Just days before his passing, Mac Miller begged Thundercat to appear on his Tiny Desk performance. The bassist initially refused, as the excursion would require him to take days off from his European tour. But he eventually took on the request and surprised Miller, and the pair performed songs from Miller’s album Swimming. “I could see that he wanted it to be something,” Thundercat told NPR in a recent interview. “He wanted to introduce people to how it works for him. (…) You know, I would do that for Mac.” The duo’s music video for single “What’s the Use?” was slated to film a few days later, but Miller died before the shoot. Thundercat talked to Mac Miller for the last time over the phone the night before and told Miller that he loved him.
“What’s the Use?” never got its music video, but it lives on as a tribute to Mac in this new era for Thundercat. It’s not featured on Thundercat’s newest album It Is What It Is, but the album’s title hearkens back to “What’s the Use?” with “it is what it is, till it ain’t” being one of the track’s signature lines. Thundercat also repeats the title across different points in the album. In another ode to Mac, the groovy baseline on “What’s the Use?” immediately follows every live performance of the single “Black Qualls.”
Executive producer Flying Lotus puts it simply on Twitter: “I decided to structure the album as a journal of where (Thundercat’s) been since ‘drunk.’” Following 2017’s Drunk, Thundercat has not only experienced the loss of a best friend, but a number of developments: of sobriety, love and friendship.
The album is split into three acts that individually explore self-awareness, fun times and loss. The first part kicks off with a newly developed sense of awareness on “Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26.” Thundercat describes the tension of feeling alone while knowing he’s not really alone. He fixates on his breathing and pulse and questions where he is. The track is sparse: Ambient synths and twinkling chords float in the background like a glitching space machine. He concludes simply by saying he’s “lost in space” and must start the show, as the same instrumentals carry into “Interstellar Love.”
“Interstellar Love” operates as a jazz-infused sequel to “Lost in Space.” The track is more intricately developed than the opener, with the synths giving way to Thundercat’s signature bassline and Kamasi Washington’s climatic saxophone playing. Overall, a theme of ephemeral beauty and the desire to find love envelops this part of the album as Thundercat sings about “find(ing) someone to love.” This love is likely platonic, as follow-up track “I Love Louis Cole” is a dedication to Thundercat’s friendship with fellow musician Louis Cole and the good times they’ve had together. This opening section of the album is admittedly forgettable; it does a good job of setting the scene, but these three tracks seem to float alone, as the “space” theme is not revisited throughout the rest of the album.
What the album lacks in its intro, it makes up for in its chaotic, lively second act. Standout track and single “Black Qualls” is a mellow but sonically complex, funkadelic centerpiece. Steve Lacy’s full, soulful vocals are a balanced contrast to Thundercat’s thin falsettos as the two harmonize across the track’s verses. Similarly, P-Funk legend Steve Arrington’s warbly, raspy vocals in the chorus add a classically trippy element to this piece. On a track that lyrically explores not giving into paranoia, Thundercat uncharacteristically slaps his bass, placing its percussion at the very center. “Black Qualls” ends seamlessly with a transition from bass to violin and vocals from Childish Gambino. The blithe, heightened energy is carried on throughout the rest of the tracks from this part of the album. Whereas “Miguel’s Happy Dance” functions similarly to “I Love Louis Cole” as a reference to musician and collaborator Miguel Atwood’s happiness in a newfound relationship, “How Sway” and “Funny Thing” are designed more for Thundercat’s versatility on the bass. The former is exactly what we’d expect from Thundercat but on stimulants, the chords progressing at incredible speed on loop. The latter, on the other hand, is more groovy, the bassline warbly and full with Thundercat’s falsetto high-pitched and melodious as he sings about wanting to forget his pains and party.
The album climaxes at comedic summit “Dragon Ball Durag.” The track is preceded by “Overseas,” a goofy skit about joining the mile high club with a guest appearance from Zack Fox. Whether or not it delivers the intended comedic effect is debatable, but it proves a sufficient precursor to the single “Dragon Ball Durag” with Fox’s declaration: “There appears to be a shiny black man in first class / Getting some sloppy-toppy / He’s got his chains on and a durag.” “Dragon Ball Durag” essentially aims to capture the energy of Thundercat’s Twitter with references to anime, video games and comic books. Simply put, the song is about Thundercat wanting his lover to accept him for who he is. He captures this with hilarious honesty, asking his girl “how do I look in my durag?” in between anime references and promises to make love. Other memorable lyrics include “Do you like my new whip? / Watch me go zoom zoom,” and “I might be covered in cat hair / But I still smell good.” Beyond its humor, “Dragon Ball Durag” earns its merit as a standout track for its lush instrumentals. The bass work here is some of the busiest and funkiest throughout the album; the keys are smooth and the sax embellishments add a nice jazzy element.
It’s in this third, final act of the album where the positive energies wane and the paranoia that lurked in the afterthoughts of “Black Qualls” and “How Funny” dominates. The effervescent and upbeat sound of the last third of the album is replaced by a slower, murky tone. Here, Thundercat explores loss, with his lyrics leaning more and more into references to Mac Miller. “Unrequited Love” is the first of three tracks that quotes “it is what it is.” Thundercat circles back to the themes of the beginning of the album as he declares “Sometimes I feel alone / Tried to hold my breath / Somewhere deep in space.” The instrumentals are swirling and almost jazzy in the beginning, until it takes a turn that reverberates with a lot of snares. “Fair Chance” is even more despondent with its gentle drums, feathery keyboards and guitar plucking. The song is about being unprepared for losing someone, a direct reference to Mac Miller with Ty Dolla $ign’s interpolation of “Hurt Feelings.” The heartbreak only ensues into the final title track. “It Is What It Is” is harrowing with wind blowing in the background as Thundercat plucks gently on his bass and reflects on the loss of Miller. “Sometimes there’s regret / It is what it is / It couldn’t be helped, the end.” The song seemingly fades out with no sound left but the wind until Thundercat sings “Hey Mac,” and a “whoa” ad-lib from Mac follows. From there the instrumentals pick up, layering on top of one another intensely, Thundercat’s anger and confusion apparent.
The album ends on a bitter note, circling to a despair that seemingly resolved itself in the beginning. Thundercat’s lyricism is sparse, but he aptly covers his experiences over the last three years through the emotions that span his instrumentals and abstract imagery. The closer the album inches toward reconciling with the loss of Mac Miller, the more it zig-zags between aggression and solemnity. It Is What It Is successfully manages its wide emotional range through its steady development over multiple tracks.