This was the second of two albums Ras G cut for Brainfeeder — the rest of his career, tragically cut short by his death at age 40 in 2019, is best experienced through the myriad Raw Fruit beat tapes he cut for Matthewdavid’s Leaving Records. But if you want the most exciting initial foray into his sprawling, endlessly exploring discography, this is the way to go. Back on the Planet is an expansion on the foundation laid by predecessor Brotha From Anotha Planet that trusts you to have that album’s expansive free-beat complexity in mind and an urge to hear it taken even further out into the cosmos. It makes its most avant statement right out the gate, as though the dense, polyrhythmic tumult of its opening title cut is the storm before the calm — it really is a chaotic beast of a track, refusing to find a single groove and startling the listener with unpredictable possibilities as it wavers between tape-loop distortion and percussive barrages that feel more like tempests than beats. But the point’s not to overwhelm the listener — it’s to coax them, stoke their curiosity, then reveal the surprisingly familiar threads that run through the fabric of his sound. A Mikey Dread exclamation that positions the wonky bass-cannon wobble “Culture Riddim” as a reclamation of sub-frequency assaults in the name of dub, scenester shout-out “One 4 Kutmah” builds a gelatinous cathedral to analog filth over the same Black Sabbath drum break OutKast flipped for “Hootie Hoo,” and “Natural Melanin Being…” juxtaposes its Black-pride affirmations on top of a wavering-tempo psychedelic dirge drone that might sound sorrowful if it didn’t have the sense of revelation and beatific self-respect in its words. And no matter how avant-garde this album gets, it always sounds big — the kind of beats that took the scrambled clap/kick/snare concoctions of the L.A. beat scene’s more abstract corners and gave them the kind of window-rattling depth that felt fine-tuned for maximum lowrider impact.
The L.A. Beat Scene
Hip-hop and electronic dance music have never been all that distant from each other, or at least they never really needed to be. The electro squelches and 808 booms of early ’80s digital production, the “Amen” and “Funky Drummer” breaks of peak early sampling, the analog-synth ’70s nostalgia that permeated the ’90s, the dizzying post-genre crossovers of the Y2K cusp — this was all shared territory, and the longer it went on the less strange it seemed to imagine a world where you could draw from both New Order and Public Enemy, Goldie and RZA, Björk and Missy, until we somehow wound up at the point where Radiohead’s Thom Yorke wasn’t just talking up MF DOOM but actually remixing him. The idea that a scene would emerge that did for hip-hop what IDM did for techno wasn’t just out of the question — it actually felt overdue. And that’s what people should remember the L.A. beat scene for.
J Dilla’s passing in 2006 was a tragedy that also became a catalyst: the Detroit-native hip-hop legend had found a new livelihood in Los Angeles and was not just creating some of his most revered work there, but spurring every bedroom beatmaker in a 50 mile radius to try and figure out what made his sounds tick. And while the broader Stones Throw coalition Dilla had joined would sustain SoCal’s more experimental and uninhibited beat geeks for the bulk of the decade, it was just a matter of time for a next phase to emerge — one that was increasingly willing to cross-pollinate with the artform-advancing yet crowdpleasing developments in electronic dance. The more adventurous heads were mixing in Warp and Hyperdub with their Stones Throw and Definitive Jux, and there was a groundswell of low-budget DIY bedroom producers who did a lot of their cratedigging digitally and were more interested in being post-genre explorers than industry cogs. They just needed an epicenter.
By the mid 2000s, producer/engineer Kevin “Daddy Kev” Moo had built off an early career making some adventurous indie-rap records with Awol One, and would use his experience in the indie trenches to launch the indie label/distro Alpha Pup alongside his fiancé Danyell Jariel. Kev was no stranger to putting together genre-busting club nights — he spent a couple millennium-straddling years spinning a hip-hop/drum’n’bass fusion night at Silver Lake hotspot Spaceland — but the timing was ideal for this next phase, arriving as it did during a transitional period hungry for new styles. Kev started booking a recurring club night and brought in a few partners to help curate it: Edward Ma, better known as edIT from electro-dubstep bombdrop specialists Glitch Mob, Elvin Estela, who’d cut a few remarkable psych-hop albums as Nobody, James McCall, better known as acerbic freestyle-wizard rapper Nocando, and William Bensussen, whose alias The Gaslamp Killer was inspired by his tendency to play stuff too intensely heavy for his hometown San Diego club crowd. Eight months after Dilla’s passing, that new club night took off: hosted in Lincoln Heights venue The Airliner and dubbed Low End Theory, a nod to A Tribe Called Quest that was also a signifier of this scene’s jazz-hop aspirations, it would soon become one of the most influential incubators of cutting-edge beat music on the entire West Coast. That influence would then spread internationally with an internet-fueled rapidity, until it stood as one of the most recognizable era-defining creative outlets of the 2010s. (edIT would bow out after a year with no hard feelings, but his replacement, veteran turntablist D-Styles, would step in to cultivate some of the LET’s more eclectically versatile angles.)
The very same month the first Low End Theory went down also saw the release of a relatively low-key release on the L.A.-based avant-beat Plug Research label — 1983, the debut album by an ambitious young art and film student whose great-aunt just so happened to be spiritual jazz titan Alice Coltrane. On that album, Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, would initially come across like the sum of his influences — not just Dilla, but other fixtures of the burgeoning L.A. beat scene like Daedelus and the aforementioned Nobody. But like the Good Life Cafe and Project Blowed did for rappers, there was something about the way Low End Theory and its attendant community inspired a sort of fearless collaborative-competitive freedom in its beatmakers. And by the 2008 release of the epochal Los Angeles on IDM stronghold Warp, FlyLo had become something of a nascent standardbearer— one with enough pull to establish his own label Brainfeeder that year and enough connections to populate it with a roster that practically embodied nearly the entirety of the L.A. beat scene: beatmaker peers like Teebs and Samiyam, jazz musicians ranging from fusion futurist Thundercat to spiritual-jazz star Kamasi Washington, and a number of likeminded international names like Dutch-born jungle/dubstep/techno hybridizer Martyn and French filmmaker/musician/grotesquerie enthusiast Quentin Dupieux (a/k/a Mr. Oizo).
Now if “beat scene” seems like an extremely vague way to describe a musical movement, that’s by design. The big revolution here was to be as genre-agnostic as possible: since a versatile, affordable software suite and a near-limitless amount of instantly-accessible internet source material could spark an almost inexhaustible possibility for inspiration, there was a sense that the only real limitations or parameters for the music were contingent on how much and in which ways you wanted the subwoofers to tremble. Hip-hop and electronic dance music both held deep traditions of musical transmutation and the ability to swing wildly between lo-fi abstraction and big-room directness without losing its essential drive. And a generation that had grown up recognizing the potential of these tendencies through labels like Ninja Tune or publications like Urb was more than ready to live up to the promise. Low End Theory hosted Beat Invitationals that helped emerging producers find their sound, not just by encompassing everything from the chiptune bleep-bap of Dibia$e to the cosmic Afrofuturism of Ras G and the spacious depth of Nosaj Thing’s excursions, but motivating them to go as deep and far-flung outside those parameters as they wanted.
More labels would thrive — Friends of Friends, Hit+Run, and Leaving Records all put out their first releases in 2009, while Plug Research would hit its stride off the momentum of an avant-beat groundswell that the label’s founding had anticipated for over a decade. And the tastemakers didn’t take long to notice. The Low End Theory was ahead of the curve in the podcast game, bringing their corner of L.A. to the international masses starting in 2009 and building enough of a rep to get noticed by key UK beat-music curator Mary Anne Hobbs. It wasn’t long before Low End Theory was the kind of place where Thom Yorke could show up to spin records or the up-and-coming Odd Future collective could run rampant at the early peak of their intensely anarchic notoriety. Everything felt deeply unpredictable, yet it cohered into something special — a laboratory where every experiment felt like a successful finished product, and sent an intense energy into a crowd that was just as willing to mosh to this stuff as they were to head-nod or zone out.
It couldn’t last for two significant reasons. The more serious and tragic one was an incident that cast a pall over the entire community: in 2017, Bensussen was accused of sexual assault, and though the ensuing legal back-and-forth between him and his accuser was eventually settled out-of-court under the mutual agreement that the accusations couldn’t be fully verified, the whole scenario made it feel like the scene’s positive energy had been irrevocably lost. It left a deep scar on a movement that had previously felt not just safe but welcoming to people from all walks of life, and the aftershocks led to a noticeable drop in attendance at Low End Theory that was impossible to ignore. But while that was reason enough for the night to close its doors in 2018 after 12 years of legacy-building work, there was also the underlying sense of accomplishment they’d already experienced. The musical innovations the L.A. beat scene brought into the world were now a permanent fixture of beat-driven production, free to exist on their own and earn mainstream respect — the kind of respect that gets you in good with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre, wins you Grammys, and stokes the curiosity of icons from Erykah Badu to Prince. But even as the heyday recedes into the rearview, there will always be glimpses of the strange, ideal world it first promised, new frontiers to experience and new generations to pass the ideas down to. This music is made to encouragingly startle you into new ways of hearing bass and kicks, and to pull you into the power of a space where repping your favorite genre doesn’t matter as much as transcending that need in the first place — all because there’s this community out there just waiting to find the most unpredictable connections between your head and your feet.
The musical possibility of noise always felt like a significant facet to the L.A. beat scene’s experimental tendencies — a fascination rooted in the lo-fi qualities of early sample-based hip-hop, the glitchy sparks thrown by IDM producers pushing the limits of their software, and the hazy Maxell filter through which this generation of artists remembered the past. Henry Laufer embraced these possibilities in his music when he was barely out of his teens, and maybe that’s why his debut Bad Vibes has a sense of post-adolescent but still youthful mood-swing unsettledness to go with its textural take on abstract beats. It’ll lull you into a feeling of relaxed, meditative warmth at first; field recording-esque opener “Big Feelings” and the Voodoo D’Angelo-as-ether-frolic lead single “Places” use their ambient hiss and haze to bolster laconically skittering beats that might otherwise recede into the background while the basslines carry all the weight. But the vibe shift, while survivable, is something of an emotional ambush. “It Was Whatever” creeps in like a half-remembered astral-jazz patchwork of Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” and uses its deep reverb to play up an ambivalent melancholy. And that carries through to “Parties” — a Burial-sparse yet tension-escalating downtempo ambient-bass cut which sounds like the opposite of its title, the fidgety isolation of someone observing a rager from a distance and deciding they’d have a bad time if they went. And while Bad Vibes lets some moments of solace into its slow-burn titular conceit — you could be tricked into thinking “Just Us” and its wordless-sigh gaze into a tinkly, delicately bouncy electric piano landscape is actually romantic — its back half shifts from Soulquarian Ambient Works to a smear of clenched-jaw shoegaze atmosphere that ranges from dissasociatively psychedelic (“I Can’t See You I’m Dead”) to metal-shredding drone (“Trapped in a Burning House”) to the kind of sludgy, nightmarish trip-hop that sounds like Mezzanine blown up until you see all the artifacting (“Your Stupid Face”) before it all crumbles to the ground and you’re left quietly combing through the debris (“Seriously”). Maybe that’s why “Same Time,” the breath-catching, glitch-beat and guitar-strumming comedown, sounds like the most startling way to end the album: Shlohmo’s put you through a lot to get back to the state you felt at the start of the record.
The most prominent Low End Theory alumni tended to make music that was bass-heavy, rhythmically dense, and overall weighty enough to turn soundsystems into tactile experiences. Mtendere Mandowa, b/k/a Teebs, took a different approach for his first album: keep the groove at the center, but keep it restless, give it some open air, and let the negative space speak just as loudly as other songs’ full-bore walls of sound did. And while expressions of uncynical, astral-traveller beauty weren’t uncommon in the scene, Ardour basked in that feeling in the process of shaping up to be one of the L.A. beat scene’s peak works of serene tranquility. Melodic elements tend to be heavy on delicate-yet-resilient tones — chimes, harps, pianos, even acoustic guitar on “Bern Rhythm” — and gliding drones that both complement and obscure their edges. The state of calm that atmosphere provides means it takes a little deep focus to find the complexity in the beats, though once that sense of loop-warping fidgety groove sets in it’s hard not to hear — the deliberate seam-ripping disjointedness of “Felt Tip” and the elliptical kick-snare patterns on “Moments” are just the most noticeable. In some ways, Ardour feels like an album that was grown instead of composed: sounds that were planted, cultivated, then left to bloom into a natural state that would eventually feel like its own little thriving musical ecosystem.
If Sun Ra became a giant of avant-garde jazz by refusing to separate the sides of him that loved Fats Waller and Karlheinz Stockhausen, the closest he got to an heir in L.A.’s beat scene worked through the cratedigger equivalent of that perspective. Ras G’s music was unremittingly cosmic and psychedelic, but in ways that wouldn’t seem too far-flung to anyone mainlining contemporaneous Madlib beat tapes — a tricky balance that avoided both confrontational noise and locked-groove simplicity by ignoring the firmament between head-trip and body-moving music. That’s not to say that this stuff is basic, and the journeys individual tracks can take can be staggering in themselves — the way the wow-and-flutter prelude of “Earthly Matters” congeals into an off-kilter boom-bap that simultaneously jousts at primordial late ’70s DJ scratch routines and post-Dilla tempo-upending abstraction, or the audacity of cuts like the shivering rumble of “Shinelight” and the screwed-and-chopped wooziness of “Desert Fairy” that use a combination of vintage synths and balance-disrupting rhythms to capture a potent sense of graceful disorientation. Whatever headspace this music wants to take you is something you have to meet halfway, though the stray voices and phrases that permeate the ether — the repetition of the statement “we’re vulnerable” in the brief Janet Jackson-via-Steve Reich glitch meditation “Penny’s Confession,” the garbled dialogue in “Shinelight” that alludes to the fear of exploring the unknown, the opening statement of “Sun Behind the Clouds” that music “can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of people” — reinforce that it’s both intimidating and thrilling for instrumental hip-hop’s this could come from anywhere potential to go places you didn’t expect to be taken.
The same year Flying Lotus unleashed Los Angeles on the world and made everyone East of SoCal start taking notice of the scene that cultivated it, one of his veteran peers put out a frantic, breathtaking live-set mix from the epicenter of it all. Daedelus had been putting out records years before most people had even thought to ask what if J Dilla but also Squarepusher, and by the time the producer was given the enviable task of bringing the Low End Theory’s restless energy into record stores they’d built a body of work that seemed to operate in defiance of anything you’d want to call a genre. Live at Low End Theory is technically a dance record, but more as an impetus than a category; its relentless rhythmic weight seems to have the same relationship to what people recognize today as “the L.A. beat scene” as David Mancuso’s early ’70s Loft psych-into-soul-into-jazz sets had with what would later be called disco. In other words, it’s a progenitor that doesn’t instantly evoke the big moves, but digs at the roots to find the more idiosyncratic and personal tendencies: an opener (“Put A Spell”) that drops Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ most famous exhortation over a track that mutates from 808 State’s Pacific ambience to emphatically unpredictable post-d’n’b breaks, hammer-blow fusions of piano house and boogie-funk/electro that bang harder than the most shameless big-room techno (“Disco, Disco, Disco”), and a couple manic cuts (“Break Some Hearts”; “Rest in Peace”) that run their classic funk and soul sources through a hyperactive breakcore gauntlet worthy of Kid606 and Jason Forrest. Best of all, there’s plenty of room for inventive silliness in all that forceful drive: one manic stretch — running from the perky ’20s Disney piano jazz goof “Play It Again” through glimmering sprint “Now’s the Time,” the sunshine pop-laced “Say Yes,” and the easy-listening string section subversions of “Arouse Suspicion” — proves you can get away with a lot if you’ve got the kind of ultra-propulsive beats beneath that leave no inch of the body uncovered by sweat.
Jennifer Lee’s career as TOKiMONSTA tends to be dominated by one big story: her career-jeopardizing brush with a brain condition in 2015 that temporarily left her unable to comprehend music, then using her recovery time to record Lune Rouge — which subsequently notched a Best Dance/Electronic Album Grammy nomination in 2017. But before that strange turn of fate, before her collaborations with Anderson .Paak or her remixes for the likes of Beck and Duran Duran or her gig co-hosting the last ever Low End Theory in 2018, her debut full-length Midnight Menu made her a more-than-worthy pillar of the L.A. beat scene. As much as that milieu was defined by its more adventurously weird glitch/IDM/dance fusionists, TOKiMONSTA’s music here is more straight to the point — a melange of ’70s and ’80s funk, disco, and electro molded into forms that couldn’t really exist until the 2010s. And she’s not afraid to lift from recognizable sounds in part because she takes joy in finding that they still have the power to surprise. Peaches & Herb’s “Shake Your Groove Thing” is closer to wedding-dance fodder than a deep-crate pull, but the way “Death By Disco” slows its familiar riff down just enough to dial back its frenetic energy for something a bit slinkier and percussively nuanced should’ve made her the envy of anyone trafficking in balearic beats. “Gamble” is Philadelphia International romantic balladry as glimpsed through a lava lamp, boosting its billowy glide with the kind of dense, rolling boom-clap beats perfect for when the head you want to nod is feeling lighter than usual. And on some of the most effervescent tracks on Midnight Menu — the patchcord-tangling vintage-synth boogie of “Look-A-Like,” the woozily upscaled ’64 Motown torch-song soul of Shuanise feature “Solitary Joy,” the viscous, bristling-yet-warm analog funk iridescence of “Lucid Waking” — she makes her studious eclecticism seem like spontaneous second nature.
After landing a gig making bumper music for [adult swim] and building off that for a half-formed sketchbook-quality debut in 1983, Steven Ellison’s ambitions and visions would rapidly crystallize once he got comfortable with the idea that he was part of something bigger than just himself. And that something bigger wound up being ideally represented by his work nonetheless. The early years of the L.A. beat scene his work thrived in feels embodied by this album, from the titles (Los Angeles as epicenter, opening cut “Brainfeeder” as a future vanguard label) to the affiliations (co-producers included scene pillars Gaslamp Killer, MatthewDavid and Samiyam) to the sound itself. The concept of a hip-hop-indebted, jazz-inflected take on IDM (or was it jazzy, IDM-textured hip-hop?) would catch fire on Los Angeles, a savvy triangulation of Boards of Canada’s hypnagogic ghostliness, J Dilla’s rhythmic complexity, and his own Coltrane-family ties (“Auntie’s Harp” samples Alice’s “Galaxy in Turyia”) that represented a new cult-niche version of what constituted “fusion.” And while FlyLo’s Afrofuturist conceptual breadth would expand drastically over the years, that just makes the this is what I do statements on this sophomore album feel like a confident long stride towards a new vanguard. Its highlights are already diffuse enough to , not just in style but in mood and texture. Lo-fi ambience and tape-hiss noise mingle with pristine bassliness, while vibes shift from tide-tossed free-floating drifts through hyperneo-soul (“RobertaFlack”) to intercontinentally cosmic Bollywood dub-funk (“GNG BNG”) to joint-dislocating junkyard disco (“Parisian Goldfish”). Los Angeles is a breakthrough for its creator and the scene it popularized, but it doesn’t take hindsight to hear why: the way it mixes club music’s speaker-booming directness, glitch’s tactile unpredictability, and the serene tonal exploration of ambient music is mutably beautiful.
Steven Ellison breaks big with his Brakhage-of-sound mix of spiritual free jazz, raw-knuckled glitch, manic fusion, and rule-agnostic hip-hop that converge to waylay you with rhythmic ingenuity. And then, just as you’re getting immersed in the beat, a weasel-chase bass run or an incredible melting synthesizer or a sample soaked in ectoplasm ups the bliss-haze unreality. Collaborators from famous friends (Thom Yorke as living breathing Burial vocal) to longtime partners (Thundercat in Bass God mode) to deep-time echoes (the spectral influence of his Auntie Alice Coltrane) make FlyLo’s out-of-body experiences feel intensely weighted.
Cosmogramma was such a blisteringly intense and thrilling expansion of everything Flying Lotus had done on Los Angeles that the how do you top that questions dogged the prospect of his next album. But of course his answer to that question is I don’t: Until the Quiet Comes is, while not exactly a retreat from his more frenetic and intense tendencies as a hip-hop/IDM fusionist, definitely suffused with a bit more breathing room. He’d take an angle of (relative) restraint and calm here, a fading-high serenity where almost every melodic flourish feels like fragile crystals melting out your speakers, only to shatter once they hit the floor. The appeal is a little more slippery than his other, more audacious albums, but it’s a cumulative effect that oddly makes it feel like a good entry point for the uninitiated. In part that’s because it’s front-loaded with tracks that capture his essence — groove-minded but elastic (the soul-motorik glimmer of opener “All In”); treating texture as crucially as he does melody (the crumbling percussive goop of “Tiny Tortures”), able to shift from lighthearted silliness to resonant beauty like it’s no big deal (the chirpy, elfin analog bounce of “Putty Boy Strut”) — in ways that feel back-to-basics without coming across as overly simplified. And this regrouping isn’t just in the service of calming down: the extra space gives Thundercat, who plays bass on half the album’s tracks, plenty of opportunity for him to flex his melodic-run chops, which infuse the title cut with an undulating waviness and give Erykah Badu a plush backdrop to turn her voice into a glowing sunset haze on “See Thru to U.” Until the Quiet Comes is also one of the best ways to remember the scene’s late, great Austin Peralta, whose rangy contributions here (“Until the Colours Come”; “All the Secrets”; “Sultan’s Request”) would put him at the forefront of next-gen jazz piano less than two months before he passed.
Jason Chung might have provided beats for some of the highest-profile rappers of his generation — he’s got credits on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, Kid Cudi’s A Kid Named Cudi, and a 2011 one-off with the cusp-of-legendary Section.80-era Kendrick Lamar — but one listen to Drift reinforces just how adventurous mainstream rap was willing to get just to arrive at that point. And coming as he does from a scene where hip-hop was a springboard for advanced hybridization instead of a revanchist-preservationist orthodoxy lets Nosaj Thing get his hands in all kinds of mechanical guts for his own work. At a place and time where 8-bit chiptune sounds were becoming common, “1685/Bach” doesn’t stop to coast off NES nostalgia, but finds the uncanny qualities of its warbly string-section approximations as a good way to warp Baroque classical music into Dilla-time headnod fodder. His take on the surging American adoption of dubstep finds a different form than the drop-anticipating wub-wubs that would take over the following decade, with “Light #1” and “#2” focusing not on the 2-step rhythms but the garish, joyful glow of the Kapsize/Night Slugs “purple” and future bass sounds of the decade’s changeover. That also goes for the lonely ambience that artists like Burial and Mala were exploring, which makes cuts like “Us” sound like inadvertent precursors to the sparser material those artists were doing ten years later. And some tracks just get their emotional hooks in you before you can even assign a genre to them; “IOIO” might recall some intangible melange of goth/prog/EBM/wonky signifiers but good luck sorting them all out before you give in to its overwhelming sense of vertigo instead. But Nosaj’s experimentation isn’t too avant-garde to grasp — in fact, its hooks are pretty immediate, and you can still find all the spaces and cues to find the beat and where you could fit inside it, whether you’re holding a mic or on the floor.
Stephen Bruner’s early career was a roller coaster of emotional tumult: while his first two albums featured the word Apocalypse in the title, the first (The Golden Age of Apocalypse) was a good-vibe iteration of all his formative influences as a Stanley Clarke/George Duke-enthused fusionist, and its just-plain-Apocalypse followup used that sound to explore the personal turmoil of confronting death in the wake of his good friend Austin Peralta’s passing. Drunk is where he seems to have come to terms with the heartbreaks and setbacks of life, and is working his way through the schlep of getting back to living it. He’s still upset about shit, but in ways that feel bittersweetly weird instead of melancholy. The sour boogie of the Mono/Poly-produced “Friend Zone” strips away all the risible incel rhetoric to get at the big ridiculous annoyance of a thwarted relationship so embittering that it sends you into an angry-gamer fugue state. (It’s also his peak as a singer; his wounded falsetto, multi-tracked into harmonic wonderment, contains one of the flat-out prettiest threats to throw someone in the garbage.) FlyLo collab “Them Changes” pulls off the chutzpah of going to the same Isleys “Footsteps in the Dark” well that Ice Cube did for its shiver-step drum break by turning Marvin’s bassline inside out and bringing in Kamasi Washington to sneak in a vibrant sax coda during the fadeout, all for the purpose of describing the loss of his heart. But that’s just the endpoint of a manic journey from monotony-breaking spontaneity and silliness (envying the life of his cat on “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”; going full otaku tourist in “Tokyo”), punctuated with moments of Apocalypse's reflective doubt (confrontations with death “Lava Lamp” and “Jethro”) before culminating in a mess of frustrated, intoxicated rumination that leaves the future looking a bit more cyclical than it should. Huge-name guests abound, but even when we experience the closest Pharrell has gotten to sounding like Marvin in beatific social-justice mode (“The Turn Down”) or the kind of conflicted Kendrick verse (“Walk on By”) that made him rap’s most formidable philosopher since Nas or an honest-to-god full-power dose of Michael McDonald/Kenny Loggins smoothness (“Show You the Way”), Thundercat’s careful balance of eclectic muso depth and shitposter absurdity is what keeps Drunk together, even when it feels ready to collapse from its own fast-moving spiral into intoxication.
The second album from Brainfeeder bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner takes the kinds of thematic obsessions usually glommed onto by internet tryhard geeks — gamer and anime and cat-owner jokes — and imbues them with a rhythmic-melodic slipperiness that ambushes you with The Feels just as much as his falsetto reckonings with mortality and ecstasy/mushroom mind-body divides do. It’s music that knows that noodling is silly, which is what makes it fun and thrilling when you’re good at it — and Thundercat is good at it, growing a beautiful garden in spilled bongwater.