‘Round Midnight Reviews: Black Thought and Danger Mouse’s ‘Cheat Codes’

REVIEW: Initial thoughts about Black Thought's collaborative album with producer Danger Mouse immediately following its release.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

This review of Black Thought and Danger Mouse’s new album, “Cheat Codes,” is based purely on the first concentrated play-through following its midnight release on August 12. Thoughts and opinions will evolve with time, but these are first impressions.

On Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 hit “I Know You Got Soul,” the Long Island rapper rhymes the line, “Rakim gets stronger as I get older.” There may be no other MC who embodies that edict more than Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter.

With each of his projects as front man for the legendary Roots crew, the two-time Grammy Award winner is more potent a lyricist at age 50 than the 24-year-old Black Thought on “Distortion to Static,” or the 28-year-old on “Dynamite,” or the 37-year-old on “75 Bars.” With The Roots on its longest layoff between albums, Trotter has entered a new plateau of lyrical prowess as a solo artist.

“Cheat Codes” is Trotter’s latest project outside of The Roots. He has released his stellar “Streams of Thought” solo series, with each of its three installments handled primarily by a single producer: 9th Wonder, Salaam Remi and Sean C, respectively. 

Trotter has been hinting at this collaboration with Danger Mouse for years. It was worth the wait. 

43rd Annual BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival - The Roots
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter teamed up with Danger Mouse for the album “Cheat Codes,” which also includes contributions from guest rappers. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

“Cheat Codes” is a masterclass of a rapper using the thematic tones of musical production to inform the direction of his lyricism. The entire album is exquisitely brooding thanks to the atmospheric fusion between Danger Mouse and Trotter.

Danger Mouse has held an equal affinity and vocabulary with both hip hop and rock over his production career, foreshadowed by his notorious 2004 mixtape “The Grey Album,” a mashup of The Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “The Black Album.” While he has built a reputation linking up for collaborative projects with CeeLo Green (Gnarls Barkley), The Shins’ James Mercer (Broken Bells), and MF Doom (DangerDOOM), it’s another collaboration he did that informs “Cheat Codes.”

In 2011, Danger Mouse collaborated with Italian composer Daniele Luppi for the album “Rome.” The motif for the project was like an unofficial homage to film composer Ennio Morricone. While there was no sampling on that album, Danger Mouse brought that same vibe to “Cheat Codes.” 

The entire album sounds like Trotter is the protagonist of an old spaghetti western movie; Black Thought rhymes like the shadowy stranger in town to challenge the fastest gun at high noon. 

This is exemplified by songs like “Aquamarine,” with the choral vocals in the background with Michael Kiwanuka singing somberly on the hook, “Everything’s burning down when I close my eyes again, enemies all around, I don’t understand, my friend.” On “Identical Deaths,” Trotter is introspective and reflective over sparse xylophone melodies. 

The atmosphere throughout the album is spooky and hair-raising, whether with the piercing harpsichord sample on “Close to Famous” or “Saltwater.” There are, however, moments on the project that lean heavily on classic soul production. Tracks like the album’s lead single, “No Gold Teeth,” and “Strangers” find Trotter aggressively flowing over gangling guitars and sinister organs. 

Trotter’s lyricism is predictably elite throughout “Cheat Codes.” That said, it gives the guest rappers no choice but to rhyme on their best level. With MF Doom’s posthumous verse on “Belize” being deft as expected, A$AP Rocky was no slouch on “Strangers” with Run The Jewels on the track. The guests easily could have been the album’s flaw, but they were the cherry on the sundae. 

“Cheat Codes” is a testament to Trotter’s indelible place in hip hop as a template of mature rap. Danger Mouse’s canvas of quirky funk with eerie but lush melodrama makes this album one of the best hip-hop recordings of 2022. 

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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