Danger Mouse & Black Thought: Cheat Codes – Review

When it comes to The Roots or Black Thought–as a solo artist–even the pseudo remixes on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon–Black Thought never disappoints, even when your anticipation is high. With Cheat Codes, his new album alongside musician/producer Danger Mouse, Black Thought emboldens his status in Hip-Hop, delivering an influx of lucid and poignant verses. There is constant intrigue in Thought’s words as he gives perspective parallels to the simplicity behind the realism, amongst other styles like flexing and relevant criticism. The music takes you by the horns, offering a refreshing album that finds home on stoops with the homies where you’re blaring it from speakers, despite some minor drawbacks from weak featured performances.

Black Thought morphs imagery fluidly, barely seeming to skip a beat like he’s some rap prodigy, but that’s been evident since trading bars with Dice Raw in the 90s. Cheat Codes takes us back 20-30 years when sampling was a check-mark component of Hip-Hop/R&B, though Thought and Danger Mouse craft it with nuance. It’s a driving force behind Cheat Codes, as it shifts through varying styles contextually, from reflective raps to evoking multi-layered flexes, etc. Though on a vague level, it is reflective of most rappers–how Black Thought writes and spews off the dome offers clean structures and intricate rhyme schemes. There’s innate synergy, especially with the shift toward a style more potent from 1993–2006–think J Dilla, DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, The Hitmen, etc. Danger Mouse, a veteran from the era, brings seamless craftsmanship as the samples get incorporated into the beat/production for Black Thought to spit profusely. “No Gold Teeth,” amongst others, encompass these samples as the glue between sounds, allowing us to stay keen on the distinct switches between beats.

“No Gold Teeth” is a keen example of both and a favorite. It gives us a detailed retelling of Thought’s career and how the grind reflects the earned confidence he imbues with his status as a rapper–one example: “Philly ain’t known for cheesesteak sandwiches only, stop/Yo, I’m at the top where it’s lonely/I got everybody mean-mugging like Nick Nolte/But nah, I won’t stop, won’t drop, won’t retire.” Like “Close to Famous,” it’s an inner jolt where he doesn’t push aside the kind of feeling that comes with one’s history and allows it to be a given to maintain focus as a proper form of rags to riches. It’s how he can keep others mean mugging without relenting on the abundance of grandeur. He mentions chains in passing as an achievement instead of a representation of net worth. Danger Mouse incorporates the opening string orchestration and some humming from the song “Stop” by South African Trumpeteer Hugh Masekela, which gets used as a contrast to Thought’s tone. 

Similarly, with the sampling in “Saltwater,” Danger Mouse incorporates sequencing from Italian Rock Band Biglietto Per L’Inferno’s operatic “L’amico suicida,” establishing the tone for the track eloquently. Featuring Conway the Machine, Black Thought, and Conway trade verses that position themselves on this tentpole of unfuckwithable, or one not to fuck with based on how they describe themselves. Like when Conway raps, “Look, they heard me rhymin’, they wanna know where they find me at/The grimy cat from the May Street trenches, insomniac/Three in the mornin’, lurkin’ in that Pontiac/Where I’m from, you gotta take your pole even when you go to the laundromat (Keep it on you).” Black Thought intersects criticisms toward youths aiming to rap for the glamour–forgetting how some come from these grimy roots striving for a voice instead of the money, then shifting to display a difference when it comes to the power of words, like when he rapped: “We pass the baton like a drum major at Howard/We transfer the power for salt, water, and flour/My pen packs a dawah, Akira Kurosawa/My ideas is gunpowder, secure the tower.” The layers within this sequence are also potent throughout the album; it has more standing on the solo ventures, unlike most with features.

Conway, MF DOOM, Raekwon, Killer Mike, and ASAP Rocky have an excellent presence on these features, the former three more so than the latter two, but a few others seem to disjoint from what is effervescently flowing through Danger Mouse and Black Thought. There is a clear synergy between Thought and these featured rappers, but not all can match the lyrical and technical poignancy of the reference sheet Thought delivers. It’s especially the case with El-P on “Strangers” and Joey Bada$$ & Russ on “Because,” which brings forth ubiquitous bars that don’t feel fresh and new, instead becoming a reflection of past selves that aren’t as interesting. It feels more of a throwaway when pinned up against the complexities of “Belize,” which comes across as an expanded flex that attacks various angles from both Thought and MF DOOM– posthumously.

Cheat Codes continues to show Black Thought’s dominance as a lyricist, accompanied by fantastic production from Danger Mouse and delivering platters of whimsically thrilling verses. But like past realized projects, Thought seems to stumble with making sure the performances are up to par with the direction he wants to take, because there are many here. Though it isn’t hard to be too distinguishable, comparatively, some get notice, and you’re quickly yawning after the final outcome. It’s a fantastic album nonetheless and definitely encourage all hip-hop fans to take a seat and indulge.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Gnarls Barkley – St. Elsewhere: 15 Years Later and Still Crazy.

The superlative behind an album’s time since it’s initial release carries many distinct meanings, dependent on its importance at the time. So as we approach the 15-Year mark since the release of St. Elsewhere by duo Gnarls Barkley, I start to think how it hasn’t had a monumental presence beyond its monstrous first single, “Crazy.” The duo, consisting of rapper/singer Cee-Lo Green and producer Danger Mouse, were not heavy names in the stratosphere of music for many casual listeners because they didn’t breach into pop charts or delved into the common trend at the time. You could make the case that Danger Mouse had credibility before diving in upon release, as he did some production, including lead single “Clint Eastwood,” off the debut for the band Gorillaz. So as we revisit St. Elsewhere, let’s remember the phenomenal collection of poignant tracks with an effervescent array of eclectic production that didn’t garner as much attention as the perfectly crafted “Crazy.”

At the peak of their debut, along with the single “Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley wasn’t part of the bigger pop and R&B/Hip-Hop niche that circulated many radio stations. From Ciara, Chamillionaire, and Chingy to Natasha Bedingfield and Daniel Powter, if your music/sound didn’t have anything that resonated with a similar stylistic direction, you most likely wouldn’t breach further into the everyday Hot 100 listener – pre streaming. St. Elsewhere had its moment in the sun and took every advantage at this peak. And it did so with the track “Crazy,” which was an embodiment of their artistry. Though the album doesn’t have cohesion for simple accessibility (based on musical sensibilities), it did bring about a lush group of sounds that flows well with Cee-Lo’s vocal performances and Danger Mouse’s complex production.

The sonic infusions within the soul-like core were ahead of the time in its stylistic approach, which was less rooted in gospel than a traditional or pop-modern soul (like Ruben Studdard). It didn’t become a genre that expanded into experimenting with these different additions, consistently, until the last few years with a plethora of new artists switching the way it sounds. This is in conjunction with what – almost – every genre has been doing recently with our technological and mental growth. However, the varying use of synths and electronic sounds adds different aspects from the music of older soul-influences that influenced them. This sound is a hybrid of a psychedelic atmosphere with either soul or R&B undertones that were more prevalent in the late 60s and 70s, like the heavy bass lines and snares. 

This is heard within the final mixes of tracks, like “St. Elsewhere” and “Go-Go Gadget Gospel,” who, outside of their biggest hit “Crazy,” are embodiments of the sounds the rest of the tracks would take from and create a bigger world outside the music. But at the time, the singles that followed didn’t have much life on the American charts outside of “Crazy.” But including “Crazy,” a lot of their singles had a second life in Europe. “Crazy” shouldn’t surprise you because of the duality it has from being nuanced to older variations and experimental, which Europe fawns over without hesitation. The base – stylistic approach to the different production allowed it to find its way into the array of glossy playlist and stations from the way the surface layer of the tracks feeds its energy to you, specifically the less unique (loose term) ones, like “Necromancer.” You can hear the difference between the vibrance of “Crazy” and the twinkly grit of “Necromancer.”

Heavy piano notes that evoke the atmospheric textures, specifically in the expanded range of Cee-Lo’s naturalistic soulful voice, streamline the production on “Crazy.” This isn’t much different from the other soul-centric/alt-rock (esque) tracks, as well as the hip-hop oriented one. Cee-Lo’s control of his raspy baritone/tenor allows for an extra level of awe as we hear him go about these various subjects. This has been a natural strength, which has helped add more to his music during his Goodie Mob days and his solo career. It’s design from its lyrics and melodies makes it accessible for covers at different tempos. 

“Crazy” has this immense popularity and prominence in performance culture, but the fact that it never reached number #1 in the Hot 100 changed how it is seen – between being a blessing and a curse. It was the better – objectively speaking – track between the two other ones that were #1 at its peak, which was #2 for seven weeks. Outside of our own continent, it soared through Europe and reached momentous heights in the UK. A plethora of similar tracks like “Smiling Faces,” “Just A Thought,” and their cover of the Violent Femmes track, “Gone Daddy Gone,” didn’t find equal footing as “Crazy.” 

But the rest of the album has a constant within the production that comes from an eclectic mix of jazz and hip-hop percussion/horns and electronic instruments that circumvent the varying grooves into the slight uniqueness of it. Cee-Lo adds definition with his lustrous vocals, which has constant changes, depending on the kind of direction it wants to take, like the bombastic “Go Go Gadget Gospel,” and their remake of the Violent Femmes song “Gone Daddy Gone.” Both songs are as infectious, if not more than “Crazy,” but it does not get remembered as much because the music world was in an era where that kind rock bravado was more poignant in pop-punk and the semi-screamo punk, like Bullet For My Valentine and All American Rejects. So for this to break through with the beautifully contrasting “Who Cares?” would have been some kind of miracle. It all comes together with the instrumental undertones, like synth bass and the minimoog. 

These varying degrees of musical impacts left an impression on a younger me. The younger version of myself, who couldn’t figure out why radio hosts were deafening their ears with cheesy bubblegum/ballad pop and rock, when something beautifully different was there, waiting for someone to call them center stage. I remember falling in love with “Crazy” when it hit its initial run on the Z100, but when I purchased the album and gave it a listen, I began to admire the various electronic instruments, like the Roland JX-3P. But as you sit there, reading the amount of gush and praise I’m giving St. Elsewhere, the popularity on the internet is stagnant and maintains the SEO search popularity akin to “one hit wonders.” 

When it comes to searching the term, “Gnarls Barkley,” on YouTube, it delivers an onslaught of “Crazy” content. There are many covers and edited montages of award show performances of the song, but within the crevices the music videos for other songs from St. Elsewhere are there at an outdated 360/480 standard definition conversion. I’m out here expressing glee with the amount of love and notoriety “Crazy” and their other songs of equal quality. Even behind the guise that search engines have, the amount of expansive content on their work is put into these short perspectives with enough expressions of love and enjoyment. 

And now, 15-Years later, St. Elsewhere hasn’t seen the kind of appraisal it deserves. Hopefully I have been able to influence you to go and listen or revisit St. Elsewhere, a masterwork of soul, waiting for new listeners to hop on board the psychedelic train to Elsewhere. And keep their name alive as we graciously wait for the release of their third album, whenever that will be.