In bars per square inch, no album this year (so far) is denser than Cheat Codes, the collaborative effort of two tenured hip-hop craftsmen, out today (August 12). The album is carefully produced by Danger Mouse, intricately layered with the bars of Black Thought (at his best as always), and features a host of previous collaborators and the perfect voices to texturize the duo’s trip from beginning to end.
Cheat Codes brings several ear-catching features. Spread throughout the 38-minute project are appearances from Raekwon, Joey Bada$$, Russ, A$AP Rocky, Run the Jewels and even a posthumous MF DOOM from the same era as the collaboration’s inception, with two to three guests often popping up on a track.
In the 17 years since Mouse’s last hip-hop album, The Mouse and the Mask with MF DOOM, he’s produced arguably the best Gorillaz record, Demon Days, the Black Keys’ most commercially successful project, Brothers, and put out two albums as one half of Gnarls Barkley with CeeLo Green, one of which gave us “Crazy,” a record likely inseparable from whatever you were doing in the late 2000s. Mouse’s track record as a one-of-one collaborator is steeped in golden records, and his return to hip-hop with Thought (who the producer told The Ringer was his favorite childhood rapper) is no exception.
“I think if I had done this 10, 12 years ago, it would’ve been trying to prove something more,” the producer said in The Ringer interview. “This time it was more trying to make something I thought I’d want to hear myself.”
On Cheat Codes, Mouse weaves a weighty soundscape worthy of sharing in collaboration with a childhood inspiration. Sometimes soulful, sometimes grimy, sometimes triumphant, sometimes mystical, but always all-in, the album recalls the boom-bap origins of its initial inception in the mid-2000s, while also sounding like something that couldn’t have been made back then and nothing being made right now.
The dancing ebony and ivory keys of “The Darkest Part,” featuring Raekwon and Kid Sister, shows early in the album what Danger-Thought is bringing at its peak. The production of each track is unique enough to stand out while still feeling like a climatic extension of the previous record. Thought often floats under and between the beats, his staccato flow piercing the track as much an instrument as a commanding set of rhymes. Each feature fits seamlessly into the Danger-Thought dance.
“The approach was to arrive at an idea and then build on it,” Thought said in an interview with The A.V. Club. “Every song that I wrote was written specifically to the music that you hear, like to the accompaniment. But none of it was complete when I wrote to it. So there’d be an idea, I’d write an idea and record some stuff. And then after we agreed upon where whatever it is that I’m doing is going to live, then he’ll finish sort of building around that, bass lines and different choral elements and different little subtle sample nuances that he’s able to add sort of after the fact.”
Listen through headphones, and even the mastering seems carefully catered to a head-spinning experience. The stereo sound of the title track sends the beat from left ear to right ear at an oscillating pace, matching the back and forth of the natural head nod that follows nearly any Black Thought verse. The effect places the rapper’s words like a voice in your head spinning around and around — one verse after another, the thoughts are intense but fleeting. The joint effort makes even the body an extension of the Danger-Thought chemistry.
Check out the full tracklist:
2. “Cheat Codes”
3. “The Darkest Part” ft. Raekwon and Kid Sister
4. “No Gold Teeth”
5. “Because” ft. Joey Bada$$, Russ and Dylan Cartlidge
6. “Belize” ft. MF Doom
7. “Aquamarine” ft. Michael Kiwanuka
8. “Identical Deaths”
9. “Strangers” ft. A$AP Rocky and Run the Jewels
10. “Close to Famous”
11. “Saltwater” ft. Conway the Machine
12. “Voilas & Lupitas”
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