Album Review: Danger Mouse & Black Thought – Cheat Codes

[BMG; 2022]

This may come as a shock to you, Dear Reader, but living amongst us are individuals who have never listed Black Thought among the greatest all time MCs. For one reason or another, popularity most likely, Thought’s verbal artillery has been too complicated for many to get behind. Despite being a co-founder of The Roots with Questlove, he’s become an afterthought in the rap game in the last 10 or so years, with most only acknowledging his existence as part of Jimmy Fallon’s house band on The Tonight Show.

No shade to Jimmy, but that’s frankly insulting to the man’s prowess. Thought’s one of the most versatile rhymers at play. He has the capacity to be venomous one moment, spitting with a forked tongue – the next he’s humbly professing his admiration for legendary wordsmiths. This is all to say that Thought is one of the most underrated rappers on the planet, even considered so by Questlove who usually gets the name recognition when The Roots are referenced.

It’s been nearly a decade since the last Roots album, 2014’s lukewarmly received …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Black Thought has recently been focusing on his Stream of Thoughts series, but now is teaming up with super-producer Danger Mouse for his latest outing, the long-gestating and hyped collaboration album Cheat Codes.

Mouse is no stranger to hip-hop, though a majority of his work since breaking into the scene has been mainstream. Outside of Gnarls Barkley, Mouse has collaborated with the Black Keys on multiple albums, and he’s one half of Broken Bells with James Mercer of The Shins. His most notable hip-hop release is his collaboration with MF DOOM, The Mouse and the Mask from 2005. While his penchant for colorful embellishments seems to stand in opposition to Black Thought’s more sobering work, the marriage of the two works wonders on Cheat Codes.

The album boasts a stellar supporting ensemble, with nearly every inclusion making their presence felt immensely. “The Darkest Part” features an almost wholesome chorus by Kid Sister to pair with immaculate delivery from Thought as well as a particularly killer set of bars from Raekwon. Underscored by a blanket of piano, it’s a throwback to the golden age of rap, with a full-band sound provided by Mouse that links to Thought’s work in The Roots.

Whereas many of his posthumous appearances have been mild, the late great MF DOOM steals the show on “Belize”, the slow centerpiece of Cheat Codes, where his unmistakable diction and humor are a welcome counterbalance to Thought’s more inquisitive insights. It simultaneously reminds of his larger-than-life character and highlights the noticeable vacancy left since his passing.

Everything about Cheat Codes feels remarkably nostalgic, like a time capsule of what rap used to be and could return to with the right cast. The funkified production can sound a little one-note, but it works so well with Thought’s narrative approach that it’s admissible. “No Gold Teeth” is one of the few moments on the album that’s just Mouse and Thought, and it finds the partnership working perfectly together giving room for some of the project’s most buoyant bars: “Please, you ain’t fucking with no amateurs, homie / Philly ain’t known for cheesesteak sandwiches only.”

Somehow, even with such a massive crop of talent on Cheat Codes, Black Thought never sounds outmatched or overshadowed. Take, for example, “Strangers”, which features some massive heavy hitters in A$AP Rocky and Run the Jewels, but the entire four minutes is non-stop electricity led by Thought, with impeccable rhythm from Danger Mouse’s production.

To say this is the best project from either Black Thought or Danger Mouse in a while would be a diss to their respective projects in the 2010s – but it might just be. Cheat Codes captures the glory of rap’s classic era and brings it to the present through thick mesmerizing samples and the rapper’s incredible vernacular.