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Thundercat: The Present and Future Captain of Yacht Rock
CJ Simonson comment 0 Comments

Today, Thundercat released a new song entitled “Show Me The Way” in anticipation for his new album “Drunk” (out on 2/24 via Brainfeeder). The bass virtuoso sounds at his most relaxed on this single, allowing his voice to majestically simmer over his whispering R&B funk. It comes across as effortless – we’ve heard Thundercat pull off this kind of technically brilliant swaying-in-the-wind hypno-funk before across his last several records and it continues to be a delight.

Oh. Also this track features Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.

No, you didn’t misread that. I said Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. Yes, THAT Kenny Loggins and THAT Michael McDonald. The former Suicidal Tendencies bass player, Thundercat, recruited the guy who sang iconic 80s movie-adjacent hits such as “Footloose”, “Danger Zone”, and “I’m Alright – Theme From ‘Caddyshack’”, as well as a former Doobie Brother, to create the greatest yacht rock song ever.

That’s a doozie of a thing to have to write.

But I guess the bigger takeaway is: this isn’t that shocking.

Thundercat has been some kind of sudo-yacht rock legend-in-the-making for years now. The fact that he actually recruited pioneers of that west coast sound at all is just further confirmation of this. The opening of “Show You The Way” even feels like a sexed up version of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”.

Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat himself, has made his fascination with yacht rock well known. In a contribution for The Dinner Party Download, Bruner provided a playlist of “Perfect Tunes to Ruin A Party” and on it were the likes of Kenny Loggins and Seal. In his own words:

I’m a fan of debauchery, and I would think that debauchery happens on yachts on a consistent basis, that we cannot account for. Because there’s no cellphone service… there’s no accounting for the amount of money and drugs you can carry with you on a yacht… and I would think that that equates to PARTY. So, yacht rock, we love you.

He had already performed live with Michael McDonald last year (on tracks he’d written, nonetheless) and had even shown Kendrick Lamar who Gino Vannelli  was during the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions. For Thundercat to effectively be making yacht rock shouldn’t be all that surprising, but the emergence of “Show You The Way” means he’s been fully accepted as a bonafide star in that community.

The way Bruner throws his voice around is already Michael McDonald-esque, not in the way we traditionally parody McDonald but in a way that is indebted to his intense-yet-restrained baritone. Bruner’s voice, while certainly slightly more angelic than McDonald’s 70s gruff ever fully allowed, projects a similar feeling.

And each Thundercat album has really approached the yacht rock stylings in a different way. The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam reaches to the furthest and most introspective corners of the genre, slowing everything down and forcing the listener to revel in the space provided. Loggins’ “This Is It” and even Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” both emulate the R&B pacing Thundercat has come to perfect. But even on a Flying Lotus produced project like Apocalypse, you can hear the ever present influence disco and funk had on the late 70s and early 80s soft rock in tracks like “Tron Song” and “Heartbreaks + Setback”. These songs feel at home with the vision and sound of acts likes Earth, Wind and Fire, Captain & Tennille, or Hall & Oates. Hell, his debut album has a song titled “Boat Cruise” – the writing had been on the wall this whole time. 

Thundercat’s ambitious fusion of yacht rock and Brainfeeder’s electro-jazz revolution marks a significant moment in this history of the genre. While many artists have certainly played with the nearly ostentatious sleaze and cornball sentimentality that coats the genre’s most pivotal tracks, few have truly re-invented and re-created it the way Thundercat has. Artists like TOPS, Toro y Moi and even Ariel Pink have grappled with the smoothness, the low-key funk and the stereotypical schmaltziness on their songs before, but it’s always with an earnestness that seems to indirectly address what made yacht rock great in the first place. Thundercat chooses to address these conventions head on, doubling down on how fun they can be and how carefree they can truly sound.

In many ways, Thundercat’s ability to transition what was once a laughable genre of music into something both beautiful and, dare I say, cool, is a testament to how well the genre has aged. The fusion of earnest acid-R&B with the smooth lethargic spirt of yacht rock has created a revived sound, one that pays homage to the schmaltz without ceding to it. Thundercat might be a one-man army in the resurgence of yacht rock, but as long as his ambassadorship leads to Kendrick Lamar hearing “I Just Wanna Stop” and Michael McDonald hearing “Between Friends”, I’d like to think it’s safe to say that the yacht rock revolution is coming. Give this man a captains hat and let his west coast sounds sail you away.

Brainfeeder Christopher Cross Doobie Brothers Flying Lotus Hall & Oates Kenny Loggins Michael McDonald Thundercat Yacht Rock

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