Since releasing his 2011 debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse, Thundercat has grown into his own as a solo artist. His forthcoming release, It Is What It Is, is a testament to that. The talented bassist continues to expand on his jazz-leaning music and further cement himself as one of music’s most fascinating artists.
But just as important as his solo work is the work he has done for other artists. At this point, Thundercat has a distinct sound that functions similarly to a producer tag. Sure, it’s more subtle than “Tay Keith, fuck these niggas up.” But when Thundercat is on a track, best believe that he, too, is fucking niggas up the best way he knows how to — through his six-string bass.
Thundercat’s bass playing is featured throughout many, many songs from an array of artists. Erykah Badu, Danny Brown, Childish Gambino, John Legend, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, N.E.R.D, his late, beloved friend, Mac Miller — the roster of artists Thundercat has recorded bass for is a testament to his undeniable talent. He’s your favorite musician’s favorite bass player for a reason: the guy who gave the world “Them Changes,” and can seemingly play bass for any song given to him.
So, in honor of Thundercat and his virtuosic bass-playing, Okayplayer is highlighting his 15 best bass features.
Before finally releasing a full body of work, it seemed as if all of Jay Electronica’s music was going to be loosies, which happens to include this track produced by Sa-Ra Creative Partners. The rapper is clearly comfortable in the group’s future funk world, the fuzzed-out synths and other experimental sounds a fitting companion for Electronica’s cryptic and conspiracy-leaning raps. Here, Thundercat’s signature bass sound is like glue: the adhesive that keeps the surreal union of Sa-Ra and Electronica together. (Just listen to the instrumental and you’ll understand.) Sa-Ra challenged, cultivated, and encouraged Thundercat’s musical identity. Through them, the bass player ended up on tracks for John Legend and Erykah Badu. “Love Czars II” serves as a reminder of that foundation, while foreshadowing how malleable the bassist could make himself to other artists’ music. — Elijah Watson
Featured on the 2017 album Aromanticism, Moses Sumney’s “Lonely World” finds the singer questioning his existential purpose, as Thundercat cushions the dreamy and minimal track with lush instrumentation. Its trippy opening is fitting for Thundercat’s intricate string pluckings, a highlight alongside Sumney’s distinct and haunting falsetto. In the music video for “Lonely World,” Sumney attempts to rescue a mermaid washed ashore. But they soon become submerged together. — Jaelani Turner-Williams
As the intro for her 2018 debut album Isolation, “Body Language” is driven by Thundercat’s bossa nova bassline, making for a track that is mysterious, seductive, and sultry. Along with bass and guitar, Thundercat even took the reigns on the track’s drums, the end result is a subdued but captivating opener that offers a sample of the genres Uchis dabbled in for Isolation. — JT
The first sound you hear from this track comes courtesy of Thundercat. Taken from TiRon & Ayomari’s 2011 album A Sucker For Pumps, “If I Had You” is a standout because of its lively and upbeat production (courtesy of the production team D.R.U.G.S., which was co-founded by Ty Dolla $ign). There are bits of strummed guitar and keys, layered horns (including a trumpet solo), and, of course, Thundercat’s bass throughout. “If I Had You” is arguably a Thundercat deep cut: yet another track that shows his undeniable talent and even gives him his own break to showcase that, too. — EW
Following the ambient distortion of Souled Out‘s opening track “Limbo Limbo Limbo,” the singer rediscovers herself through guitar-led affirmations on “W.A.Y.S.” Both L.A. natives, Thundercat was featured on Aiko’s 2014 debut album just one year after releasing his sophomore album, Apocalypse. Toward the end of the track, Thundercat is given room for a breakdown, while Aiko pays tribute to her deceased brother, Miyagi. — JT
“Negro Spiritual” highlights Thundercat’s ability to basically build a whole beat on his own. The track begins with one Thundercat bassline, only to then become three separate basslines working in tandem. It’s such a subtle but rewarding listening experience, the lines smoothly layered atop each other and giving the track an intensity that compliments Danny Brown’s animated vocal delivery. Brown has always been experimental with his beat choices, and it’s incredible to see him keep up with one of the busiest basslines Thundercat has created in recent history. — EW
Terrace Martin‘s 2016 album Velvet Portraits continued his homage to the West Coast, while making the case for LA leading the pack in new-age jazz. It was only right that the multi-instrumentalist was joined by Robert Glasper, Thundercat and HIS brother — drummer Robert Bruner Jr. — for “Curly Martin,” one of the album’s standout songs. If the outro to the track sounds familiar, that’s because it was sampled on To Pimp A Butterfly‘s “The Blacker the Berry.” — JT
Dirty Computer‘s “Take A Byte” is a playful nod to the android theme Janelle Monáe has been building on since 2007’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP. In the track, Monae coyly teases her lover about not being the one to “take home to your mama,” and telling them “Your code is programmed not to love me but you can’t pretend.” Thundercat (along with fellow bassists Jon Jon Traxx and Nate “Rocket” Wonder) provide the backdrop for her feminist stance, the instrumentation an upbeat blend of funk and R&B that would’ve made Prince proud. In the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” Monae released to accompany the album, Jane 57821 — her android — leads a digital revolution that’s soundtracked by “Take A Byte.” Unfortunately, as punishment for the act, this leads to her memory being erased. — JT
N.E.R.D has always served as the outlet for Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s more experimental musical tendencies, and this was no different for the band’s fifth album, No One Ever Really Dies. It came as no surprise when Pharrell listed the bands he was listening to for inspiration while making the album: Devo, Gang of Four, Talking Heads. Their new wave and post-punk influence could be heard throughout the album, but especially on “Deep Down Body Thurst.” There’s a new wave feel to the track, and Thundercat adds to that feel in such a subtle but important way. Just listen for the bassline during the song’s chorus, which comes and goes in an instant. Thundercat’s playing is so fast that, like “II. Shadows,” you’ll wish there were video to see how he even pulls it off. — EW
Before he became established as a solo act, Thundercat was known for his credits on Erykah Badu’s 2008 comeback album, New Amerykah Part, 1: 4th World War. The album came as a surprise to longtime Badu fans, who noticed themes of political corruption, religion and drug use. “The Cell” — and its nods to 2Pac’s famous “Brenda’s Got A Baby” — tackled drug dependency, with Badu’s cool croon juxtaposed against Thundercat’s driving and energetic bass. That same year, he headed on the road with Badu for The Vortex World Tour. — JT
On Travis Scott’s long-awaited 2018 album ASTROWORLD, Thundercat appears on the aptly titled “ASTROTHUNDER” and warps Scott’s amusement park fantasy into dark psychedelia. With an accompanying guitar outro by John Mayer, the track added to Scott’s list of surprise features on the album, which included Drake, Swae Lee, Juice WRLD, Sheck Wes, Gunna and more. While “ASTROTHUNDER” hit #48 on the Billboard Hot 100 shortly after the album’s release. — JT
Cosmogramma, Flying Lotus’ third album (which turns 10 this year), is the first album he ever worked with Thundercat on. At this point, FlyLo and Thundercat are inseparable — it’s difficult to even fathom that the two once never knew each other, considering how pivotal they’ve been in each other’s musical growth. Cosmogramma foreshadowed just how special of a bond the pair would inevitably form, with Thundercat appearing throughout most of the album. But there’s something about “MmmHmm” that just sticks out. FlyLo’s electronic sounds and ambient noises are an ideal soundscape for Thundercat, the openness of the track allowing him to experiment with different basslines and sing, too. “MmmHmm” is the embodiment of the LA beat scene that was rising to prominence at the time, as well as a reminder of both FlyLo and Thundercat’s jazz backgrounds, and how the pair have reinterpreted the genre both together and through their respective solo careers. — EW
Just look at Thundercat’s fingers anytime the camera pans to him during this performance of “Shadows.” So effortless, fluid — it’s another busy bassline that Thundercat makes look so easy. Like “Negro Spiritual,” Thundercat also layers his parts in the album recording of “II. Shadows.” But what makes this feature notable is just how well it meshes with Donald Glover’s sung vocals. “Love me better, kiss me back, listen more,” hits a little harder with Thundercat’s bass backing it, the latter melody emphasizing the moodiness and melancholy of the former. — EW
t’s arguable that Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is his most revolutionary work. The album is a challenging but rewarding listening experience that, despite its heavy content, was driven by infectious and captivating grooves. Lamar banded together an army of album personnel that included jazz heavy hitters like Josef Leimburg, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. But the low-tempo jam session that is “These Walls” is perhaps the centerpiece of TPAB. Thundercat’s bass floats on the track, his lines firm, funky and grounded, as frequent collaborator Anna Wise and first-time feature Bilal engage in a cool call and response vocal delivery in the song’s chorus. “These Walls” went on to win Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards. — JT
“Window Seat” is a perfect song, on top of being one of Erykah Badu’s greatest songs ever. A part of that is because it has a dream duo rhythm section with Questlove on drums and Thundercat on bass. The pair are so in sync, making for a criminally smooth groove that Badu and pianist/keyboardist James Poyser coolly float over. This particular Thundercat appearance is great in how subdued it is. Those staccato notes that come during Badu’s verses, as well as how he punctuates his bassline during Badu’s chorus, add a subtle tension to the track as listeners anticipate when Thundercat will appear next. — EW
This story was originally published in 2020.
Elijah Watson is Okayplayer’s News and Culture Editor.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae
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