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In Case You Missed It: On 2022's Cheat Codes, Danger Mouse and Black Thought explore liberation

Cheat Codes Album Cover
Cheat Codes Album Cover

Music fans around the world are already starting to compile their year-end lists of best songs and albums from 2022. WYSO Music intern Peter Day brings us his thoughts on a notable release from this summer, a collaborative project by rapper Black Thought and producer Danger Mouse.

MF Doom and Madlib, DJ Premier and Guru, Playboy Carti and Pierre Bourne— Rapper-producer duos are responsible for some of my favorite hip-hop albums of all time. And it’s no surprise. What better formula is there for a great rap album than the harmony of banging beats and articulate bars?

Black Thought and Danger Mouse’s new album, Cheat Codes, shows that this elemental formula of hip-hop still makes for exciting, and provocative, work. Black Thought is a veteran MC often lauded by critics for his outstanding technical and lyrical abilities; you may know him for founding the hip-hop band The Roots with Amir “Questlove” Thompson, and for a legendary 10-minute freestyle on Hot 97 from 2017. Danger Mouse is a musician, songwriter, and record producer who first came to prominence when he released The Grey Album in 2004, which stitched together Jay-Z’s Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album. Since then, he has collaborated with CeeLo Green, MF Doom, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others

According to Danger Mouse, his collaboration with Black Thought dates back to the mid 2000s. However, the tracks on Cheat Codes sound anything but overwrought. The opening track, “Sometimes,” introduces the album sonically and thematically. Danger Mouse builds the track around a sample from Gwen McCrae’s 1976 song, “Love Without Sex,” which features McCrae’s soulful vocals and an epic orchestral arangement. Like other samples on the album, Danger Mouse manages to chop, rearrange, and distort McCrae’s song without stripping it of its analog warmth and classic sound. Black Thought’s lyrics also set the stage for the rest of Cheat Codes. He begins the track,

Prisoners of Azkaban, thinking of a master plan

Images of grandeur by Jamel Shabazz, Dapper Dan

Clap your hands, whether you in Paterson or Pakistan

Richard Wright, Black boy that grew into a Blacker man

The theme of escape -- from mental prisons and from desperate circumstances -- is central to Cheat Codes. The album celebrates Black pride, and artistic creation, as forms of liberation. Often, Black Thought nods to other groundbreaking Black artists—like photographer Jamal Shabazz, designer Dapper Dan, or writer Richard Wright, on “Sometimes”. On the track “The Darkest Part,” Black Thought focuses on his own artistic process. He rhymes, “To me, they done something, they tried to clip my wings / But not before I understood how any caged bird sings.”

Excellent guest features also make Cheat Codes a pleasure to listen to. “Because” gets a catchy hook from Dylan Cartlidge, whose vocals blend well with the track’s laid back soul sound. “Belize” features a verse from MF Doom, who died two years before the album’s release. Doom’s wordplay and layered rhymes sound at home over the frantic synth line of Danger Mouse’s beat, and complement the heavy content of Black Thought’s verses. Perhaps the most hard-hitting track on the album is “Strangers,” which features compelling performances from A$AP Rocky and Run The Jewels (another great rapper-producer duo composed of El-P and Killer Mike) and a heavy, grimy beat from Danger Mouse.

With a run time of just under 40 minutes, Cheat Codes is concise, but powerful. Black Thought delivers provocative, layered lyrics about Black struggle and liberation with impeccable technique; Danger Mouse flips soul samples into grimy ear worms that sound like records crate dug in another dimension. Perhaps, in time, Cheat Codes will join the canon of iconic rapper-producer classics.

Peter Day writes and produces stories for WYSO’s music department. His works include a feature about Dayton's premiere Silent Disco and a profile of British rapper Little Simz. He also assists with station operations and serves as fill-in host for Behind the Groove. Peter began interning at WYSO in 2019 and, in his spare time while earning his anthropology degree, he served as program director for Yale University’s student radio station, WYBC.