F rom his music to his outlandish fashion sense to his sometimes too honest Twitter feed ("These farts are getting pretty violent," read one dispatch from April), Steven Bruner—better known by his stage name Thundercat—is unapologetically himself.
Take "DUI," the last track on his 2017 album Drunk. The song is quintessential Thundercat—concise, rooted in jazz, simultaneously dark and humorous. "Sometimes you're alive, sometimes you are dead inside," he sings in time with a succession of discordant bass notes. "Bottom of the glass, at this point you've made an ass," he continues, his voice an ethereal falsetto. "Hopefully you won't get caught and get a DUI." He stops singing, giving way to unsettling violins, cascading synth, and the sound of howling wind. It's a beautiful listen, and a morose counterpart to the album's opener, "Rabbot Ho," where Thundercat pledges to "go hard, get drunk, and travel down a rabbit hole."
Bruner, 33, is a Grammy-award winning bassist, singer, and songwriter. He was raised in Los Angeles surrounded by two celebrated jazz drummers—his father and brother—who inspired him to start making music at an early age. After learning how to play the bass, a sixteen-year-old Bruner joined his brother in the band Suicidal Tendencies. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Bruner said he successfully maintained his own jazz-driven style even while playing in the punk-metal band.
"They never wanted me to emulate anybody's sound," he said. "They would just want me to play the parts and not get them wrong. I could have my own sound, you know?"
Bruner left Suicidal Tendencies in 2011 and started collaborating with music producer Flying Lotus, a perfect match. Their songs usually stem from freewheeling jazz improvisation sessions, which they record then dissect and augment digitally to provide a canvas for lyrical expression. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bruner described working with Flying Lotus as "an explosion," with "flourishing, amazing creative energy." The two are in constant collaboration; they've worked together on numerous albums, toured across the country together, and recently wrote the score for an episode of FX's Atlanta.
Bruner soon brought his signature funky bass lines and high croon to the tracks of a slew of big-name artists, among them Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino, and most notably, Kendrick Lamar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music earlier this year. He's frequently commended as the "creative epicenter" of Lamar's 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, providing inspiration for much of the album's jazz-heavy instrumentation. Beyond providing his own musical expertise, he often introduced Lamar to records from jazz greats to get his creative juices flowing.
"I played [Lamar] Miles Davis's 'Little Church' and he was like, 'What the fuck is this?'" Bruner said in an interview with Rolling Stone. "I was like, 'This is Miles Davis, man—and one of his baddest records.'"
Bruner's work on To Pimp a Butterfly's "These Walls" won him a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Performance in 2016. The song examines sex, death, and the human consciousness, set to a forceful beat with bright splashes of synth—contextually and instrumentally similar to many tracks on Drunk, which Bruner released last February.
"'Drunk' speaks to more than the literal term," Bruner said in an interview with Q on CBC. "[It reflects] how lackadaisical and how weird everything is. It feels like that socially. It feels like you're drunk walking around. Nothing makes any sense."
On Drunk, Bruner blends jazz, hip-hop, funk, and psychedelic pop while singing about wavering between wanting to combat life's difficulties ("Let me show you the way, on the edge of dark there's the brightest light") versus embracing its pain and absurdity ("Out of the pain and into the fire, the descent into madness").
As Thundercat, Bruner encourages listeners to join him in pondering, challenging, and changing the ways of the world. He twists jazz into something new and exciting, using his collaborations to springboard him toward exploring yet-untold musical universes.