Danger Mouse & Black Thought Punch In the 'Cheat Codes' for Hip-Hop Harmony
Published Aug 10, 2022With all the tools — a reputation as an all-time great wordsmith and daily visibility on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon included — to make great mainstream efforts, Black Thought remains admirably committed to crafting lyrically rich, left-field hip-hop. However, considering the way his projects sound like the Roots MC is periodically channeling the entire Dead Poets Society, there's something surprisingly easy-going about Cheat Codes, his full-length collaboration with chameleonic producer Danger Mouse.
Here, Danger Mouse serves a role similar to his collaborations with MF DOOM (DANGERDOOM), CeeLo Green (Gnarls Barkley) and James Mercer (Broken Bells). Cheat Codes marks the producer's first full-length hip-hop foray since DANGERDOOM called it quits in 2006, making this project's textures sound especially fresh. Instead of a more traditional rap-centric sound, the record's warmly-rendered beats reflect the wealth of projects the producer has touched in the past decade.
Cheat Codes' rich array of sound is impressive in its own right, though it's ultimately in service of the Philly bar-barian, who remains as lyrically sharp as ever. The guestlist is objectively stacked, but there's never a moment where Thought is overpowered by the features. Instead, they add a thrilling variation to the mix, embracing MCs and sounds from across generations; established names like A$AP Rocky and Run the Jewels sparkle on "Strangers" alongside younger acts like Joey Bada$$, Russ and Dylan Cartlidge, who seamlessly double dutch over the super-soulful "Because."
The hands-down highlight is the much-anticipated "Belize," Thought's collaboration with the late MF DOOM. The two rap laureates first connected on "Mad Nice," a song originally slated for DANGERDOOM's 2005 LP The Mouse & the Mask (later appearing on the 2017 reissue), and they once again show just how incredible they could've been locked in together across a full album.
What's so captivating about the project is how well Danger Mouse matches Black Thought's energy, providing a sound that simultaneously bends to the tried-and-true Roots Crew sound (a pocket in which Thought remains godly) and Danger's brand of upbeat soul. It's felt from the deliciously warm vinyl pops to the way Raekwon and Kid Sister ride "The Darkest Part" as if they're freestyling, conjuring the spontaneity of a smoke-filled basement show rather than a studio.
The project stays focused on its formula with only a few breaks from the vibe, such as the Michael Kiwanuka-featuring "Aquamarine," with its bright horn stabs that sound like they were lifted from Pete Rock's MPC during the original Mecca & the Soul Brother sessions. However, it's the Conway the Machine-featuring "Saltwater" that joins "Belize" as the record's crown jewels, finding Danger Mouse delivering his best interpretation of the Griselda sound made famous by Conway's inner circle of producers like Daringer. The result is exciting, as if Thought is passing the torch to the rapper closest to his pedigree in the game today.
Cheat Codes stands as Black Thought's most fully fleshed-out and accessible non-Roots project to date. Despite not veering too far outside his comfort zone or breaking any new ground, it holds the perfect blend of accessibility and complexity, supported by an energetic cast of guests. For those who hold the Roots frontman as their example of rap's upper echelon, it's further proof that they just might be right. (BMG)