Danger Mouse and Black Thought: Cheat Codes review – an out-and-out hip-hop masterpiece
Cheat Codes, the long-awaited collaboration between US super-producer Danger Mouse and Philadelphia hip-hop institution Black Thought, is an out-and-out pleasure, one chock-full of old-school hip-hop goodness. No Gold Teeth, for instance, has a funk bassline so gummy you could chew it contentedly like cud for hours, with Black Thought, one of the most erudite wordsmiths of his generation, riding the beat like a dancer. “Please, you ain’t fuckin’ with no amateurs, homie,” he sneers, correct on that count as he is on numerous others here: razor-sharp takedowns of racial injustice and masterful braggadocio. No filler, all killer, once on, you’ll have trouble peeling Cheat Codes off the turntable or, indeed, Spotify.
But this banging summer album also comes with an unrequited mutual appreciation bromance subplot. In 2006, a white-hot young hip-hop producer in deep legal trouble with a major label met his rapper hero, only a few years his senior. When Danger Mouse – Brian Burton – was still in high school, he paid a friend to steal the Roots’ second album, Do You Want More ?!!!??! (1995), for less than the inflated CD price (though this wasn’t the source of his later legal headaches). When they finally met, the Roots’ Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) and his acolyte hit it off. The two thought they might make a record. Dangerous Thoughts was mooted as a title.
It's a record so energising and nourishing, it feels like an intravenous B12 drip
Life intervened. Black Thought’s cult Philadelphia crew the Roots were on a tight schedule in the late 00s, chasing the dream. By 2009 they had metastasised into the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (and now on Fallon’s The Tonight Show).
Danger Mouse’s first 2006 bombshell, The Grey Album, had been a copyright-immolating mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album, one that came hot on the heels of Burton’s production work on Gorillaz’s second album, Demon Days (2005). (In a recent interview with Mojo magazine, Burton credits Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn – signed to EMI – with smoothing over what could have been a nightmarish lawsuit for sampling the Beatles, also on EMI, without clearance.)
Danger Mouse’s second 2006 bombshell was Gnarls Barkley, a massive hit-making venture with CeeLo Green. From there flowed Danger Mouse pop production credits too plentiful and glittering to list, with Adele at one end of the spreadsheet and rapper’s rapper the late MF Doom at the other. More recently, Burton has worked with Michael Kiwanuka, who makes an appearance here.
The project formerly known as Dangerous Thoughts languished until Burton and Trotter, by then an even more lauded collaborator, solo artist, actor and stage writer, reconnected a decade later. The result is a record – Cheat Codes – so energising and nourishing, it feels like an intravenous B12 drip, at once easy to listen to yet often hard to hear. Black Thought has been in the vanguard of “conscious” hip-hop roughly since around the time the backpack was invented, a classification now long redundant in the face of artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Trotter is on fire here, mustering wit, kaleidoscopic references and, on Identical Deaths, a hard-won vulnerability.
Hip-hop has evolved exponentially as a genre, with ticklish trap beats and blurry cadences now selling like hot cakes. Cheat Codes, by contrast, is full of parchment and runes: obscure samples (although you’ll have heard of Kiki Dee) and fat breakbeats, vinyl crackle and crate-digger detail.
It’s not that one rap form is bad and the other good – it’s that Burton and Trotter are so confident in their tastes, they barely bother to court anyone outside the tent. Guests include veteran fellow travellers Run the Jewels alongside an actual pop-rap star, A$AP Rocky, pulling his weight on Strangers (an urgent wiggle based on a distorted Philwit & Pegasus sample). The seasoned Wu-Tang Clan alumnus Raekwon turns up alongside Kid Sister on The Darkest Part (nagging piano riff, sped-up Kiki Dee sample). Producer Inflo (Kiwanuka, Sault) has a hand behind the scenes. No one lets a record of this calibre down.
Only once do Burton and Trotter give the time of day to anyone under 30: guest rappers Joey Bada$$ (27) and Russ (29) and British hook provider Dylan Cartlidge (27) turn up on one killer track, Because. There’s only one anachronism in the lyrics: “Prisoners of Azkaban, thinking of a master plan,” offers Trotter, nodding to Eric B & Rakim’s hip-hop cornerstone Paid in Full and, less enticingly, the Harry Potter franchise, in the opening couplet franchise of Sometimes, the album’s opener.
Another backwards glance is more rewarding. The shimmering Belize features a bouncy verse from the late MF Doom that might well have been stored on Burton’s hard drive since 2005. “Danger make a groove off a glitch,” notes Doom, whose flow has always provoked shivers, let alone on a collaboration from beyond the grave. You could dismiss Cheat Codes as dad rap, but this record is absolute joy from end to end.