A virtuoso musician largely without peer, Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) here positions himself as a post-modern, 21st century R&B Frank Zappa for the millennial crowd. Rather than fully-realized songs in the traditional sense, Bruner delivers with Drunk a series of musical sketches ranging from the relatively straightforward to the intricately complex (see “Uh Uh” with its decidedly Zappa-esque flourishes). Depending on your attention span, this is either a godsend or a maddeningly scattershot approach to songwriting. Those in the former camp will likely praise Bruner for his free-wheeling compositional approach, flying through styles and ideas with the air of an ADHD-addled stoner unable to sleep. Consequently, the latter category of listener will find this approach to be less than satisfying, Bruner seemingly growing tired of an idea before having the chance to explore its potential fully.
So what to make of all this virtuosity and unbridled creativity? Drunk certainly offers plenty of intriguing ideas from one of contemporary music’s most unique voices. But it’s such a scattershot approach that it lacks the cohesion necessary to make Drunk a successful album. That said, as we currently exist in a largely post-album society in which music is consumed a la carte, this approach requires a near-complete disconnect from traditional ways of approaching music from a critical standpoint. Rather than viewing the work as a whole, it is better consumed piecemeal, analyzed and investigated on its individual, song-by-song merits.
To be sure, Bruner’s approach is one rooted in an esoteric R&B tradition designed to skewer and subvert the form, bending and reshaping it into something only tangentially resembling its source material. From Parliament/Funkadelic to Sly Stone (even electric-era Miles Davis, to whom he bears a passing resemblance on the album’s cover), all the way back to Esquerita and more, there have been R&B performers working outside the norm in a universe of their creation. Drunk affords a fully-realized view into Bruner’s version of this outsider tradition, complete with references to video games, drugs, masturbation, cats and seemingly anything else that crops up in his head at any one given moment.
And yet for all its esotericism, much of Drunk sounds virtually indistinguishable from the rest of itself. So invested in his idiosyncratic approach is Bruner here that instead of finding new and different ways in which to expound upon his creative vision, he spends more time than not refining many of the same ideas. Much of this is due to his reliance on his admittedly gorgeous falsetto vocals that sit roughly within the same range for long stretches throughout. It’s a pleasant enough sound when taken on its own—especially when coupled with his singular six-string bass sound—but viewed within the context of the whole, it tends to lose definition. In other words, his approach becomes so repetitiously polished and pristine that it loses the edges that once made his sound so unique. Bruner as Thundercat is an undeniable talent and vital contemporary voice, but this does not exempt his somewhat formulaic approach here from critique.
With so many ideas floating around, it can be hard to zero in on any one in particular on which to shine focus. At 23 tracks, few of which stretch beyond the three-minute mark, it’s Bruner’s equivalent of Zappa’s We’re Only in It for the Money, with ideas whipping by without offering much of a chance to fully process each. “Fragmented memories/sentences incomplete” he coos on “Walk on By”, at once commenting on his lyrical approach herein and seemingly playing it up for a bit of a laugh in its stunted approach to the language. On “Captain Stupido”, he lets the listener know he’s not feeling quite right, relying on the mantra of, “comb your beard/brush your teeth/beat your meat/go to sleep” just to get through the day.
Largely reliant on Bruner’s singular vision for the Thundercat sound as a whole, Drunk nevertheless brings in some heavy hitters in terms of guests to help further raise the album’s profile. From a rather subdued Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By”) to Wiz Kalifa (“Drink Dat”) and Pharrell (“The Turn Down”), much of Drunk remains rooted in a contemporary hip-hop/R&B framework both musically and stylistically. The one wild card and collaboration that will be remarked upon most is that of “Show You the Way,” featuring Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. And while both might be seen as something of a get for those enamored of AOR, there’s little to distinguish their actual contributions from the remainder of the album. In other words, even iconic vocalists like McDonald and Loggins are rendered largely faceless within Drunk’s idiosyncratic approach.
There are a handful of moments that stick out, however, chiefly among these the wickedly funky “Them Changes”. Released well in advance of Drunk, the song has come to define the sound of Thundercat firing on all cylinders creatively, musically and artistically. That it is not entirely in keeping with the album’s overall aesthetic is a bit of a letdown, given its level of quality. Coming as it does after the misogynistic “Friend Zone” only furthers emphasizes the glaring difference in quality and creative conception between a track like “Them Changes” and some of the lesser material that comes and goes with little fanfare.
As a whole, Drunk is alternately frustrating and fascinating—much like the titular state of being—in its willingness to follow its creative muse whenever and wherever it may lead. Given the hype surrounding Thundercat and the album as a whole, it will likely appear on a number of year-end best-of lists. But only time will tell if it’s truly as revelatory as others have made it out to seem or if it is simply the tip of what could well prove to be a far greater, more compelling iceberg waiting to come more fully into focus. Either way, Drunk is a welcome listen and sonic challenge from one of the more unique creative visionaries operating today. Here’s to hoping it’s just the start of an unpredictable ride from an artist capable of great prolificacy.
// Notes from the Road
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