Cheat Codes

Black Thought / Danger Mouse

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Cheat Codes Review

by Andy Kellman

Brian Burton was a teenage Roots fanatic -- so eager to own but too short on funds to buy his beloved band's Do You Want More?!!!??! that he paid an acquaintance to lift a copy for him. A decade later, Burton had become Danger Mouse, an ascendant producer with enough clout and confidence to seek lead Roots MC Black Thought for a collaboration. Mouse and Thought meshed and recorded demos for a potential LP. Other projects then took precedence. Thought reached out to Mouse after another 11 years passed, in 2017, and over the next year, the two laid down much of what materialized in 2022 as Cheat Codes. Given the project's genesis before the rapping half's 2018-2020 solo trilogy, it stands to reason that Cheat Codes isn't billed as Streams of Thought, Vol. 4. It's also of an even higher concentration. Returning to sample-based production, Danger Mouse favors '60s and '70s psych, prog, and soul recordings that are moody, trippy, and sometimes eerie. The crisp if soot-coated drums, smeared strings, moaning organs, and gnarled guitars are all very compatible with Thought, who scythes through it all with unparalleled wordplay delivered with surgical precision. The guest appearances are superfluous more often than they are truly complementary. Representing the latter, MF Doom (recorded post-Danger Doom) shuffles into place on "Belize" with such ease that he sounds like part of a longtime trio. Michael Kiwanuka sets up "Aquamarine" -- one of two tracks that also reconnects Mouse with fellow Kiwanuka producer Inflo -- by crooning a grave hook that leads to some of Thought's bleakest and most authoritative statements. They pivot from lines ending with "bullion," "Suleiman," a racist epithet, and "depression" to "I'm a king, I'm dipped in God's Black complexion." Some stellar outside contributions notwithstanding, Cheat Codes stimulates most when Mouse and Thought are sequestered, allowing the latter to leave space only for the occasional instrumental break or rare prominent sampled vocal. The title track is an unremitting torrent of high-alert reality checks like "Shit, it's real when you done lost your last feeling/Jump then bounce back off the glass ceiling/Back to stealing, to Xanax and smack dealing." "Violas and Lupitas," which could triple in length without losing its transfixing power, ends the album with a grand flourish: "Go ask them about the gatekeeper, world leader/Kill shit quicker than Usain could run a hundred meter." Quotables such as that, over a production that skillfully combines opulence and grit, prove that the duo fulfilled their plan right on time.

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