Tariq Trotter, better known to the world as Black Thought, has been such a great rapper for so long that pointing out his greatness, often in ways that imply no one else sufficiently recognizes it, has started to feel like something of a cliché, or at least a recurring meme. Black Thought turns 51 years old this year and has been recording music since 1993, and yet seemingly every time some new electrifying freestyle or casually brilliant performance hits the internet, it sparks a new round of conversation on rap-fan Twitter about how Thought is underrated, how Thought needs to be in your Top 5, how no one ever mentions it but Thought has a case as the GOAT.
The greatest rappers are sui generis and effectively incomparable to one another. Rap fans love ranking their favorite MCs, but arguing that Biggie is definitively better than Lil Wayne or that 2Pac is better than Nas or that Scarface is better than Ghostface quickly becomes subjective to the point of meaninglessness. It can be fun to talk about music the way people talk about sports, but doing so is also even dumber than the way people talk about sports. This much, though, is certain: No one has ever been markedly better at rapping than Black Thought, and precious few musicians on earth have perfected their instrument to the extent that he has.
On Aug. 12, Black Thought will release Cheat Codes, an album-length collaboration with the reliably inventive beatmaker Danger Mouse. Cheat Codes is terrific, a work whose sample-based aesthetic and formal brilliance will thrill classicists, and which yet pulses with such joy and ingenuity that it could never be mistaken as a sop to hip-hop’s moldy figs. It’s a trim and muscular work, 12 tracks that span roughly 40 minutes in total. There are guest appearances from such luminaries as Raekwon, Run the Jewels, and Conway the Machine, but the undisputed star of the show is Black Thought himself, commanding the proceedings like a maestro, a consummate technician in full command of his art.
Black Thought has more than earned the spotlight, and the notion that he has been serially underappreciated isn’t without merit. Much of this can be traced back to the earliest years of his career. He first rose to success as one of two rappers in the Roots, alongside his late counterpart Malik B. When the Philadelphia-based group first broke out with their 1995 sophomore album Do You Want More?!!??!, the Roots were heavily marketed under the novelty that they were a traditional band, featuring Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on drums, Leonard “Hub” Hubbard on bass, and a piano prodigy named Scott Storch on Fender Rhodes. (Storch would soon leave the band to become a wildly successful songwriter and producer, his keyboard-heavy beats a fixture of turn-of-the-21st-century Top 40 radio.)
The Roots’ frequent association with playing “real” instruments resulted in a number of odd byproducts. It made them a hit on the jam band circuit and among certain other audiences that otherwise didn’t have much interest in hip-hop, which had the perceived effect of distancing them from the genre’s mainstream. The idea that the Roots’ approach was a novelty was also a misconception, as “real” instruments had been floating around hip-hop literally since its earliest recordings: Sugar Hill Records, the most influential and successful label of the music’s earliest years, employed a house band. The use of samplers didn’t become widespread until the second half of the 1980s, and even then it was never an exclusive practice. Two of the most influential hip-hop albums of the 1990s, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, both of which were released prior to Do You Want More?!!??!, featured plenty of live instrumentation. They just weren’t explicitly advertised as such. And of course the implication that turntables, samplers, and sequencers weren’t “real” instruments was pretty ignorant at the time, and only feels more so in retrospect.
The emphasis on the Roots’ instrumentalism also tended to distract from what great MCs they had in Malik B and especially Black Thought. The Roots would follow up Do You Want More?!!??! with a pair of masterpieces, 1996’s Illadelph Halflife and 1999’s Things Fall Apart, the latter of which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts. In 2001 they were tapped as the backing band for Jay-Z’s live MTV Unplugged album, a gig that boosted their mainstream profile but which had the unfortunate effect of sidelining Black Thought himself, who doesn’t perform on the album. And since 2009, the group has served as the house band for late-night host Jimmy Fallon, first on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and, since 2014, The Tonight Show, gigs where the musical MC is always going to play second fiddle to the actual MC.
Cheat Codes, then, serves as an excellent reminder of what an exquisite rapper Black Thought has been for decades now. His style is marked by an inimitable mixture of dense wordplay and intricate conceptual complexity, with neither of these elements coming at the expense of rhythm or voice. During the Roots’ late-1990s heyday, the term “backpack rap” occasionally came with a pejorative connotation, conjuring MCs more adept at scribbling in notebooks than rocking parties. That term never got thrown around to describe Black Thought, or at least if it did, it shouldn’t have.
Quoting Black Thought lyrics often feels like a futile act, in part because his flows tend to be so expansive they’re not easily excerptable, but also because words on the page can’t begin to encapsulate his command and charisma as a vocalist. “When hustlin’ became an art/ the mantra is manage not to faint/ when shit ain’t for the faint of heart/ the rated-R, everybody’s wrists got razor marks/ at projects, townships, favelas, and trailer parks,” he raps on Cheat Codes’ title track, a characteristic flurry of assonance, alliteration, and internal rhymes. Or, from “Aquamarine,” “My words should be studied up in Berklee and Juilliard/ All my bars is hard as solid gold bullion/ My name in the Quran like the kingdom of Suleiman/ You done lost your mind trying to call me a m–linyan,” certainly the first time I’ve ever heard New York’s most prestigious conservatory rhymed with an Italian racial slur.
Cheat Codes’ high-water mark is its sixth track, “Belize,” featuring the late MF DOOM, who made his own album-length collaboration with Danger Mouse back in 2005. It’s a showcase for two virtuosos, Thought’s fiery verbosity a perfect foil for DOOM’s playful surrealism. “Danger make a groove off a glitch/ made your boo’s booty twitch and the crew rich, bitch/Always wanted to say that/ ever since the days in hallways taunting a stray cat,” raps the masked supervillain at one point, and I don’t think I ever expected a wistful recollection of animal cruelty to come so close to moving me to tears. It’s two great musicians operating at the highest echelons of their craft, and for about four minutes, it made me feel lucky to have shared time on earth with artists like this, one of whom left us far too soon, the other of whom is still out here making some of the most vibrant music of his life. If Black Thought remains underappreciated, that’s on us, but there’s also no real way to over-appreciate him.