One of my favorite things is finding people I enjoy are involved in projects I enjoy. Like when I found out the voice of Doug Funny is also the voice of Fry from Futurama, or when I found out Conan O’Brian was a writer on The Simpsons years before becoming the carrot-quaffed host we all know. This happens every time I learn something new about Stephen Bruner. Bruner (better known by his alias Thundercat) has had his fingers in many of my favorite musical pies. As a bass virtuoso, his name appears in the credits of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, Eryka Badu’s New Ameryka (both parts), Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and appeared as producer in the latter two. At 15, he found minor European success in boy band No Curfew, and at 16 he played bass for the seminal Suicidal Tendencies. With a laundry list of assists such as this, it’s a wonder he has any time to produce original content. Luckily for us, he does.
This week, Thundercat has released a new “mini-album” entitled The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam. Co-produced by long time collaborator Flying Lotus, TB/WtGR clocks in at a bite sized six tracks. If you’re thinking the diminutive packaging is telling of the content, think again. In an interview with Billboard, Bruner discussed how the high volume of collaborations he’s been involved with generated a creative catalyst within him: “it was kind of like a by-product of everything that would be happening. I’d be exuding so much energy on Lotus’s album and Kendrick’s album — there was so much more output coming from me.” Though the track listing is shorter than one might hope for, constant collaboration clearly suits him. Even if Bruner’s ongoing musical bro-mance with Flying Lotus wasn’t common knowledge, his influence is heard throughout.
The album begins with a chilling chorus of Bruner’s frosty falsetto in “Hard Times.” A bright, nearly acapella dirge, the track acts as the threshold into another world, the precipice over which the roller coaster must eventually plummet. Two tracks later “Them Changes” (a track which has been spotted in many a live performance over the last couple months) features a noticable g-funk influence, which Bruner might have picked up from To Pimp a Butterfly, which applied loving dollops throughout. While the lyrics, at least for me, leave a bit to be desired, Bruner’s grasp on melody is undeniable. The longest song of the bunch, fourth track “Lone Wolf and Cub” is also the most ambitious. While his abilities as producer and vocalist are admirable, it’s really something special to hear Bruner at the bass. Like Primus but without the bad hair, and with the same amount of crazy clothing. Beginning with what sounds more like classical guitar than a bass, the song switches cadence half way through, from an ethereal, syncopated groove, to a fevered, lavish lapping of waves. Aided by Herbie Hancock on the keyboard, the track is ferocious as it is ambitious, a fire that’s reflected in the album as a whole.
Thundercat is one of those cats (no pun intended) that is always creating content, it just might not always be his own. Whether laying down grimy licks with Kendrick, cool vibes with Flying Lotus, or rich, textured grooves with the Young Jazz Giants (Kamasi Washington’s first group) Bruner has proven himself to be of the top caliber when it comes to creating content, and The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam is no different. This is an absolute must listen for fans of neo-soul, jazz, funk, or even hip hop. Though the barely 18-minute run time leaves me wanting more, that’s a success in itself.