Black Thought’s unmistakably passionate rhyme style has flowed for over 30 years, yet outside of the Roots, he hasn’t had a proper, standalone album where he can convey his greatness. Judging by his new album ‘Cheat Codes’, he’s acutely aware of this. “It ain’t an easy odyssey to follow me / we do kinesiology with no apology”, he asserts on ‘The Darkest Part’, but now he’s ready to take on the solo LP. Thought’s recent ‘Streams of Thought’ EP series has been a blessing to those who yearned for his unmatched technical ability unbogged by the conceptuality of the Roots, yet the aimless freestyles perhaps leaned too far in the other direction. Flogged into focus by multi-genre producer Danger Mouse, ‘Cheat Codes’ is Black Thought’s most complete project to date.
To pull Danger Mouse back into the field he first caught attention in, is akin to underground rap’s answer to No Way Home. For the New York artist, the album sees him dusting off the cobwebs, as it’s the first time he’s producing for a rapper full-time since the cult-classic 2005 Danger Doom collaboration with MF DOOM. Moving away from the cartoonishness of that project, Mouse instead uses flaky samples to create a cohesive, bluesy and, at times, abstract blueprint. What else remains from the ‘Danger Doom’ era is the certainty about how Mouse was able to hold his own at a time when Madlib and J Dilla were kingpins.
Lyrically, ‘Cheat Codes’ is a gangsta rap album that describes a seedy world Black Thought hustles in and receives battle scars from. Those are literal scars, by the way: “everybody wrist got razor marks / in the projects, townships, favelas and trailer parks”, he raps over the title track’s rickety percussion. Danger Mouse’s beats mirror this sense of seediness throughout the record, from the cool jazz of ‘Identical Deaths’ to the Griselda-quoting ‘Saltwater’. The producer creates the sonic uphill battle that Black Thought conquers. On ‘No Gold Teeth’, he finds a myriad of ways to convince you of his hunger and determination, none of which feel like a lie.
As consistently sharp as ever, Thought exudes a braggadocio he’s rarely exhibited until this stage in his career. The mobster character Thought immerses himself in allows him to create lucid scenes with single bars. “From a silhouette standing in the aperture / to a figurehead standing in the path of a killer”, he dramatises on ‘The Darkest Part’. That his flow is so unbroken while doing this is testament to his natural wordsmithery.
‘Cheat Codes’ invites almost as many guests as it has tracks, and the pique of the guest tracks are the two wildly different posse cuts, ‘Because’ and ‘Strangers’. Joey Bada$$ and Russ surprisingly match Thought’s pace on the former. Complete with a hook from Dylan Cartlidge, he matches the leaf-green atmosphere so well, it feels like it was pulled directly from the 55-year-old Doris & Kelley song the track samples. Conversely, ‘Strangers’ has a choppy groove with mangled vocal and guitar cuts surfacing in fragments. Difficult terrain for a rapper to traverse, but Black Thought floats over it like a jetski, A$AP Rocky matches the energy, EL-P pens comic-book imagery and Killer Mike bellows one of his most quotable verses in years. Mike pops out of the mix like hot grease, and “I’m out with Lenin and writing in red ink again / and I’m on linen with women, pleasuring pink again” is a pick for line of the year.
Throughout the album, there’s a streak of sweeping soul that hints at an influence from British group Sault, so much so that it leaves you questioning whether Danger Mouse has a deeper connection to the mysterious band. With melancholic orchestration, ghostly background vocals and a contribution from Michael Kiwanuka, ‘Aquamarine’ draws most overtly from Sault, and is also searingly excellent. In album context, the transition to this track begins with a tuning swell that gives an air of importance, making way for Black Thought to somehow link the history of human evolution to professing his genius in what could be one of his best performances ever.
If there’s anything that bugs ‘Cheat Codes’ somewhat, it’s Black Thought’s couple of underwhelming performances with his rap guests. Hitching a verse from MF DOOM circa the Danger Doom days on ‘Belize’, Thought raps about him and DOOM as a duo, but DOOM instead talks about him and Danger Mouse as a duo, creating a weird love triangle-type disconnect. Conway the Machine hops on the penultimate ‘Saltwater’, and Thought takes twice as long to attack the track and makes half the impact as him. Still, these are just a couple of off-days in an enviable history of GOAT performances. What’s so invigorating about ‘Cheat Codes’ is how Black Thought is finding new ways to add to that.
Words: Nathan Evans – @nayfun_evans