Them Changes: Thundercat's No Longer Your Behind-The-Scenes Bass Man
“I’m not a star. I’m just backing up the cats.” – Jaco Pastorius
Next month, Stephen Bruner, better known to most as Thundercat, will release his third full-length studio album. It’s a moment to celebrate, no doubt. This is the kid that jumped from Suicidal Tendencies to Sa-Ra Creative Partners without batting an eye, laid foundational grooves for Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, Childish Gambino and just about anyone playing left-field in r&b, hip-hop or beyond. Two and a half records (and a good grip of assists) in, the middle Bruner brother has little, if anything, left to prove.
So why does this feel like such a decisive moment?
Sitting with Anderson .Paak (fellow Sa-Ra alum) during a recent OTHERtone Radio interview, Pharrell‘s demeanor wreaked of restrained elation when referencing Bruner’s talents, eventually erupting into an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Them Changes” with the Malibu man. So maybe it’s the dream-come-true component at work. The payout on nearly two decades of converting music royalty into devoted stans, on becoming a lifelong peer and labelmate of legends like George Clinton, on joining in the bass-toting lineage of other low-end-specialists-turned-revered-frontmen (Pastorius, Mingus, Clarke and the like.) Bruner radiates with that same “fuck it” glow, a creative bravery and agency earned by only music’s top-shelf, illuminating new paths, melodies and rhythms; all uniquely his own.
Oddly enough, though the respective angles of approach differ, Bruner shares as strong a thread with The Neptunes producer as he does Dr. Funkenstein. Sure, they’ve been reliable sources for the resident Brainfeeder bass man, but its their ability to develop expansive, instant-recall palettes of sounds and textures that’s helped define respective eras. If the lines between jazz, pop, r&b and hip-hop seem grey and antiquated in 2017, it’s almost entirely his fault. And we’re not mad. When an influential musician gets to live out his music nerd fantasies it means something in the universe is still good, decent and entirely reasonable. These are the moments that prove merit in diligent, focused work, that allow some of the most mocked musicians of the 80s to regain their cool with the help of a Dragon Ball Z fanatic, that help us realize why they’re the deepest, guiltiest pleasures of our favorite artists.
Whether it amounts to yacht rock’s resurrection or a bold leap into unpracticed sonic spaces, Drunk, in principle alone, marks a clear pivot from behind-the-scenes bohemian to fret-slapping frontman, backed and emboldened by generation-spanning geniuses. All pillars in their own right. All swigging Bruner’s jazz-spiked alchemy.