Album review: Cheat Codes, Danger Mouse & Black Thought

Cheat Codes is the 15+ years in the making collaboration between Danger Mouse and Black Thought. No matter what it was going to be most of us were going to fuck with it. The four singles released over the summer validated our decision making with on-brand but updated work from producer and MC and new work from contributors like Joey Bada$$, Michael Kiwanuka, and Raekwon. They left us wanting more and Brian Burton and Tariq Trotter are giving it to us good with this LP. It’s not flawless. But it feels like an authentic representation of each artist, which is just philosophical enough to describe work by Black Thought. As usual, he informs with insight and historical facts that also just sound good. It slants over compensating at times but he makes up for it with a new kind of openness. Contemporary versions of quintessentially Danger Mouse beats shrewdly support the lyrics and keep energy stores high. You hear familiar patterns to be fair, but you get the sense that he’s finding new footing, experimenting with timing more than sound.

Burton and Trotter had been racking up bits of collective work here and there for almost twenty years before finally beginning production on Cheat Codes around 2018. They scrapped previous tracks, started fresh and got in deep with the details. “I don’t think there’s anything on Cheat Codes that was a first draft. Everything was made a little bit better and refined, down to where I take a breath or the annunciation of a specific syllable,” says Black Thought in an interview with NME’s Patrick Clarke in anticipation of the widespread wondering of how the fuck they managed to make an album that is pure entertainment but also makes us think. “We’ve learned the ways in which we’re able to best complement each other,” he goes on to say, alluding to a fluidity confirmed through tracks like ‘No Gold Teeth’. In this old school funk song, Danger Mouse does Turner while Black Thought does Tariq – except – they do it together. The live-sounding beat and the bits of Black Thought wisdom remind you of the Roots. Not so fast, though. Totally Danger Mouse details come through as the beats break just as Black Thought breathes. The track ends with a stretched out, slo-mo fade.

Not sure if the two artists worked their ways into the studio with the rest of the Cheat Codes crew or if talent like this is too big to fail. Either way, Cheat Codes brings together a whole heap of dope artists who sound like they’re working together rather than competing for the mic. ‘Strangers,’ released as a pre-LP single on Aug 9, features A$AP Rocky and Killer Mike and El-P from Run The Jewels. This all-around A-game track jumps off in characteristic RTJ style but skirts the same old same with Black Thought taking the mic first. After unleashing lines about his self-proclaimed unfuckwithableness, “I'm super hot and beyond your range,” Tariq Turner makes a snack of copycat fuck boys. He throws to Rocky who outs himself as the album’s young voice by stringing together lines that compete with one another and are, like, kind of confusing. If Rakim has the financial status of a mobster why is he carrying an iPhone 4 with a cracked screen and no wi-fi? “See you with my third eye | Peep you just with one eye closed”. Does he need one actual eye or not? The lighter feel though, complete with Dr. Suess reference, cuts through some of the LP’s intensity and prepares us for the second half of ‘Strangers.' 

El-P kicks that off by telling you to, “Relax, let it happen, it's automatic, I'm tapped in”. Too late, you’ve already given yourself over to the song’s intoxicating rhymes and matched musical backdrops. Killer Mike roars in hard but trails into something clunkier than expected. The timing doesn’t quite work in lines like, “You think you got me? Ayy, papi, you better think again (Damn) | I'll leave you shot in the seat that they sat Lincoln in (Damn) | I'll pop you with the same pistol they popped Reagan with (Damn).” There’s also a lot of details but no clear message. Being in consistent favor with god despite consistently displaying the temperament of Godzilla, a predictable line about sexual skill, and a random thought about a world on the brink of destruction feel like pieces of different tracks forced together. It’s forgiven on account of the Wu-Tang shout-out. Danger Mouse grabs our attention with out-of-the-gate hypnotic bass behind a loop of some, like, superhero sound that you can’t stop trying to decipher … or move to. He steadies big lyrics with breaks where drumsticks snap together and ceremonial style chants blend with unexplained, gangster voice sound bites. Even with less than lyrical perfection Danger Mouse managed to make this one of my favorite tracks on the album. Better is the early release YouTube vid that makes you feel like you could’ve absently passed them on the street while they filmed it.    

That homey, neighborhood feel extends to one track in particular on the album, ‘Belize.’ We’re treated to jazzy riffs heartily infused with nostalgia and a kind of melancholic mystery. A standard hi-hat tings atop an updated and cleaner sounding synth trill from a 50+ year old Federal Duck tune. A sample of the original, psychedelic sound complete with sad, muffled brass gives 1968 acid trip vibes. Instead of sappy, written tributes to MF Doom, we get a decent earful of Doom with a flashback musical backdrop tailor made for telling stories and remembering old friends. It’s a farewell feel without performative cheese. It’s also the perfect base to highlight Doom’s bars. After releasing The Mouse and the Mask in 2017, Daniel Dumile continued to work with Turner, recording a mixed bag of work over the next several years. Along the way, they talked about Tariq and MF Doom swapping verses. And while that never got to happen, Black Thought had his hand in 'Belize' anyway, offering input on several arrangements before the final version was locked in.

Thirty plus years of music making leaves Trotter well qualified to drop his two cents into ‘Belize’ and the rest of Cheat Codes where he doubles down on insight, continues the history lesson, and gets more vulnerable. He’s not trying to teach you anything, though. As he explains in ‘Saltwater,’ “This isn't in attempts to reach you and your hitters | The last thing you do is bullshit a bullshitter.” Maybe he’s speaking more to the contract glitch between Conway the Machine and Griselda records, which Conway later raps about on ‘Saltwater,’ confirming that he’s learned his lesson. In Black Thought style, the LP is full of references to historical culture giants like Dapper Dan, Jamal Shabazz and Richard Wright, all of which are referenced in ‘Sometimes,’ the album's first track. Top and tailed by Gwen McCrae, it has a classy lounge vibe. Updated deviations from McCrae’s original track, ‘Love Without Sex,’ maintain the classic soul funk feel and pay homage to cultural pioneers like McCrae by isolating her controlled, sultry voice. 

But, it's ‘Identical Deaths’ where Black Thought gets extra existential. Here, he faces what he alludes to as a tortured soul path, describes two-way conversations with God, admits crying big tears, and realizes that the sign on his mind might still read “danger” and he might actually care what you think about that. Danger Mouse chimes in – literally – with soft, stable chimes that you could find in an ancient temple. Juxtaposed and carefully placed sirens reaffirm that Tariq is far from full zen here. Later in ‘Saltwater,’ we see vulnerability in the contradiction between hard hitting declarations like, “I'll be over seventy, flippin' the script regularly,” and when he admits that he doesn’t show his cards when he’s not sure of his next move. Suspenseful high pitched piano notes are woven through steady bass. Well timed and drawn out electric guitar twangs reiterate the feeling that everything’s fine — unless it’s not.

Which is why cheat codes could help. Not sure why Danger Mouse and Black Thought made us wait fifteen plus years to get them, but it was worth the wait. The title track, ‘Cheat Codes,’ points out that some of us need them, might get them if we pay attention, but can’t bank on being spoon-fed by anyone, including Black Thought and Danger Mouse. They seed without preaching. They point out that it’s pretty fucking hard to break a game engineered by a cagey group of self-appointed organizers who change the rules whenever and hope we never win. Shortly after Danger Mouse lures you in with an upbeat loop, he plants a trill that makes you think – just maybe – something good is about to happen. Maybe you just scored. But then, like life for the collectively unfavored, you’re back at square one and monotony resumes. Then chaos. Not making sense of things or being able to establish a pattern – which brilliantly accompany Black Thought’s lyrics on life’s rigged games. The beat builds and builds but never peaks before finally dropping off like, “Wait it’s over? Did I even advance?” That’s why we need Cheat Codes. And that’s why Brian Burton and Tariq Trotter gave us some. They remind us that just because none of us built this game doesn’t mean we can’t beat it.

Poet | Nonprofit Founder | Guide 👁 | Mentor ☯️ | Human (probably) | Everybody’s Weird Auntie ✊🌍
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