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.

Nas & Hit-Boy – Magic: Review

Months after the riotous King’s Disease II, Nas and Hit-Boy reunite for their third collaborative album in Magic; unfortunately, it is far from magical. Nas and Hit-Boy take a new approach oozing nostalgia for 90s Hip-Hop, with the delivery being 50-50. Hit-Boy is back in his bag and finding his path within these sonic complexions with slight modernizations. It rarely feels forced, and yet the album didn’t leave me hungry for more – take into account that King’s Disease III is on its way; Magic is just the interlude. It’s a complex view of Nas’ past through various topics – sometimes he uses it to keep his status in check and other times, to reflect different connotations of the term magic. Fortunately, Magic doesn’t skew away from its sonic and lyrical direction, but it also doesn’t feel like anything special. As hyped as one can be with new Nas for Christmas, it’s an album with few highlights that move the needle, and for the most part, it’s a bit dull.

To call a Nas album dull is rare; the last one was Nasir, and before that, 1999’s Nastradamus. So as Magic kept playing over and over again, only a few made an impact, while others took a minute to grasp me from Nas’ complex lyricism to Hit-Boy’s production, albeit treading familiar territory. Nas’ bravado is also on full display, giving us some stellar flows – it mirrors with Hit-Boy’s production. There isn’t an abundance of originality, as there are moments that have a lot of glamour to sound resonate of a time instead of feeling loose and free. It’s an album I wanted to enjoy more than I did, but sometimes its essence of claps and hi-hats doesn’t let Hit-Boy fully morph it into his sound. In the song “Wave Gods,” Nas proclaims that he and Hit-Boy are the new Gangstarr, and if you were to tell me DJ Premier produced this album, it’d be believable. It’s no knock to Hit-Boy since he eventually shows flashes, but he doesn’t distinguish himself from the pack. 

“Wu for the Children” is one example of Hit-Boy divulging from the standard set of sounds from the 90s Hip-Hop folder on Pro Tools and creating a beat that blends nuances of soulful beats into a piece of blissful originality. It translates with Nas’ lyricism that focuses on themes of regret and acceptance – it’s a reflection of what-ifs and career parallels; in the song, Nas makes this comparison: “Me, Jay, and Frank White is like Cole, Drizzy, and Kenny” – Frank White being Notorious BIG. It is a reflection on how Nas views the next class of Hip-Hop heavyweights as he compares them to the former during their early prime. The way he weaves the story with fluid sequences brings value to his emotions, similarly like “Meet Joe Black.” 

Nas has a safety net for particular flows, but occasionally he breaks from the mold. Like the previously mentioned “Meet Joe Black,” Nas’ emotions are heightened, giving us more impactful flows to boast his braggadocio-don’t-fuck-with-me attitude. Like the lyricism for most tracks, “Meet Joe Black” is full of great metaphors, allusions, and character-building as Nas lets an unknown artist or person know they should not mess with him. However, within the confines of tracks like “Meet Joe Black” and “40-16 Building,” Nas delivers unique bars. There’s the referential one in the former; he uses the surface-level concept of Meet Joe Black (the film) to signify he’ll kill you – it is a film about a man tortured by Death in the body of a young man (Brad Pitt). In the latter, he delivers some corny lines akin, specifically, in the chorus, which has Nas referencing cryptocurrency in a double entendre with the word crip.

Magic is a bit conflicting because there are rarely any tracks that hit at 100%. “40-16 Building” fumbles at times, and on “The Truth,” Nas relays a tried message that probably won’t hit as many people. It could be because it’s been a topic of conversation throughout the ages – i.e. young rappers painting images of fun and enjoyment from drugs, gang activity, and partying like crazy. It’s a mix of this and more, and the levels of which there emoted. Some people lived that life, and others perpetuate themselves to look hard, and that impact holds weight. Nas makes that known, but it doesn’t add anything to the conversation to move that needle. It’s what makes me feel that Magic could have shaved one or two songs to deliver a slightly better EP – the other track being “Ugly.” 

Ultimately, you take what you are given, and that is an album with a lot of pluses and a good amount of negatives. It may not be as memorable amongst the pantheon of Nas albums, but there are enough highlights to keep that Nas hunger filled until King’s Disease III. Magic will hit accordingly for many fans, but it won’t for others, and they will feel what I did when listening to the album.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

The Many FACES Of Mac Miller

When Faces came out in 2014, the ethereal levels Mac Miller imposes on himself has given the title a more direct meaning — opposed to forcing his hand with what works, though it’s been somewhat similar since Macadellic. Watching Movies saw Mac Miller juxtaposing his aspirations with themes that embrace the broken humanity inside, despite coming off brash a few times. Unlike Watching Movies, Mac incorporates lines from Bill Murray, Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, and others as a means to personify his different faces. Unfortunately, these samples won’t see the light of day on the DSP releases since clearing them could get expensive in the long run. But as I’ve spent the last week and a half revisiting the project, a few things ran through my mind — most importantly, how Faces is in some ways a personification of the many facets of Mac Miller’s artistry.

Faces is unlike a lot of Mac Miller projects — it diverges from a tight focus to having loose cohesion with slightly varying production styles. On Faces, you hear Mac Miller, along with co-producers like Thundercat and randomblackdude (Earl Sweatshirt), delivering an array of dreamy, bombastic, jazzy, and psychedelic overtones. And from the percussion-heavy “Malibu” to the smooth cadence of “55,” an interlude orchestrated by Mac and Thundercat, the mixtape would, indirectly, foreshadow the different directions Mac took. “Insomniak” left an impression upon revisiting as it mirrors the flows and production of GO:OD AM, while songs like “Grand Finale” and “Colors and Shapes” feel more aligned with his last two albums.

Like the projects that follow, features and producers are an embodiment of the style Mac Miller approached. In GO:OD AM, Mac Miller delivers smooth, witty, and matured raps over percussion-heavy productions — sans the Lil B interlude. Faces gave fans feature artists feeling loose like most mixtapes and their raw aesthetics. GO:OD AM is tighter by having a cohesive direction in sound. From Frank Dukes to DJ Dahi, the producers have a keen sense of style for percussion — whether it is a solo production or work amongst a few, it takes you through the wringer as Mac Miller flexes. We’ve heard him in pieces, open up about his childhood and adolescence, sometimes bordering on drug abuse and mental health issues, like on “I Know Who I Am (Killin’ Time).” And it continued on Faces

Before the release of GO:OD AM, I was one of many that questioned a lot from listening to Faces. Most of which came from Mac Miller’s inherent drug use and the jaw-dropping moment in “Grand Finale,” where Mac mentions how his habits have worsened, that he’s surprised to be alive. In GO:OD AM, Mac Miller took a different sense of direction, focusing on his successes, family, and future as the music takes a closer look at the immediate world around him as he went from 0-100 real quick in notoriety. GO:OD AM focuses on Mac’s next move, predominately on his and his families well being — it becomes tongue-in-cheek with concepts and titles that speak more than words suggest. With songs like “Brand Name” and “100 Grand Kids,” Mac plays around with his future, knowing he has secured a promising start to the bag. “Insomniak” and “Diablo” mirror what would be the production of this follow-up the year after. “Diablo” has these dark piano keys that subtly control the perceived percussion levels as Mac smoothly raps over it — the production on “Weekend” delivers nuances to the piano keys on “Diablo.”

It would allow him to change face again as he’d release The Divine Feminine.

The Divine Feminine isn’t grounded in typical Mac Miller fashion, with the most non-esoteric song being “Dang!” It sees Mac Miller embracing a form of hip-hop that is hard to create — the concept album. The Divine Feminine embraces a different style where Mac breaks down his walls again, giving fans a conscious understanding of his idea of love as he battles the trials and tribulations of the past. Like GO:OD AM, it continues to show the many faces of Mac Miller — this time incorporating different producers, prevalent to weaving soul and jazz samples on productions to add an extra level of oomph to the music. You hear Mac playing around with these soundscapes on Faces, whether it’s from finding the right way to incorporate “55” and “Angel Dust” within the big picture.

I go more in-depth with The Divine Feminine in my retrospective review, which you can read here.

Swimming and Circles closes a sudden chapter in Mac Miller’s life. It’s a duality between an artist giving a-semi-last go at rap before swimming to a world/genre he once thought about pursuing — singer/songwriter, as he was a homegrown multi-instrumentalist. It wasn’t until The Divine Feminine that we heard Mac Miller singing and pouring his soul out, and it would continue on Swimming, where the melancholy shrouded any sense of realized light in his eye. Mac Miller takes the production and subverts expectations by delivering a blend of genuine hip-hop and other nuances, like the spacey-funk-inspired “Self Care” and the subtle flows of “Small Worlds.” And it comes full-circle on Circles, a sudden 180 from hip-hop as he sings and performs with sadness and despair. Circles saw Mac collaborating with multi-instrumentalist and film-scorer Jon Brion as he weaved together this masterful piece of music. The relative nuances in some of the songs of Faces mirror where we are with Circles — “Grand Finale” and “Good News” in particular, reflect how we feel as fans today, as it expresses two moods: denial and acceptance.

As we’ve turned the corner at another year without Mac Miller, the family and the world embrace the music, and each other, as we collectively remember the legacy he left. Faces make sure of that — especially Rick Ross on “Insomniak,” who lets Mac know about their kinship as artists. If you haven’t listened to Faces, I implore you to do so as it contains some of Mac’s best work as a rapper.

The Divine Feminine: Looking Back at Mac Miller’s Opus 5 Years Later.

There aren’t many rappers who immediately jump to me to listen to their work within minutes of release — Kanye, Common, and Mac Miller, are, and were, some of the very few I have a watchful ear. Like I’ve mentioned previously, I’m someone who holds superlatives at a low — save for the few — some astound me from the length since original release or the feeling of time in-between. For Mac Miller, The Divine Feminine is the latter. The five years since haven’t felt like five years. I remember when I first heard The Divine Feminine — immediately, I galavanted about proclaiming this as Mac’s opus as an artist. To this day, I still firmly believe it, despite knowing that Mac had something better lying dormant in the crevices of his mind that we will never get to hear.

Mac Miller has always been a gifted musician; however, after Watching Movies With The Sound Off, Mac Miller would shift almost all the production to others. For an artist, it is sometimes hard to create unison between sound motifs when using different producers as their input is varied on their strengths. And Mac is privy to this, as he didn’t dabble with production until later in his career. He has been able to create cohesive and intricate music, as his focus remained on sonic motifs — Macadellic had psychedelic overtones, K.I.D.S had boom-bap made by weed smokers, and The Divine Feminine has whimsical piano keys. It speaks to the vulnerability, as it is a standard for love ballads, which in turn mirrors the vulnerability we hear from his singing.

Mac Miller is a standard falsetto without much range in pitch, with his voice only going deeper. But like his storytelling skills, Mac lets his voice express vulnerability since it allows for more emotional range than rapping. Whether we are listening to his darkened thoughts, clogged in the back of his mind like on “Grand Finale” off his Faces, or remedy an argument like on “We” off The Divine Feminine, we’re left in awe by how personable he can be. Mac isn’t new to singing, but he put it on the back burner since it wasn’t one of his strengths.

Unlike Mac Miller’s projects at the time, ambition for him came in the form of song construction since he maintained leveled hip-hop patterns throughout the first half of the decade. Good A:M saw Mac being more experimental with production, song construction, and overall concept. It’s his first fully-fleshed out concept album, as he looks at a modern relationship, specifically, that of two people whose love burns more than the outer layers suggest. 

The Divine Feminine has simple and complex situations that may occur in relationships with depth and relatability. With a clear mindset, Mac relays over his mistakes and the virtues of patience and love through songs like “Congratulations,” “My Favorite Part,” and “Soulmate,”  where Mac finds himself feeling engulfed by many thoughts that fluster his mind. “Congratulations” represents the sentiment from memories that back her divine nature, according to Mac. “Soulmate” sees Mac quantifying the meaning of the word over these triumphant horns on the production, representing the angelic glow he places on his significant other.

“My Favorite Part” was many fan’s introductions to a song where Mac Miller is solely singing. He’s sung hooks and eloquent covers live, which he did on tours — something I was fortunate enough to witness. And on the surface level of “My Favorite Part,” it doesn’t read duet, considering their musical history — and ballsy considering Ariana’s talent. But that flies out the window as soon as the song hits. Following the path of minimalism, in comparison to songs from others of similar nature, they beautifully complement each other, and it has to do with their chemistry. 

“My Favorite Part” is a smooth jazz ballad that exemplifies his deep falsetto, which beautifully compliments the lounge nature of the production. It’s calm and endearing, and you feel the spark between the two. It leaves you entranced with the groovy bass lines to maintain center stage with the percussion. Like the production, “Cinderella” stands out as the best song on The Divine Feminine. It’s a beautiful rap ballad with Ty Dolla Sign, speaking on his idealization and love for Ariana Grande — it is the only song about her on the album. “Cinderella” is split in two — the first part is about Mac’s patience with her, despite other woman’s advances; the second part explains how she made him feel after their first collaboration.

With The Divine Feminine, Mac Miller found something rooted within and explored it with the utmost detail, despite a few songs failing to reach the high point others hit. There are songs like “Skin” and “Planet God Damn,” where the former is the one that isn’t good and the latter, which is enjoyable if you’re into crass and dirty rap. Its placement feels slightly forced, as Mac makes this song specifically about sex, similar to “Skin,” which goes from an endearing love fable to implementing crude lyrics. From there, it starts to lose some importance within the overall concept.

However, what surrounds these songs are some of Mac Miller’s most focused work. Swimming and Circles levied the personable nature, which has given Mac ease with writing intricate rhymes and keeping a consistency. Despite being personal, The Divine Feminine digs into a different sector to deliver common perspectives in a slightly uncanny fashion. Mac takes life experiences; specifically, with past partners, as he reflects growth through different themes, like the meaning of a soulmate and the moods that snap amid an argument. On “Stay,” Mac takes an alternate route to the subject — he pleads to his significant other to stay so he can remedy the situation, as opposed to immediately trying to subvert her trust back with promises that he’ll get better.

Now, it isn’t uncanny for rappers to make love songs, but Mac Miller shifted the concept on its head as he finds new ways to deliver potent material. So, instead of making rudimentary raps about their dates, looks, and flexing riches, Mac is keeping simple by focusing on what makes him happy and trying to maintain stability in this aspect of life. This innate focus has allowed Mac to see the bigger picture when crafting his albums, especially The Divine Feminine. I hold this album in high regard because Mac isn’t just focusing on himself. We see him seeing other perspectives, aghast when they act the opposite, and feeling warmth the more he spends time with his divine feminine. 

In hindsight, The Divine Feminine is Mac Miller’s best work. He takes the wheel and allows his worldview to impact the various moods, whether personal or slightly oblique. But is it perfect? No, but it isn’t far from it. It set the first step for Mac to continue elevating his music with a purpose, and as a fan at the time, it was all one could ask since music heads still had some waning hesitancy. Mac himself was also slowly pushing away from the Frat/Stoner raps of his past and trying to elevate his music to newer levels. He creates depth, even when some songs carry standard situational story structures. The Divine Feminine turned 5, September 16, 2021, and it feels like it’s been 10. The world misses you, Mac.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.