The personal phonebook of Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner) contains more stars than a junior astronomer’s wallchart. He can pick up the phone up the likes of Erika Badhu, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamarr. He is a virtuoso bass player, producer, and hugely in demand at the moment in time. It would be wrong to consider him some kind of deluxe session man. Those in the know strongly suggest that Lamarr’s colossal hip-hop opus To Pimp a Butterfly would not have been the record it was without the input of Thundercat both as instrumentalist and a producer. He is a vibrant creative force unto himself and with Drunk, his third solo record. He has another opportunity to strut his stuff as singer, player and producer.
What we get with Drunk is something weird. Very weird. It is somewhere between a wild soul hybrid and a pure pastiche. It even veers into the jazz funk environment at points. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Let’s start with the cover; Thundercat is in a pond, his face is half submerged in the water – this odd comedic ferocity etched in his furrowed brow. Is he going down into the water to drown? Emerging from it? It sets the tone for an album that is difficult to grasp and confusing at points. ‘Captain Stupido’ offers us the lines: "I feel weird/comb your beard/brush your teeth/still feel weird/beat your meat/go to sleep" over a frazzled Bontempi organ backdrop which speeds and slows randomly. The track ends with snoring and farting. This is possibly the best song in the world if you are a 10-year-old boy. If you are not, it is plain irritating.
The structure of the record follows something akin to usual hip hop fare. A few bits of musical noodling or messing about and then something more akin to a full song. When the songs are allowed to come to the fore then there is some divine music on show here. ‘Bus In These Streets’ has this sun-bleached Bacharach feel to it complete with sparkly harmonies and chugging rhythms. This is followed by something even better in the shape of ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song II)’ with its languid drum loop overlaid with scratching, wah wah guitar and falsetto vocal proclaiming ‘It is cool to be a cat’. A Squeeze reference perhaps? ‘Friend Zone’, an appeal for stopping the game playing and getting jiggy with it, has a wonderful funky outer-space atmosphere going on, leaving somewhere between Funkadelic and early Prince - a captivating place to be. ‘Where I Am Going’ is reminiscent of the long shadows and isolated beats of DJ Shadow. The vocal sounds wounded, lonely, ‘Can you take me with you?’ Thundercat pleads. You know they have already gone.
It appears almost anything is possible in the altered world of Thundercat. Especially given some of the guests who pitch up to help out on Drunk. ‘Show You The Way’ sees Michael McDonald (of Warren G’s ‘Regulate’ sample fame, the original being his 1982 earnest adult soul hit ‘I Keep Forgettin (Every Time You are Near)’ and, er, Kenny Loggins. The song itself is pedestrian soul funk which may set the pulses racing on a Saga cruise but does little for the rest of us. But of course, this is Thundercat as the prankster. What a jolly wheeze to get McDonald and Loggins in the studio! Except it isn’t. It’s self-indulgent and smug. This is the gaping fault line in amongst some sublime musical moments. Nothing wears thin quite as quickly as musical humour. The first listen may raise a smile but repeated listens just lead you to realise that that joke isn’t funny anymore. Especially when the default musical tone is some kind of 70’s electro muzak. Some tracks bring to mind ‘Raw Sex’, the French and Saunders cabaret backing band which featured Rowland Rivron. Was that Thundercat’s plan? You can’t imagine it is was. Other guests pitch up - Kendrick Lamarr, Wiz Khalifa, Pharrell - in a curiously underwhelming fashion. Part of the joke or opportunities wasted? Who knows.
Drunk weighs at 50 minutes and you do wonder what kind of record could have been extracted from it with a bit of quality control and a lot less goofing around. Chop it down to say 35 minutes of material and you would have one of the albums of the year. Unfortunately, Thundercat too readily sabotages his tale and undermines it with lazy clichés passing as humour to leaving the record bloated and unfocused. It is a frustrating listen overall. Should you get Drunk? You may be saving yourself a headache if you don't.