To continue the intersection of jazz and hip hop theme I wrote about in my last post, I thought I’d take on the music of Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, whose 2017 album Drunk demonstrates his genius ability to make music that is “beyond category”—or rather “beyond intersection.” Thundercat, who spent nearly a decade playing bass in the thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies, writes music that is so idiosyncratic it’s not just hard to figure out what it is; it’s damn near impossible to think of what it might or could be. It’s surprising, mercurial, elusive, and in a way frustrating, as Thundercat hesitates to give his listeners a point of reference with which to steady and orient themselves.
Trying to conceptualize Drunk as an intersection of numerous genres not only does a disservice to the album, the intersection metaphor—as in actual road intersections—only works when there are a few things intersecting. The knowledgeable listener can hear the influences of a number of genres, but she may not be able to point out a section and say, “ah, there’s x genre, there’s y genre.” Instead, on “Show You the Way” the listener is surprised to hear guest appearances from yacht rocker Kenny Loggins and the master of blue-eyed-soul, Michael McDonald. And yet, they fit perfect with the album’s aesthetic. The next song, “Walk on By” begins with a simple drum beat pattern that could very well have come from a busted-ass Casio and features Thundercat’s smooth falsetto vocals and flanged-out bass a la avant-garde jazz/rock bassist Bill Laswell, and a guest verse from Kendrick Lamar. Not only is it a surprise to hear Kendrick and Loggins on the same album, they both appear within a stretch of only a few minutes, and as if by sorcery they both fit in as if being on the same album was perfectly natural.
Thundercat’s lyrics add in a whole other dimension of complexity and interest, and are rife with Frank Zappa-esque absurdism, whether he sings about wanting to play Mortal Kombat on “Friend Zone” or declaring on “Tokyo”: “Gonna eat so much fish, I think I’m gonna be sick/gonna blow all my cash on anime (yes!).” And on “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)” he sings:
“I bet it feels real nice, sitting in the sun/
Letting the rays wash over me/
No one watching over me/
I do what I want/
Everybody wants to be a cat/
It’s cool to be a cat . . . .
My rawr would be so powerful/
I would scare off everything/
I’m gonna be a cat (meow meow meow meow)”
Those aren’t lyrics one would find in a jazz or pop song. It’s more Raffi than rap, and it’s nothing anyone would anticipate hearing from a jazz/hip hop crossover musician with thrash metal chops.
Throughout Drunk it’s hard to locate and isolate snippets of individual genres and styles long enough to formulate what an intersection might look like. Moreover, trying to identify that intersection or defining it along genre lines isn’t just wrong; it detracts from the experience of the music and would entail trying to force it into a frame of reference which it doesn’t belong. Like all great artists, Thundercat asks his listeners to put away their preconceptions and to address his art on his terms. His music doesn’t operate at the level of an intersection of two or three musical strands. It exists beyond the logic of genre.