Review: Black Thought & Danger Mouse, ‘Cheat Codes’

Black Thought and Danger Mouse compose an all-timer collaboration in Cheat Codes, a remarkable hip hop epic by two masterminds of music.

A Black Thought and Danger Mouse has been hip hop’s ‘we should grab a coffee’ for the best part of the millennium. Their paths have crossed in small doses over the years, but a full-length partnership was always in mind. An early title of Dangerous Thoughts was drafted, eventually forming the long-awaited album we have in 2022. Before this, the producer and rapper were on detached paths. Thought was extending The Roots’ longevity with Undun and …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, as well as releasing long-awaited solo material composed by 9th Wonder, Salaam Remi and Sean C. On the other hand, Danger Mouse was far from the hip hop realm, producing Grammy-winning tracks for Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Adele, and Michael Kiwanuka. It’s a return to hip hop production for him, and a chance for Black Thought to demonise every verse.

Cheat Codes is as the name suggests—an inequitable advantage of two geniuses combining for one of the strongest hip hop albums of the new decade.

Photography: Shervin Lainez

Cheat Codes gets everything right with its eyes closed. Rarely can an album portray its greatness as a simple task, yet Cheat Codes is a steel-sown effort that feels habitual at every turn. Their understanding is faultless down to the crevice, installing top-grade components that make for peak hip hop. The synergy is akin to Killer Mike and El-P, Boldy James and The Alchemist, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Blu and Exile—and any other duo killing it in the underground. One would think Danger Mouse and Black Thought dropped multiple albums up to this point.

This is an album where every track is a highlight. An identical length to The Roots’ Undun, it takes the baton of all killer, no filler, ensuring every song contributes to the experience. It may not have the narrative weight of Undun, but it reaches for a similar format. Songs like “Because”, “The Darkest Part” and “Aquamarine” carry the spirit of The Roots thanks to the tone of the hooks, adding that vital pinch of alternative aura to Cheat Codes, which separates it from other traditional rap albums from the last two years.

When it comes to the production, Danger Mouse is on his A-game. Over twelve tight tracks, he offers the best production Thought has rapped on in a solo venture. Immaculate samples are plucked for songs like “Sometimes”, a soulful, hopeful opener to the album. A Spaghetti Western tone runs through “No Gold Teeth”, while a marching beat soldiers through the assertive title track. In other moments, the beats are subtle, acting as backdrops for Thought’s dissection (“Identical Deaths”, “Saltwater”). Besides quality, Danger Mouse guarantees variation as well as a cohesive experience. It will be hard to hear better beats this year than these.

In Black Thought’s case, he’s keeping up with software updates thirty years into his career. Across Cheat Codes, he charges through bars of personal growth and socioeconomic plight, often dropping a single verse on the album’s lone cuts. It shouldn’t be humanly impossible to maintain the level of skill of his early days, but every track here prove he has, or got better. The album reaches summit on the heroic “Aquamarine”. Assisted by British singer Michael Kiwanuka, Black Thought performs two all-timer verses which feel like a personal reckoning (“Hustlin’ nicks of reefer to tusslin’ with the reaper / Sensory deprivation to ultimate synesthesia / Freein’ our brothers’ keeper from teeth of another creature / Breakin’ and enterin’ to the theater, the search and seizure”). His rhymes have bewildered listeners for decades, and they continue to do so on Cheat Codes.

The trinity of strengths is completed by the immaculate guest artists. Danger Thought enlist Killer Mike, El-P and ASAP Rocky for “Strangers”, a posse cut of supreme heights. All four rappers compete for standout verses, particularly ASAP Rocky who proves he can participate at such a level with ease. Though it’s Killer Mike who takes the crown for the most quotable verse (“I’ll leave you shot in the seat that they sat Lincoln in / I’ll pop you with the same pistol they popped Reagan with”). Elsewhere, Joey Badass, Dylan Cartlidge and Russ perform on “Because”, with the latter closing the track in style (“I don’t vacation, dawg, I guilt trip”). Raekwon turns back the dial on the tremendous “The Darkest Part”, and a verse from the late MF DOOM slots into “Belize”, topping off the quantity of world-class emcees that make Cheat Codes one of the best-rapped albums in some time.

The album assures it is one for the traditionalists. It carries the dusty aesthetic of boom bap rap, vinyl crackles and dense lyricism. At the same time, Cheat Codes is a record that could’ve come out in any year of any era. It is impossible to bound to time, nor does it consent to typical categorisation. There is a sixth sense that lingers in Cheat Codes; the sign of a timeless album and future classic.

Above anything, Cheat Codes all but toughens Black Thought’s longevity and status as the perfect rapper. For years, the lack of solo albums held a wedge between his legacy. Even the Streams of Thought EPs couldn’t remove that sentiment, despite their quality and strong reception. Cheat Codes is the album he needed to silence the second-guessers. He is an early homosapien that’s survived extinction.

Danger Mouse and Black Thought played the long game, and ended up with all the cards. Cheat Codes is a flooding rap extravaganza, poised to be the best hip hop record of the year. A formidable duo has been formed, and it is quite the combo to relish in.

9 / 10

Best tracks: “Aquamarine”, “The Darkest Part”, “Strangers”, “Sometimes”, “Belize”, “Cheat Codes”