hip-hop’s secret weapon takes center stage
Read up on Stephen Bruner, and it will quickly become apparent that he plays well with others. The man behind Thundercat is a true behind-the-scenes jack-of-all-trades—singing, playing bass, and producing for a list that includes Flying Lotus, Childish Gambino, Kamasi Washington, and Erykah Badu. His most high-profile work, however, is on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” the most critically acclaimed album of 2015 (as calculated by Metacritic). Bruner played bass on two tracks, produced three, and helped write five. His oversized, funky bass pushed out Kanye West, John Legend, and Nicki Minaj to win a Grammy for single “These Walls.”
Given these accolades for projects helmed by other artists, there’s a tendency to downplay Bruner’s career as Thundercat, which lacks the same celebrity name recognition. This is a huge mistake. Bruner’s three solo albums are both atmospheric and energetic (and, of course, available on Spotify). Bruner displays a musical fluency, both in his crate-digging and his mastery of the bass, that allows for deceptively intelligent play. There’s a seeming effortlessness that comes from knowing exactly what you’re doing, and he coasts on that feeling to infuse old-school funk and soul sounds with modern electronic instincts. His work is a knowledgeable, jazz-like meander through genres, turning up the energy with more traditional voice-centered tracks but mostly content to float melodically through. Some of his themes may be dark—take recent death-focused album “The Beyond / Where Giants Roam” and two “apocalypse” mentions in titles—but his work adds layers instead of slowing down, a melodic brood that switches between weighty and ethereal.
Bruner wields his bass less like a traditional background instrument and more like a weapon in its own right. This ranges from the ’70s squelch that propels tracks like recent single “Them Changes” to a laid-back but bold center line that forces songs to mold around it. Expect some epic bass solos, which I hope will be appreciated by a crowd not typically expecting technical mastery. His singing chops and multi-instrumental skills will also provide great moments for a more jam band-type performance if he chooses to go that route.
Thundercat albums can be so smooth and conducive to afternoon study sessions that it seems difficult to imagine him stirring up Spring Weekenders before Tinashe. His time slot early on Saturday afternoon, which I typically reserve for sitting under a tree far from the stage, may be the perfect setting for his chiller vibes. But tracks like blast-from-the-past “Oh Sheit It’s X” prove that Bruner can do dance-y, and the power of a full live band will give his set an extra boost.