Thundercat — Friend Zone

Stephen Bruner is a man of constant musical happenings. I suppose that’s hard to avoid when you’re born into a family of musicians, but to plot the course from boy band, to thrash bassist, to lending your talents to the likes of hip-hop and R&B great such as Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington makes the voracious creative appetite of Stephen Bruner (more commonly known as Thundercat) abundantly clear. Shambling loose of the murky funk forest that was his last mini record “The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam”, Bruner prepares for the release of his largest record yet, the 23-track giant DRUNK reuniting with longtime friend and fellow hip-hop weirdo, Flying Lotus. From the name, to the cover art, to both new singles, Bruner makes a clear distinction between the moody, even esoteric ‘Giants’ and his forthcoming effort.

With a name like Thundercat, there’s always been a hint of humor in what he does, but early material from DRUNK elevates breezy, brainy insouciance to a comic swagger. While the lead single “Show You the Way,” might evoke images of Michael Bolton’s 2011 Lonely Island feature, it only takes a moment for the giggles to fade away, as features Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald introduced by a smoke-voiced night club owner inbetween velvet bass lines and synths that sway like beads to some underlit VIP lounge. What the newest single “Friend Zone” lacks in skit-ish humor it makes up in lyrics as quotable as any break-up text, and a squelching, thumping bass that evokes the toothsome throughline of “Wesley’s Theory,” laid down by none other than the Cat himself.

Comedy in hip-hop has always been a bit of a tough pill to swallow for me. Like the comedy found in 00’s pop-punk, I find that the humor comes at the cost of the music. It’s a very thin line to walk, but in both singles, Thundercat manages it perfectly. Though the sheer idea of Thundercat, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins jamming in a nightclub is clearly hilarious, it doesn’t take more than one listen to hear the performances don’t lack in the slightest. And in “Friend Zone,” lines like “because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway,” are nestled amongst curious, Brunarian melodies and a beat that would be just at home in any club banger.

In contemplation of this new material, I was reminded of something R&B singer/songwriter Miguel said while speaking on stage during his Spotify Session performance in London.

“There’s this perception of R&B music, that’s it’s always about love and romance, and it’s this sexy, sensual thing that’s reserved for the bedroom… There was a time that it was a lot more all-encompassing, a lot more broad and bold and experimental and fun.”

With modern practitioners such as Anderson Paak, and most recently and especially, Childish Gambino proving Miguel correct, and funk and disco music reappearing in popular genres across the board, the scene could be no better primed for his “epic journey into the often hilarious”. With his previous release, Thundercat more than lived up to “broad and bold and experimental,” it’s beginning to look as though DRUNK favors “fun.” DRUNK hits headphones February 24th, with a 4LP Vinyl boxset released March 10th.

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