Cheat Codes is an undeniably synergistic collab, but Black Thought’s facility with stacking rhymes feels more self-conscious here than before and burdens the entire project.
As far as brand extensions in rap music go, The Roots joining Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as the show’s backing band was more unprecedented than a podcast pivot or cannabis entrepreneurship. Predating the phenomenon of late-night TV being largely insufferable, the partnership also preceded an inspired period for the group, providing them with a stable harbor from which to sail with high-minded deconstructions of the modern rap album (2010’s indie-influenced How I Got Over, and 2011’s reverse-chronological parable undun). The Roots’ last release, 2014’s fragmented …and then you shoot your cousin, arrived the same year the group followed Fallon to The Tonight Show; perhaps not surprisingly, the group’s central brain trust — drummer/creative director Questlove and rapper Black Thought — have prioritized passion projects over new Roots material in the years since. Where Questlove became a documentary filmmaker with last year’s Summer of Soul, Black Thought has embarked on a tear of standout features and shorter solo releases that have reestablished him as one of rap’s most verbally dexterous elder statesmen. On his new album Cheat Codes — a full-length collaboration with producer Danger Mouse — Black Thought extends his musical longevity further still, spraying dense clusters of lore, braggadocio, and aphorism onto the album’s grainy canvases. While the results of his exertions can more closely resemble skillful madlibs than a proper manifesto, Black Thought’s commanding performances convince where his powers of, well, thought fall short.
Thought’s reassertion of his on-mic talent has a fitting partner in Danger Mouse, whose producer tag has long been a cheat code for artists attempting to imbue later-career works with gravitas (Danger Mouse’s own Grey Album, a mash-up between The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album, was also a prestige cheat code of sorts). Compared to his ornatures for groups like The Black Keys and U2, Danger Mouse’s return to hip hop is tastefully pared back, comprising a series of dusty, looped reveries whose unfussiness makes room for Black Thought to bar out. Though he nearly tanks the album with a Fallon-worthy couplet in its opening bars (“Prisoners of Azkaban, thinking of a master plan”), Black Thought’s verses are generally prodigious, rhyming a laundry list of disparate subjects with marksman-like precision. On the soulful, psychedelic “Aquamarine,” Black Thought connects the origin of the species to his own upbringing and predetermined greatness, while also rhyming “bullion” with “Suleiman” for good measure. “Identical Deaths” offers a more personal narrative, detailing the story of a man who fails to reform even after receiving an ultimatum from God, Black Thought’s confessional tone well-suited to Danger Mouse’s gentle, vibraphone-led arrangement. The duo’s chemistry throughout Cheat Codes helps to obscure any of their individual aesthetic shortcomings, Danger Mouse’s almost unfinished-sounding mixes serving as an ideal platform for Black Thought’s shaggy, zig-zag verses. On “No Gold Teeth,” Danger Mouse’s hissing drums and squeezed jazz guitar lend Black Thought’s threats a blaxploitation flair, while the combination of his barking flow and Danger Mouse’s chunky keys on Cheat Codes’ title track call to mind a live performance at a venue whose roof could collapse at any moment.
If not a cheat code exactly, the features on Cheat Codes — among them young oldhead Joey Bada$$ and boom bap revivalist Conway the Machine — will be familiar to anyone who logged onto the rap Internet in the last decade. MF Doom’s verse on “Belize” — an unreleased cut from his own Danger Mouse collaboration, 2005’s The Mouse and the Mask — is the undeniable gem here, Doom’s winsome loopiness providing an off-kilter foil to the more programmatic Black Thought. Less successful is “Strangers,” featuring paint-by-numbers verses from Run the Jewels that expose both members’ topical limitations (A$AP Rocky — another former Danger Mouse collaborator — fares better, his goofiness an intuitive fit for the song’s punchy arrangement). Though more so than over-obvious or under-performing features, the main hindrance to Cheat Codes’ potential excellence is arguably Black Thought himself, his verses coming to feel burdened by the self-imposed goal of stacking many multisyllabic, theoretically unexpected rhymes atop each other. The approach resembles Black Thought’s now-famous 10-minute freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s HOT 97 radio show — technically impressive, but committed to the complexity of its own architecture at the expense of music’s more human qualities. In that way, listening to Cheat Codes can be like watching someone else play the Wikipedia game, in which the objective is to make the most available association between two otherwise unrelated entities. As the overall thesis of Black Thought’s free-associations is usually some variation on “better than the rest,” that verbosity for verbosity’s sake eventually loses some luster. In this respect, Cheat Codes scans less as a clever win against impossible odds than a formal exercise so predisposed to Black Thought’s skillset that genuinely unpredictable moments of introspection or insight are unfortunately forestalled.