|2022||Cheat Codes||Danger Mouse, Black Thought||★★★★||75||Hip-Hop|
Cheat Codes brings together a seemingly natural pairing: Black Thought — lead MC for the Roots and a legendary voice in the conscious-rap movement of the late 90s and early 2000s — and Danger Mouse —a longtime producer who broke out in the mid 2000s for his hip-hop work influenced by the same era, and whose styles more traditionally fit in with garage rock, soul and vocal pop records he’s produced over the past 15-ish years.
Black Thought shows that with age comes wisdom and adaptability. Always able to turn a phrase or extend a line with an odd rhyme scheme, he settles in right away over Danger Mouse’s smooth grooves, muted drum kit and high hats. It doesn’t sound like a Roots record, but the production quality is close enough that it feels natural and both artists showcase each other’s strengths really well.
Black Thought brings meaning and energy with his performance, while Danger Mouse fills in some of the spaces with fuzzy vocal samples and by inviting some of his past collaborators along with them. Run The Jewels (which Danger Mouse worked with in 2017 on “Chase Me”) and A$AP Rocky (production credits on about half of 2015’s At.Long.Last.ASAP) sound great together on “Strangers,” and a long-lost MF Doom verse brings the thunder on “Belize.” Joey Bada$$ and Conway the Machine also contribute verses that fit right in.
I know Danger Mouse isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and despite spanning across different genres he does have a distinct sound that could come across as a little flat, mechanical or lacking depth (As a U2 fan I know what it’s like to hope for something sprawling only for it to come across as a bit lifeless instead). Even here, there is a narrow range of sounds and dynamics. For example, on “Saltwater” Danger Mouse is clearly going for a classic, sinister Conway vibe, something that would fit on a Conway album, but without leaning on a sub-baseline, it doesn’t have that same dark rumble or depth that it could, and sounds more piercing than heavy.
However, I think the narrower range here does work to Cheat Codes‘ advantage. For the few instances that could have been a bit more dynamic or dramatic, there are more than enough moments that directly come from the consistency he and Black Thought bring, which glues all the songs together, lets the tracks all flow into one another seamlessly, and allows the different voices and textures that pop in and out to really shine.
Seeing how well it all fits together, it’s kind of crazy to think this is Danger Mouse’s first full hip-hop record since Demon Days and The Mouse and the Mask in 2005. Maybe there will be more to come.