In the annals of contemporary musical history, Danger Mouse will surely go down as one of the greats. Brian Burton has certainly proven himself to be one of the most diverse producers and collaborators in modern music; in the past 20 years he has teamed up with everyone from The Shins’ James Mercer (on Broken Bells), soul singer Cee-Lo Green (as Gnarls Barkley), rapper MF Doom (Danger Doom) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O (as Lux Prima) and has produced everyone from U2 and Adele to A$AP Rocky. And he’s still only 44.
The perennial overachiever’s latest collaboration is with rapper Black Thought, best known for co-founding and fronting Philadelphian hip-hop band The Roots and a highly regarded wordsmith and MC in his own right. Their alliance began in 2005, when the pair first met and dabbled on fledgling songs. Seventeen years later, older, wiser and collectively more experienced, they found themselves pulled back together in a bid to create a classic hip-hop album, with the help of a few friends.
The roll call of names on Cheat Codes — MF Doom to A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$, Raekwon and Run the Jewels — is certainly enough to make any rap fan weak at the knees, but this is undoubtedly Danger Mouse and Black Thought’s baby. The former’s stamp is all over these songs, not least in the multitude of vintage soul samples littered throughout; album highlight No Gold Teeth samples South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela’s 1968 song Stop to stellar effect, as Black Thought drops one cleverly crafted line after another: “Philly ain’t known for cheese steak sandwiches only,” he raps. “Stop, yo, I’m at the top where it’s lonely / I got everybody mean muggin’ like Nick Nolte.”
It’s not all about the hustle, though. Identical Deaths takes a confessional slant, while the serpentine Because prods at both politics and vulnerability, aided and abetted by Joey Bada$$ and friends: “I don’t vacation, dog,” he laments, “I guilt trip.” There is no questioning his aptitude as a lyricist, brazenly rhyming “echelon” with “pressure on”, as he does on the Raekwon-featuring The Darkest Part, or namechecking Bruce Springsteen, Sidney Poitier and Don Quixote within the space of a few bars, as heard on Violas and Lupitas.
For all the impressive lexicology and the slick soundtrack, however, there is a disjointed feel to this album. Perhaps it’s the long gestation period, or maybe it’s the motley guest line-up. Either way, the pair have created a solid record — just not the modern classic that they might have hoped for.