Danger Mouse (born Brian Burton) is arguably one of the most versatile and prolific artists and producers in music right now: As an artist he has been one-half of Broken Bells and Grammy Award-winning Gnarls Barkley. As a producer, he has recorded collaborative albums with Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ Karen O and the late, legendary MF DOOM. And he has worked with Adele, U2, The Black Keys, Gorillaz, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Kiwanuka, Parquet Courts and a lengthy list of others.
Black Thought (born Tariq Trotter) is a co-founder and frontman of Grammy Award winning, pioneering hip-hop act The Roots. Trotter is also an accomplished solo artist who has released a critically applauded album and two EPs: 2020’s Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cane & Able and 2018’s Streams of Thought Vol. 1 EP and Streams of Thought Vol. 2 EP, which helped further his reputation among the cognoscenti — and real hip hop heads — as one of the dopest emcees to ever spit bars. Adding to a lengthy list of accolades and accomplishments, Trotter has acted in film and theater, along with having writing and producer credits.
The acclaimed duo’s long-rumored, long-awaited and highly-anticipated joint album Cheat Codes was released earlier this year through BMG. While Cheat Codes simultaneously marks Danger Mouse’s first hip-hop album since 2005’s DANGERDOOM with MF DOOM and the follow-up to Black Thoughts’ solo trilogy Streams of Thought, their collaboration can be traced back almost almost 20 years earlier: Trotter and Burton first met back in 2005. They started working on material — but time went on, life happened, other projects and obligations came up.
Following 2004’s acclaimed The Grey Album, Burton became one of the most in-demand and prolific producers of the day, helming several commercially and critically successful projects, which led to a bevy of accolades and awards. He also developed collaborations with a unique and eclectic array of artists while expanding upon and honing his own musicianship, production and writing.
During that same period of time, The Roots released a batch of critically applauded albums and became the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon then The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Trotter released his aforementioned, critically applauded solo trilogy Streams of Thought. He collaborated with the likes of Eminem, John Legend, Pusha T., Griselda, and a list of others. He wrote, composed and starred in the widely-praised off-Broadway show Black No More. And adding to a lengthy list of accomplishments, he co-produced a TV series with his Roots bandmate Questlove.
Each mistakenly thought that the other had moved on and their collaboration just died, but as it turned out, neither one never stopped wanting to work together. Burton had long felt an instinctive need to return to his roots and make a timeless hip-hop album. He knew that Trotter was one of the few emcees truly capable of fulfilling that vision. Simultaneously, Trotter was seeking a space, where he could express himself musically and creatively beyond the confines and structures of his own band.
This time, Burton was a far more seasoned songwriter and producer, Trotter an even more extraordinary emcee. So, setting aside all distractions, Burton played Trotter some new music he had had. The ideas and words quickly flowed — and the experience was liberating.
Meticulously built over a period of several years, Cheat Codes finds Burton pushing widescreen, soul-infused hip-hop soundscapes to new directions paired with Trotter’s commanding presence, incisive lyricism and dexterous wordplay. Unlike the typical producer-meets-rapper/side project, Cheat Codes is an effort between two like-minded collaborators, who raise each other’s games to new heights.
In the lead up to Cheat Codes‘ release, I managed to write about three of the album’s singles:
- “No Gold Teeth,” which featured a warm and dusty psych soul-like production that brings RZA, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier to mind, that serves as a lush bed for Black Thought’s dense, rapid fire, lyrical deluge.
- “Because,” which features a slow-burning, psych soul-inspired production paired with a vocal hook by Dylan Cartlidge. While being another example of the deep and uncannily innate simpatico shared between the two acclaimed collaborators, “Because” is chock full of dope bars, impressive wordplay and mind-blowing inner and outer rhyme schemes in an easy-going yet urgent cypher between Black Thought, Joey Bada$$ and Russ, that weaves in and out of the political and the personal.
- “Aquamarine,” a woozy and cinematic song featuring skittering hi-hat, thumping beats and squiggling bursts paired with a soaring hook from acclaimed British soul artist Micheal Kiwanuka. The production is a lush and roomy bed for Black Thought’s imitable, hard-hitting bars. “For ‘Aquamarine,’ when I heard the music I just had a feeling to sing about standing up for something that’s unique and following that path”, Kiwanuka says. “I don’t know why but that’s what came out. Sometimes when you’re following something that’s unique to you it’s as if ‘enemies are all around’. At times life can feel fragile like ‘everything’s burning down’. For some reason the chords and music made me feel that way.”
- “Strangers,” a neck-snapping banger featuring four of the game’s dopest emcees right no — Black Thought, A$AP Rocky, Killer Mike and El-P spitting flames on a woozy and dusty production paired with tweeter and woofer rattling beats, sampled B-movie dialogue and soulful vocal samples.
The album’s latest single “Belize” finds Danger Mouse crafting a woozily cinematic soundscape featuring warm and soulful brass, a driving and hypnotic bas line paired with twinkling and reverb-drenched keys and an equally soulful vocal sample. The production is complex yet flexible enough to accommodate Black Thought’s razor sharp and precise bars and MF DOOM’s loose, almost conversational flow.
“Belize” much like the album’s other singles is an example of the power and creativity of like-minded collaborators pushing each other — and their respective work in brilliant, new directions. But it’s also a powerful reminder that the legendary artists never really die.
Shot in a gorgeously cinematic black and white, the accompanying video features Black Thought in a sparsely arranged, old office space with a spotlight. The camera pulls back to reveal Danger Mouse in shadow, shooting his friend and collaborator. When DOOM starts his verses, Danger Mouse puts the camera on a tripod, so that he could pay his respects to the late legend.