Enough has been said about both of these legendary artists in the rollout of Cheat Codes, despite the music really speaking for itself. Black Thought, as one of the best, most pure MC’s of all time, is a natural match and progression from Danger Mouse’s last rap collaborator, MF DOOM; It’s an album we all had no idea we needed so badly. And what we get is a statement of timelessness, vision, and pure greatness.
I would say we are fortunate to be witnessing an era of hiphop with Black Thought performing at such an elite level, but it has been 35 years of this now; Despite the phenomenal backlog of Roots albums, features and EPs, Cheat Codes functions as the full length project that he needed to earn a spot in top five lists. While the Streams of Thought series has been great, Cheat Codes fleshes those sounds and ideas out into something truly his own.
I’m like Thelonious at the underground piano
Testing camo, the grenades, guns and ammo
Death to sambo, send em a bouquet and a candle
I came to take back that two-fifths of a man,
From a silhouette standing in the aperture
To a figurehead standing in the path of a killer
While Danger Mouse has been in and out of hiphop over the years, it was a smart return to the style of The Mouse and The Mask that matches Thought perfectly on here. Dusty, heavily chopped samples invoke golden age raps, but with such a professional and modern finish. A majority of tracks feature subtle vocal loops which progress throughout the song and blend in expertly, just enough to make their presence felt. There are also motifs of global music throughout, such as the jungle sounds on the posse cut “Strangers”, or the subtle Eastern melody on “Saltwater”. Danger Mouse also handles a lot of hooks here through scratches or letting the sample breath between verses, which furthers that vintage feeling and keeps the burden off the MC.
Black Thought’s approach to issues is a unique middle ground between wisdom and relatability. He reps his city like no other (“Philly ain’t Philly ain’t known for cheesesteak sandwiches only”) and shouts out historic characters from all walks of life, but always circles back to the beauty of music and blackness, as on “Violas & Lupitas”.
On “The Darkest Part”, Thought displays his greatest theme of black militancy while never sacrificing braggadocio or technicality. Similarly, he juxtaposes a quaint upbringing with utter frustration with the world on “Because”, expertly connecting childhood memories to images of persecution.
The single “No Gold Teeth” acts as one of Black Thought’s best acts of spitting ever, and that’s unfathomably high praise. Channeling the energy of his legendary freestyle or “75 Bars (Thought’s Reconstruction)”, he crams in countless bars. The way he raps on here makes it sound easy – the commanding, yet steady flow, and such natural, yet complex rhyme schemes – despite there being very few who can do it at this level.
The teleprompter said there’s still an Oscar to conquer
My witch doctor asked me what’s blocking my chakra
I told him it was probably caffeine, chronic and vodka
I need a word, but a sponsor that won’t be heard at a concert
I cried so many crocodile tears, my eyes hurt
On “Aquamarine”, Thought takes a deep dive into paradoxes between science and spirit, but Michael Kiwanuka frankly steals the show with a grand, yet chilling and washed out hook. Tonally, this leads well into “Identical Deaths” which sees Tarik in an interview with God, lamenting his own shortcomings and the social conditions which lead his people down such a path.
Also crucial to the success of Cheat Codes is a feature list out of a dream. Boombap mainstays like Raekwon and Joey Bada$$ show out, while A$AP Rocky matches the sound well (coming off “WAV Gods” with Nas). Stealing the show however, are Conway the Machine and MF DOOM. At this point, Conway needs to be recognized in that tier of mature, nigh untouchable MC’s and completely worthy of rapping alongside the likes of thought. DOOM meanwhile strikes a powerful chord from beyond; Easily one of his best modern verses, with such a punchy yet slick flow and comedic “fuck you” attitude, it is made all the more powerful alongside his former collaborators.
Cheat Codes is at worst an album of the year contender and just another 30-some minutes of bars. But more importantly, it’s a box checked on his resume as one of the greats: The album absent The Roots that cements his own artistic strengths. While Danger Mouse held a crucial assist and we hope to see him continue with more hiphop collaborations, Cheat Codes is a centerpiece in Black Thought’s loaded trophy case.