There’s a certain something about jazz fusion. It slaps you hotly in the face with a single note, the sting spreading almost instantaneously. Before you know it, you’re spinning out — floating in a sonic whirlpool at the mercy of the maestro behind the beat.
I don’t remember how I met jazz, funk, or fusion. But I do remember that suddenly, they were everywhere — strewn across everything and impossible to scrub out. I was hopelessly hooked and always convinced that whoever was behind the sound was the coolest motherf*cker in any room.
And that’s exactly how I feel tonight pressing play on Thundercat’s new record, It Is What It Is. Sitting crisscross on the floor of a nearly empty new apartment, nursing a glass of whiskey, I close my eyes and Stephen Bruner calls out against the subtle atmospherics of “Lost in Space/Great Scott/22-26”: “Hi, hello/ Is anybody there?/ Let me know if you can hear me/ It feels so cold/ And so alone.” It’s the perfect introduction to the darkness that awaits listeners on Thundercat’s diaristic new disc, a perfectly timed kamayamaya to a gal holed up in a brand-new city, isolating with millions she’ll never meet or speak to as a pandemic ravages the globe (hey, It Is What It Is).
Above all else, it’s a crystalline example of Thundercat’s encapsulation of the ethos of funk music: finding the balance to being musically adept, conceptually wacky, and fiercely cognizant of the world around you — and the central pillar of jazz current day: freedom from convention. Thundercat starts when he wants to, ends when he wants to, is never compelled to rhyme because you think he should, or to fit into your traditional understanding of how a song should look or sound. It’s a beautifully constructed and haunting 38 minutes of tracks dealing with loss, fear, heartbreak, and acceptance that bleed into and all over each other.
Listening to a Thundercat record feels a lot like floating in a deep-space stream of magical realism on that Toonami ship from my childhood. You know the one. The sentiment goes beyond Bruner’s outspoken affection for anime. In so many ways, jazz and anime are cut from the same cloth, sailing along the same trajectory, bound to be stretched and skewed in the 21st century. When we sit down to listen to Thundercat, or when we turn on an episode of our favorite anime, we suspend our own realities and plant ourselves firmly in a fantasy world of sound or image with, if we’re lucky, just the right amount of cutting criticism of our own day to day. In the same way that the genres Thundercat embodies have pushed forward into a shrugging off of convention in the mainstream, so too has anime.
And, of course, anime has been preoccupied with jazz music for some time now. Some of it is batshit, but most of it is downright stirring. From being woven into the literal fabric of shows like Cowboy Bebop, to giving fans some of the best OSTs in series like Kids on the Slope, mainstream anime music has become so much more than the dizzying hits played out across dramatic fight scenes. At their very best, anime and jazz act as spirit guns for those of just looking for a little clarity and escape.
So, whether you’re looking to edify yourself in two genres with origins on opposite ends of the world but with more in common than you may have previously thought (there’s a metaphor here somewhere), or just in need of new ways to spend your time in quarantine, here’s a list of anime series that go hand in hand with Thundercat’s latest collection.
Click ahead to find six perfect pairings between anime and Thundercat’s latest releases…
Cowboy Bebop: “Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26” and “Innerstellar Love”
The first two tracks on Thundercat’s new disc take you from being “Lost in Space” to being propelled into purpose — into a song that lyrically and sonically deals with Thundercat’s symphonic come-up, working alongside saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his brother, drummer Ronald Brunner. It’s an unadulterated, bold brew of straight-up jazz.
For the uninitiated, Cowboy Bebop is a sci-fi western/noir about a ragtag group of intergalactic bounty hunters struggling to round up criminals in 2071’s newfangled gig economy. Created by Shinichiro Watanabe, the series is nothing short of a cult classic, rising in prominence worldwide in part because of its deft navigation of themes like ennui, loneliness, the urge to shake off the past, and the existential malaise that comes with just living. The other part, undeniable, is a corgi named Ein who was so unbelievably before his time.
The parallels to Thundercat’s work are bountiful (pun intended), but Watanabe’s masterpiece belongs here not only in theme but in execution. Bebop fans know well that the series was thrust forward by its masterful jazz soundtrack at the hands of the criminally underrated Yoko Kanno. Bold, rambunctious, and packed with blues and bossa nova, there may not be a better example of fusion than in the fabric of Bebop. And just like the style of jazz it pays homage to, Cowboy Bebop takes a razor blade to any preconceived notions of what anime could be.
Hunter x Hunter: “I Love Louis Cole (feat. Louis Cole)”
Having previously worked together on 2017’s Drunk, Thundercat has been forward in his praise of polymathic multi-instrumentalist Louis Cole (of KNOWER fame), calling him an inspiration and one of his favorite musicians: “I’m very grateful I get to hang out with a guy like Louis Cole. You know, just me punching a friend of his and falling asleep in his laundry basket.”
It’s the kind of bromance, one woven from unconditional loyalty, that brings to mind Hunter x Hunter’s Gon and Killua. Widely accepted as one of the greatest anime series to ever grace the screen, Yoshihiro Togashi’s original manga was adapted in 1999, produced by Nippon Animation and directed by Kazuhiro Furuhashi. Gon Freecs will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, but he could never do it alone. His endearing naivety and unchecked temper is perfectly offset by the cold realism, logical thinking, and cunning of his unlikely best friend, Killua. Only together can each character grow as an individual.
Afro Samurai: “Black Qualls”
The black community is sorely underrepresented in Japanese anime. It’s a pain point that makes writing this excerpt taste sour in this writer’s mouth. We need to do better. “Black Qualls” is a song about learning how to knock down the barriers we put up as a direct result of living in a country still so saturated in racism. It’s a song about accepting that it’s okay to be okay, to be vocal about being okay in a landscape that has conditioned one to feel the opposite.
Afro Samurai is a series inspired by Takashi Okazaki’s love of soul, hip-hop music, and American media. Set in feudal Japan (a pitch-perfect setting for the current state of American media, might I add), Samuel L. Jackson’s titular character is the second best swordsman in the world, hellbent on beating the first. Need I say more?
Dragonball Z: “Dragonball Durag”
Do you really need me to spell this out for you?
Your Lie in April: “Fair Chance” and “It Is What It Is”
Thundercat’s fourth record is looming with the loss of one of his best friends, the late great Mac Miller. “Fair Chance” sees him unite with Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B to explore that grief and pay direct homage to Miller.
Your Lie in April is perhaps the most gut-wrenching episodic content to come out of Japanese television in the last decade. Kōsei Arima is a piano prodigy rocked to the core by his mother’s death. His subsequent emotional breakdown causes him to no longer hear the sound of his instrument, and so he gives up playing until he meets Kaori Miyazono, a free-spirited violinist who helps him return to music. As their relationship grows, it’s rocked by untimely death, insatiable grief, and eventual acceptance.
Welcome to the NHK: “Existential Dread”
“Sometimes/ Existential dread comes ringing through loud and clear/ Others just/ Simply let it go/ I guess it is what it is.” There’s a lot of anime out there dealing with anxiety, depression, and coping mechanisms, but perhaps the most direct of them is Welcome to the NHK. Tatsuhiro Satō is a twentysomething unemployed recluse whose paranoid mental landscape is wrought with conspiracy theories about life’s hardships and the evils of broadcast media. Hits home, doesn’t it? As the story unfolds, we’re given a meditation on how everyone copes a little differently, and if you just keep going, well, one day you’ll be alright.
It’s a sentiment Thundercat repeats over and over in this short interlude, making NHK a fitting match.
You can hear Thundercat go Super Saiyan on his new record, It Is What It Is, below.