They say that success breeds expectation, so when one of the most acclaimed producers of the 21st century – Danger Mouse – and one of the most revered rappers alive – Black Thought – join forces for an album that’s been talked about for almost two decades, it’s safe to say that anticipation is high. Throw features from the likes of Run The Jewels, the late MF DOOM, Raekwon, Michael Kiwanuka, Joey Bada$$ and more into the mix, and you begin to wonder if it might even collapse under the weight of expectation.
Fortunately, both producer and MC are on killer form. Opener ‘Sometimes’ ushers in a sweet sweep of vintage soul; a sample from Gwen McRae’s ‘Love Without Sex’ subtly manipulated by Danger Mouse to allow Black Thought to start unspooling a slick and deliberate flow. The title track sees Black Thought up the intensity, ducking and weaving to keep pace with a beat that’s now sprung up into a punishing jab.
The rest of the record exists somewhere on the spectrum between those two points, blending concentrated energy and a melancholy, old-school smoothness. Such are Danger Mouse’s skills that any gaps between the two are effortlessly smoothed over: the record is incredibly coherent. ‘The Darkest Thought’’s introspective melancholy transitions sharply into ‘No Gold Teeth’s swaggering bounce; the razor-sharp Run The Jewels and A$AP Rocky-featuring ‘Strangers’ blends into the breezy ‘Close To Famous’ with absolute ease.
Black Thought, whose rhythmic dexterity has always been his greatest strength, never falls out of lockstep – whatever the beat. It shows, too, that Danger Mouse has already produced for a number of the featured artists, all of whose energies are folded in well. Conway The Machine’s brooding charisma is complemented by ‘Saltwater’’s elegant gloom; the wistful ‘Aquamarine’ is tailor-made for a voice like Michael Kiwanuka’s. MF DOOM’s appearance on ‘Belize’ bristles with every ounce of the late rapper’s presence. It is clear that everything has been mapped out well in advance.
In the build-up to the release of ‘Cheat Codes’, Black Thought and Danger Mouse made clear their desire to make a ‘timeless’ hip-hop album, and for Danger Mouse in particular to return to his roots in the scene after a career spent genre-jumping. They have made good on those ambitions.
The flipside of that, however, is that there’s little room for innovation: Danger Mouse and Black Thought remain firmly in their comfort zones, and though the record constantly delights, it rarely surprises. It seems a little churlish, however, to criticise two greats for simply living up to their own high standards. ‘Cheat Codes’ is brilliant, but was there ever any doubt?
Release date: August 12
Record label: BMG