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'Cheat Codes' is the album Black Thought couldn't have made until now

Black Thought and producer Danger Mouse define a new lane for the rapper on the collaborative album <em>Cheat Codes</em>.
Shervin Lainez
Courtesy of the artist
Black Thought and producer Danger Mouse define a new lane for the rapper on the collaborative album Cheat Codes.

For many years, the Black Thought solo album felt like an imaginary object, long rumored yet never revealed. It went by several names — Masterpiece Theatre, The Talented Mr. Trotter — and had many soft launches. The Philly rapper born Tariq Trotter had of course already displayed his otherworldly dexterity as frontman and co-founder of The Roots, and, beginning in 2018, emerged as a willing and capable soloist with a series of freewheeling mini-releases. But for most rappers, a proper debut album is a statement of artistic purpose. For a rapper in a group, it is also a chance to establish a fully independent identity. Even as Black Thought the solo artist steadily took shape, his album — the album — remained elusive.

Cheat Codes, Trotter's new collaboration with the producer Danger Mouse, is that quintessential Black Thought album, the one long awaited by diehards, the first of his recent projects to transcend his supreme skill as a rhymer and define his music beyond his intense technique. As a soloist, Trotter has tended to write like a world traveler, making offhand references to the chupacabra or Bach, Amon-Ra or the hajj, his raps crowded but fluid as if he were sloshing on foot through a quagmire. Here, he finally locates himself within his songs: as a hometown hero who brought rap game theory to national TV yet remains cognizant of the Black struggle, who is trying to reconcile the world he's entered with the one he's from. If there are two Americas, Trotter has straddled both, and Cheat Codes shares lessons learned during his travels, with a clear frame of mind that is new ground even for one of rap's peerless performers.

As the voice of the legendary Roots crew, Trotter is both representative and accessory. The group is built around his indelible lyricism, but he has always been deferential to the collective, its ideas and organization. The Roots is also a live band, and moving through those arrangements requires a specific potency and stamina. Books on rapping have lauded his gifts as a performer: In How to Rap, Kool G Rap champions Trotter's breath control and execution in a Roots staging of his song "Men at Work." Watching the clip, you are immediately struck by the physicality of his recitation, how forcefully and consistently he rattles off phrases, like a boxer working a speed bag. Yet that asset can also be a strange kind of liability in hip-hop. "Sometimes MCs' flows can so dominate their styles that they overshadow other elements of craft," Adam Bradley writes of Trotter in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop. "Set within the complex soundscapes offered up by the rest of the group, Black Thought's liquid flow at times nearly washes away his meaning."

The Roots released their last album in 2014 and followed Jimmy Fallon to The Tonight Show the same year, and a sense emerged that rapping might have become a secondary concern for Black Thought, admittedly a less ferocious presence at the head of a late-night house band. When Funk Flex invited him to participate in his ongoing freestyle series on Hot 97 in 2017, the rapper seemed to take the opportunity as a challenge — a way to reassert himself as not only an ambassador of the culture but a lethal technician. The performance was a viral moment that renewed conversations about barring out, and within the epic polemic were hints of a coming return: "Them brothers said, 'Don't go from written bars filled with rage / To primetime television and your gilded cage / Then forget there's people in the world still enslaved.' "

Six months later came Streams of Thought Vol. 1, the first of a trio of single-producer collections that diverge sharply from The Roots' live instrumentation and conceptual arcs. As far back as 2001, Trotter seemed to already understand how he wanted his solo work to function: "The difference between a Black Thought album and a Roots album is the texture," he told MTV News, promising that his eventual debut would stick to samples. Streams of Thought delivered that vision via esteemed beatmakers 9th Wonder, Salaam Remi and Sean C, but mainly as a sparring exercise: Trotter's presence on them is raw and loose, and they're better understood as small monuments to his talent than for their substance.

There is immediately a greater focus and intent to Cheat Codes, beginning with the production. The flips are simple and elegant, the drums understated. There is enough space within the loops for Trotter's voice to probe through. Where Sean C compared the beats he made for Streams of Thought, Vol. 3 to the '70s feel of Jay-Z's American Gangster, Cheat Codes curates soul, psych rock and funk samples from the same era into a weirder, more warped palette. Danger Mouse constructed these beats with Black Thought and his skill set specifically in mind, and the rapper moves through them deliberately, without compromising what are some of his most writerly verses. Together, the two cohere around a mission to build a classicist album fit for the form's elder statesmen.

Relentless motion is clearly in Trotter's DNA, a trait he traces back to childhood: "My birthplace taught me not to stop / I'm more advanced than my classmates / I came into the game on a fast break," he raps on "No Gold Teeth." Many songs on Cheat Codes are built around a single extended verse, though compared to his knotty Hot 97 filibuster they're compact and restrained, there to be not merely heeded but understood. Take the wavy "Identical Deaths," in which Black Thought is interviewed by God and keeps his cool, making gentle swoops from bar to bar as if trying to carefully pen a letter in cursive. On the title track, he works through the mindset of the "young gunners" running stickups in Philly, only to zoom out at the end and account for the larger systems that created them, using the mic like a bullhorn.

Virtuosity is too often presented as a shorthand for lyricism, and though some rappers have earned notoriety from the former, beneath the surface their verses are often empty. Trotter isn't immune to using technical hyper-proficiency to mask bombast, but even his most ill-defined rhymes carry a certain gravitas in their momentum, the deeply alliterative wordplay generating its own mystique. However, none of his previous releases have matched this novelistic charm with attentive storytelling the way Cheat Codes does. With "Because," he paints a vivid picture of the limited options that lead many into the carceral system. The winding verses of "Sometimes" and "Violas & Lupitas" are packed with little vignettes, and sometimes a bar will contain an entire scene: "Juke joint party lights lit the Harlem nights / Peas and rice made a Judas out of Garveyites."

There is still plenty of rapping about how great he is at rapping, but the verses more often turn on nuggets of personal discovery ("Richard Wright, Black Boy that grew into a Blacker man") and accumulated wisdom. Where Vol. 3 of Streams of Thought often felt aimlessly political, a concept record without a real agenda, the perspective here is tighter and more self-affirming. On "The Darkest Part," he mulls injustice, freedom, and the weight of the soul ("I came to take back that other two-fifths of a man"). Later, on "Saltwater," he distinguishes himself as a seasoned OG, not a lecturer; his rapping is surly but not disillusioned, observant but not sanctimonious. Even the songs that do fixate on the rap game as a sporting arena do so astutely: In the elongated verse of "Close to Famous," he measures the extent of his influence and the skill and experience gap between him as a veteran and rap's overnight sensations. Much of his case, like the album overall, is constructed around the idea that he can read any room and speak its language.

Trotter is not our only rapper-scholar, but his position in the culture is close to unique. "Bring the Cambridge, the Websters, the Oxfords ... Product of the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets," he raps on "Belize," presenting his career as a bridge between street intellectuals and academic authorities, rap as cipher and rap as literature. The notion of a full-length collaboration between Black Thought and Danger Mouse long predates his years on network television or the dynamic if arguably vain showcase of Streams of Thought, but the results are nonetheless a culmination of that history. Listening now, it can feel like all those years the album went unmade are what made it possible.

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Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]