Tracing Thundercat’s key evolutionary steps, from Suicidal Tendencies to Kendrick Lamar

Thundercat plays the Pearl on June 16.
Zoneil Maharaj

Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, might not be a household name, but many of the artists who call on him are. From playing in iconic thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and recording with R&B queen Erykah Badu to singing with Childish Gambino and being a driving force on Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, the 34-year-old bassist/singer/songwriter has become the industry’s go-to for groovy licks and funky, sonic visions. Before Thundercat hits the Pearl on June 16 as a supporting act on Anderson .Paak’s Best Teef in the Game Tour, here are a few essential gems from the dexterous musician’s impressive résumé.

Suicidal Tendencies, 13 (2013) Though the punk/metal band was formed before he was even born, Thundercat played a significant role in its storied history, joining while still in high school and touring from 2002 to 2011. His only studio album with Suicidal Tendencies was 13, released two years after he left to focus on his solo career. In an album review, pop culture website Bloody Good Horror highlighted his contributions, writing, “The album’s shining moments occur when bassist Steve Bruner locks into a funk-infused lick with the drums.”

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008) It must have been intimidating for Thundercat—then a teenager—to be in the room with the gravitational force that is Erykah Badu, not to mention heavyweights like Questlove and Madlib who contributed to this abstract and eclectic album. But Thundercat proved more than worthy of a seat at the table with those musical masterminds, playing bass on four songs. The experience was monumental in Thundercat’s artistic development, and he’d go on to form a close relationship with Badu, collaborating on future projects and joining her for live performances. “I wouldn’t be who I am right now if it wasn’t for Erykah,” he told Spin in 2017.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) The Compton rapper’s magnum opus took a noted jazzy, funky turn from his previous releases. A major reason was Thundercat, whose fingerprints are all over the record. He sang on five songs, played bass on four and co-produced three—including “Wesley’s Theory,” the psychedelic trip that opens the album, and the heavy “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” Because of the critical praise it received, To Pimp a Butterfly pushed Thundercat closer to the spotlight.

Thundercat, Drunk (2017) Despite releasing solo records since 2011, Thundercat’s name was often linked to his collaborators until his lauded third solo LP, Drunk, placed him front and center. While his first two albums were more somber, spurred by the death of a close friend, Drunk takes a lighter, more whimsical approach. He sings about his cat on “Tron Song,” gets stuck in a monotonous routine on “Captain Stupido,” fires petty zingers on “Friend Zone” and wallows in heartbreak on inescapable earworm “Them Changes”—all done over beautifully funky grooves. Naturally, some of Thundercat’s friends show up: Lamar, the late Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell Williams. What no one expected was “Show You the Way,” a hypnotic wonder featuring yacht rock kings Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Only Thundercat could pull that off.

Thundercat Opening for Anderson .Paak, with Earl Sweatshirt. June 16, 7:30 p.m., $45-$146. The Pearl, 702-942-7777.

Tags: Music, The Pearl
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