You’ve heard Stephen Bruner, stage name Thundercat, even if you’ve never heard of him. The Los Angeles-born bass guitarist extraordinaire has long played a background role in hip-hop, having appeared in recent years on Mac Miller’s GO:OD AM, Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, and the latest two projects from Kendrick Lamar. He’s a moldable presence capable of adapting to a stylistically diverse soundscape, even serving as the bass player of crossover thrash group Suicidal Tendencies for a number of years. On Drunk, his third studio album, Bruner displays a masterful flexibility of tone, even if he occasionally veers into sonic homogeny.
Though Bruner has earned a name for himself as a studio musician, it’s his strength as a songwriter that Drunk emphasizes more than anything else. It’s one thing to lay down a bassline in the background, but Bruner’s rubbery basslines are the centerpiece of Drunk. On “Uh Uh,” the bass gallops frenetically in a race against sprinting piano melodies, but on “Show You the Way,” it’s far more methodical, and almost percussive in its punchiness. Bruner makes remarkably malleable an instrument that is frequently used with such rigidity and lack of imagination, and tracks are often succinct enough so as to rarely wear out a single concept insofar as how Bruner uses his bass.
That brevity is also why Bruner can play with mood so freely on Drunk. He meditates on death in “Lava Lamp” and “Jethro,” irreverently riffs on male entitlement in “Friend Zone,” and establishes his geek credentials in the reference-heavy ode-to-Japan “Tokyo,” all within a 51-minute span. The aforementioned “Show You the Way,” featuring vocals from yacht rockers Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, is a buttery love jam that is absolutely dripping with an ironic-but-not-totally-ironic adoration of its guest singers. There’s so much diversity in the influences at play here that one can’t help but appreciate just how dialed in to music history and culture Bruner really is. In many ways, he comes across as a Questlove for the Millennial generation, one whose nostalgic musings about Dragon Ball Z and Mortal Kombat are instantly identifiable for those who came of age in the ‘90s and early ‘00s.
Every instrument has its limits, however, and if Drunk has one glaring issue, it’s that Bruner tends to hover aesthetically around his comfort zone of space funk. It’s clear that he’s having fun on this album, but is he truly challenging himself, or his audience for that matter? Occasionally he strays, as is the case with the urgent string section of “Inferno” that glides over the somewhat ominous, slightly discordant funk jam churning in its shadow. But for the most part, though Drunk is many great things, risky is not necessarily one of them.
Drunk feels a lot like a victory lap for Bruner, relatively fresh from his Grammy win last year for his participation in “These Walls” by Kendrick Lamar. He’s got something of a Midas touch, adding a kaleidoscopic surrealism to albums like Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma and providing a stout, unerring backbone to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Drunk is solid gold too, even if it doesn’t necessarily show us a new side of Thundercat. Bruner is talented enough to where his own musical amusement never comes at the expense of musical density. Drunk is as accessible as it is layered, an album that demands as much respect from its listener as it does repeat listens.