is there, wonders if he’s all alone, and says he can’t feel a pulse. Has he died and is waiting for others to join him in the afterlife? The details are fuzzy, but the tone is deadly serious. Although it’s less than two minutes long, the opening track sets the tone for much of what is to come.

After the jazz-funk fusion “Innerstellar Love”—which features a brawny saxophone solo from Kamasi Washington and sounds like it could have been on a recent Flying Lotus album—the fun-loving Thundercat returns with a celebration of friendship, “I Love Louis Cole.” He rides on top of a punk drum pattern and makes a point of telling his friend—presumably Cole—how much he values their friendship. It seems like such an obvious message, but how many of us have actually told our friends “hey, my life is better when you’re around?” Thundercat also reminds us on “Miguel’s Happy Dance” that dancing can get us through the tough times. He implores us to “just do the fucking dance, even if you start to cry/it’s ok, everything will be alright.” The late 70s/early 80s funk beat and soulful vocals on “Black Qualls”—which features Steve Arrington, Steve Lacy, and Childish Gambino—provides the perfect soundtrack for people to bust out their own happy dance.

When Thundercat isn’t dancing, he’s on the prowl. On “Funny Thing” and “Overseas” he exhibits an almost earnest, teenage innocence. He just wants to meet up with his girl, hold hands, and party together because she makes him happy. And if that leads to joining the Mile High Club on the flight to Japan, even better. He channels yacht rock greats from Hall and Oates to Kenny Loggins on “Dragonball Durag.” His goal is simple: impress his girl with his durag and make love to her all night long. And if that doesn’t work out, he at least wants to know if he looks good in his durag. It’s no big deal that he’s covered in cat hair—he still smells good. Don’t bother that he spends too much time playing video games—he zooms around in his new whip. It’s not clear if he was able to smash in his durag, but if the music video is any indication, the ladies weren’t fly enough to keep up with his Gucci wardrobe, chains, purple fingernails, and durag.

The final third of the album leaves dancing, partying, romantic overtures, and declarations of friendship behind. Thundercat is now unsure of his surroundings and wracked with loss. On “Fair Chance” he takes loss and its aftermath head on, singing “I keep holdin’ you down/even though you’re not around/So hard to get over it/I’ve tried to get under it/stuck in between, it is what it is/bye bye for now.” In a smooth pseudo-croon, Ty Dolla $ign has a hard time coming to grips about the good times that will never come again. Lil B takes things deeper—not just because his voice is lower than Ty Dolla $ign’s, but because he’s busted up enough to ask for a doctor to come work on him.

“Existential Dread” keeps us spiraling down, with Thundercat confessing that sometimes he’s consumed with existential dread and all he can do is tell himself that “I guess it is what it is/I’m not sure of what is coming next/but I’ll be alright as long as I keep breathing/I know I’ll be alright.” The album closes with the title track, on which Thundercat tells us that he’s done all he can do, that some things end, and that’s the reality of it. Halfway through the track fades out to the brief sound of rainfall and fades right back in with an optimistic feel, courtesy of the upbeat drums and strings. What seemed like a dark and hopeless ending to the album has shifted, cautiously suggesting that things are about to turn for the better.

Throughout the album, the happy and upbeat come with a dark side. For every current friendship, there’s the feeling of another friendship lost. For every moment spent with someone, there’s an empty loneliness. At the same time, whatever darkness remains, there’s a fragile, if not unrealistic hope of making it through to the light.

The playful absurdity of Drunk is all in the past. This older, more weathered Thundercat has a message that resonates with a social and cultural moment that’s marked by an entirely different kind of absurdity—a dark, dangerous, didn’t think it could happen/can’t believe it’s happening kind of absurdity. What does it mean when you have to stay away from people to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community healthy and safe?

It’s hard—especially over the past four years—to process what is going on, whether it’s the death of a friend or a nation waking up each morning having to remind itself that it must deny itself the most human of desires—to be with other people. Like Thundercat sings: “I just wanna be with you.” Forget about understanding why these things happen. Forget about trying to predict what might happen. The best a lot of us can do most days is to summon up enough energy to say “well, it is what it is.” Somedays acceptance is about all I can muster. With It Is What It Is, Thundercat reminds us that acceptance is enough, and that’s ok.

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