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Back Tracks: Moving back in space and time with bassist Thundercat

Thundercats poses with his Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the The 58th GRAMMY Awards in 2016. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

 

Back Tracks is a weekly music column that studies the past, revisiting tunes that may be old but still resonate today.

Earlier this week I was complaining about how it took me almost two months to find my first standout album of 2017. Others hearing my complaints alerted me that I should slow my roll because it is only March, and as the weather gets warmer, the music gets better.

But for some reason, the weather in Ohio has been undeservedly kind, and there is one new release that highlighted the unusual T-shirt temperatures in February. It is Thundercat’s “Drunk!” and it’s nearly an hour of extremely blissful chaos.

When describing Thundercat’s — whose real name is Stephen Bruner— place in the realm of popular culture, it is easiest to start with his spacey bass in Kendrick Lamar’s jazzy “To Pimp a Butterfly.” However, he has been slapping the bass and projecting his oozing voice for the likes of Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus and Suicidal Tendencies for nearly two decades.

When Pitchfork reviewed “Drunk!” this past week, the critic mentioned how Thundercat’s previous two albums echoed his thoughts on the inevitability of death. However, his most recent album is not reflective of that mindset — it is a relaxing, dreamy paradise. Below are some other funky tunes Thundercat had a hand in that can lift your spirits during a hopefully peaceful spring break.

“These Walls” by Kendrick Lamar featuring Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat (2015)

Speaking of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” from the album’s start, Lamar recruits one of the inventors of the P-Funk genre, George Clinton, and Thundercat for the scathing odyssey “Wesley’s Theory,” one of two tracks Thundercat is credited on.

The other cut, “These Walls,” won a Grammy.

“These Walls” is a song that stands out in Kendrick’s discography, as it’s one of his only love songs. It even won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, proving again that Lamar is one of the most versatile rappers in modern music.

It touches on themes of love and racism, while beautifully alluding to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” as Kendrick is introducing the track. As for Thundercat’s contributions, he provides background vocals for a heaven-sent hook including Bilal and Anna Wise and a bassline that can get people dancing just like an MJ jam. There is a lot going on in “These Walls,” and as Thundercat tends to do best, he blends in with his collaborators.

“In the Morning” by Mac Miller featuring Syd and Thundercat (2013)

I ooze with jealousy whenever anyone mentions to me that they attended Mac Miller’s The Space Migration tour. Earl Sweatshirt, Chance the Rapper, The Internet and Vince Staples — just to name a few — joined Miller following his acclaimed 2013 tour in support of his departure from the pop realm with “Watching Movies with the Sound Off.”

Although I have only read and heard secondhand about the way-out atmosphere Miller’s tour provided, the Pittsburgh-based rapper did release nine live recordings as “Live from Space.” The final five tracks were an extra treat for fans — a victory lap of wavy songs that did not make the cut for “WMWTSO.” The dreamy outro track, “In the Morning,” features Thundercat and Miller’s backing band for the tour, The Internet.

Miller’s laid-back flow glides over The Internet’s smooth style, while The Internet’s frontwoman darling, Syd, morphs with Thundercat’s suave voice for a melodic male-female contrast. As the backing music starts to fade away, Thundercat moves flawlessly with his bass for the final 90 seconds of the album, slowly navigating up and down into a blissful exit. This bass performance is a show stealer, even if Thundercat did not want it to be.

“II. Shadows” by Childish Gambino (2013)

Maybe this should have served as the world’s warning of the direction Childish Gambino was going to go, with his third studio album “‘Awaken, My Love!’” “II. Shadows” is the grooviest movement on “Because the Internet” and Thundercat’s high tempo, chaotic chords at the song’s beginning give way for Gambino to grace listeners with his impassioned singing.

The fast-paced groove that Thundercat creates for Gambino sets up longtime Gambino producer Ludwig Goransson for an epic final minute with brash drums and emphatic singing from Gambino that emulates a melting feeling. Songs featuring Thundercat end up going in many directions.

A staple of Thundercat’s music is, well, cats meowing. Faintly at the end of “II. Shadows,” you can hear some felines crying — just another one of Bruner’s classic footprints left behind while collaborating with a musician on the same weird wavelength.

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