Among Picky Bastards I’m not known for my love of hip-hop. That’s not to say I don’t like any hip-hop, but perhaps I’m fussier about it than other genres. There are specific attributes I look for in the hip-hop I do like: producer led; driven by old soul, jazz and funk samples that I like to imagine are still dug out from crates; something harking back to the greatest era of hip-hop (mid 90s, obvs); and something that might be described as ‘conscious’ rather than leaning on lazy tropes of misogyny, gun violence and conspicuous displays of wealth.
So when I heard that Danger Mouse, surely one of this century’s most influential producers (and not just in hip-hop), was teaming up with Black Thought of The Roots, surely one of the most critically acclaimed 90s hip-hop acts, for a new album, I was of course excited. This was clearly going to be ticking plenty of boxes for me.
And when I first heard a track from Cheat Codes, ‘No Gold Teeth’, this excitement was crystallised.
Judging by the long list of collaborators, there was clearly a big pull and plenty of excitement among musicians too. From Michael Kiwanuka to Conway the Machine, from Run the Jewels to Raekwon they seem to be queuing up to be a part of this special pairing. A pairing so special in fact that they’ve even managed an MF DOOM feature, the best part of two years after his passing.
As you might expect from an album featuring a renowned producer and renowned rapper, the two standout features are those would be crate-dug samples and the level of the vocal performances – that is, aside from ‘Sometimes’ which features the rhyme of ‘Azkaban’ with ‘Pakistan’ in the opening quatrain of the album which is just plain wrong. Fortunately, things pick up almost immediately.
The pace of the sampling is relentless and, if you’re anything like me, will have you looking up every track to discover the source materials. Samples come from more obvious sources like Gwen McCrae and Hugh Masekela, whose work you will be familiar with from samples elsewhere, even if you don’t know the name. They also come from less likely places, like Kiki Dee, fortunately sped up on ‘The Darkest Part’ for everyone’s benefit. This track more proudly boasts the best combination of guests on the album with Raekwon and the previously unknown to me Kid Sister. A$AP Rocky and Run the Jewels’ ‘Strangers’ and earworm ‘Because’ with – you know what I’m not going list all of them (look it up yourself), but their names do also contain $$ – give them a close run for their money though.
Next up is ‘No Gold Teeth’, the very song that grabbed my attention and brought me here in the first place. That high pitched guitar twang is irresistible and Black Thought varies the rhythm and pace of his delivery more than elsewhere, making it a real standout. This has got to be one of the songs of the year. If I was Fran I would put it on some sort of list. As it’s me, just take my word for it now and don’t expect me to remind you come list week in December.
‘Belize’ features the posthumous (release-wise at least) MF DOOM feature, recycled from recording sessions for an earlier album. I can’t say it’s his best, but his distinctive flow does bring some welcome variety. The Mercury Prize Winning™ Michael Kiwanuka feature, likewise, offers something different among the superfluity of rappers on Cheat Codes. Just look at the Brits (ish) owning the middle of a massive US hip-hop album.
Unlike some other hip-hop albums, Cheat Codes also avoids falling into the trap of being overly long due to a tonne of filler tracks and unnecessary interludes, coming in at a near-perfect 38 minutes. But thanks to the often short tracks there’s still time towards the end for the darker tone of ‘Saltwater’ and ‘Violas and Lupitas’.
A lot of boxes ticked then. Even the scary amount of features, which can often point to an excess of budget in lieu of an excess of original ideas, works well – indeed benefitting Cheat Codes with a range of contrasts. It’s neither protagonist’s finest work so I’m not going to call it a classic, but it’s pretty bloody good.
Words by Jame$ $pearing