Black Thought Is Finally Getting His Due
Black Thought has made more people nerd out over words than Josh Wardle. It’s fashionable, now, to be in love with the sheer challenge that vowel pairings can present whenever Tariq Trotter is in the vicinity of a mic. (He’s made logorrhea cool in a very practical, “I’m headed to the DMV but am still into this” way.) No longer just the domain of the barbershop or rap Twitter, discussions about how awesome it is to hear a five-dollar word get finessed — like it’s some wide-eyed tourist — have flourished since the Roots MC became a household name.
It’s really a no-brainer. Riq Geez bends syllables with his larynx like that kid in The Matrix bends spoons with his mind. He’s a South Philly dude who raps like how The New Yorker accents certain words — every bar contains a grandiloquent flourish perfectly balanced by high-level boss talk. At this point, even the lady next to you in the kitchenware aisle at Target knows who Black Thought is.
When Thought kicked his jaw-dropping 11-minute freestyle on Funk Flex’s radio show back in 2017, it seemed like the whole world was watching. Even today, the viral clip still gets shared on Facebook — one of the only non-annoying things on that godforsaken haven of loud-and-wrong opinions and endless barrages of vacation pics from your washed high school classmates.
In the video, which, as of this writing, is at 16 million YouTube views, Thought, rocking a tan fedora with dark shades above his grizzled mane (which makes him look like a hood belletrist about to scratch out his opus by the fire — if it were erupting from some South Philly back alley) name checks Caesar, Brutus, and F. Scott Fitzgerald while getting off bars about how his opps are low-key snitches. Flex, meanwhile, sits there looking like an enraptured kid during storytime. That this all took place on a station with such massive commercial reach is still pretty amazing. Somewhere around the six-minute mark a Tory Lanez notification from Hot 97 popped up on my screen, just before Thought compared himself to Einstein, Voltaire, and Tesla. If you check the comments below, someone with the username “James Brown” says, “Someone should have been fanning this dude cause air conditioning cannot keep up he on fire,” followed by, literally, 11 fire emojis.
But there wasn’t always this outpouring of unanimous love for Black Thought. Back when he and Questlove got approached at airports by confused Nappy Roots admirers — well after “You Got Me” had become a regular staple on urban radio — Black Thought was still getting slighted on “best rapper” lists. And the archives of Okayplayer.com are rife with posts by Questlove, from the last 20 years, in which he repeatedly points out that Thought is like a highly trained Olympics-level athlete who has never gotten to participate in an actual game.
Granted, Big Pun was an ardent fan of Black Thought, who he featured on his chart-topping 1998 debut, Capital Punishment. Biggie was also an early supporter. But Thought still wasn’t getting his flowers like that. In a 2010 interview with VIBE, where he talks about Thought being slept on, Quest blames it on hip-hop’s tendency to celebrate “how outlandish you are as far as being a caricature, or one-dimensional.” And let’s not forget that the title Things Fall Apart (which borrows from Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel), was inspired by the disappointing reception the Roots — and maybe its lead MC in particular — got upon returning home to Philly after years of touring overseas. It was like the highbrow equivalent to Nile Rodgers and the guys in Chic coming up with “Freak Out,” neé “Fuck Off,” after getting dissed by the doorman at Studio 54. Nobody actually dissed Black Thought. But the radio silence concerning his well-honed mic prowess was palpable.
You can almost forgive the casual listener for not knowing, until recently, how dexterous a lyricist Thought is. This had everything to do with bad timing. Though it dropped in early ‘95, the Roots’ sophomore album, Do You Want More?!!!?? seems like a ’93 oddity — its manic, energetic musings made it feel out of place in the “keep it real” era, typified by Timbs, fatigues, and tough-guy pronunciamentos. And the term “organic hip-hop jazz,” which Thought refers to on the album’s opener, feels like a relic from the beginning of that decade when Homey the Clown and those beanie tie-up caps were de rigueur. We didn’t live on internet time back in ’95, but “organic hip-hop jazz” had to have felt as tired as yesterday’s caption almost immediately after Thought uttered it.
Some of the right people were paying attention, though. The Source, when it was still considered “the hip-hop Bible,” awarded Do You Want More?!!!?? with a superior 4.5 mics, recognizing Black Thought as the highly skilled MC that he is. But outside the culture, it was too easy for the Roots to get miscast as something — tree-huggers, post-D.A.I.S.Y. Age neophytes — that they weren’t quite aspiring to. The labels, naturally, focused on their jazz bona fides, which were an easier sell for listeners looking for something familiar after the so-called jazz-rap explosion of 1992–1993. That took a lot of the emphasis off of Black Thought’s impressive talents as a rapper. By the late ‘90s, after the Roots linked up with like minds to form the Soulquarians, the perception of the group became more associated with the neo-soul of lead single “You Got Me” than it was with the dazzling lyrical displays found on deep cuts like “100% Dundee.”
Of course, there’s no real conflict between the Roots’ image and Thought being an A-1 spitter. The Roots’ albums were, if anything, about the wondrous complexity of being Black: You could munch on a chew stick, be into poetry (shouts to slam legend Ursula Rucker), and still earn your keep with your idols at historic gatherings like 1998’s A Great Day In Hip-Hop. (Thought, who was present at the event, which updated the classic 1958 photo of legendary jazz artists with the most prominent rappers of the day, recalls getting a vote of confidence from Rakim Allah himself.) Everything we love about Thought today is, paradoxically, what kept him under the radar for so long. He didn’t compromise at a time when that was the norm, and he stayed on his square, spitting fire on every track he hopped on. He was, in that way, ahead of his time.
People started to get the wake-up call, obviously, around 2009, when the Roots became the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. There was something almost ironic about that — one of the best rappers on the planet started to get noticed by viewers who resemble the cast of Empty Nest at a time when the most he’d do every night was sing goofily during the show’s “Slow Jam The News” segment.
That was bittersweet to fans who’ve known Thought is a beast since the days of “No Alibi” or classic white-label gems like “Quicksand Millennium.” Everybody knows by now that the songs on the Roots’ fifth album, Phrenology, were originally planned for what would have been Thought’s solo album, Masterpiece Theater. But years later he still hadn’t struck out on his own. That has changed as, in the aftermath of the Funk Flex freestyle, a series of solo releases this past half-decade have shined a fresh spotlight on him.
In 2018, Thought released the first installment of his Streams Of Thought series, which continued through 2020. All three projects contain the kinds of vicious verses Thought’s been spitting for decades. But there’s nothing like hearing him dominate an entire EP. Since then, he’s started up a short-lived podcast, become a venture capitalist, and starred in some fancy off-Broadway play. Now he’s back with Cheat Codes, his excellent new album with Danger Mouse.
On the searing title track, Thought makes some of the poignant “sky is falling” observations that were at the heart of the themes explored on Game Theory and Rising Down. Over Danger Mouse’s warped chords, Black Thought laments, “A lot of niggas probably gotta see psychologists/ To understand why we wallowing where the bottom is.” But there’s a newfound urgency to his tone. And when he concludes, “You better get the cheat code, before you get RICO’ed” — as a chorus of spectral voices springs up, sounding like a speeding BRINKS truck headed in your direction — he sounds more hopeful than on those gloom-filled cuts from over a decade ago. Thought knows the game is rigged. But he’s showing us that one of the ways out is to learn it like a mantra.
But the most powerful song here is the haunting “Darkest Part,” whose poignant piano and clipped percussion remind you of the caustic groove in the middle of the Black Keys’ “Tighten Up,” off their 2011 Danger Mouse-produced album, Brothers. But this is pure poetry. Evocative lines like, “From a silhouette standing in the aperture/ From a figurehead standing in the path/ Of a killer, young guerrilla just scrambling for Africa,” could easily wind up in some Modern Library collection. You can feel the emotion in Black Thought’s register when, later in the song, he confesses, “Premonition and intuition is a bitch/ Got a message from the heavens, all it said is to exist.” It’s proof that he’s not just gaining recognition but still improving, considering that in the past he’s struggled to draw listeners in with his narratives on Roots albums.
There’s a track with MF DOOM that immediately gives the lie to any just-good-on-paper reservations you might have had after seeing his name on the tracklist. (The late DOOM’s bars about Erik Estrada and the Mad Hatter make me wish he was still here with us, providing those brilliant, slurry brain farts.) And single “No Gold Teeth” is just a marvelous lyrical exercise (“I’m Agent Orange, poisonous amazing poems/ And the band keeps raging on”), with a spliced doo-wop sample that somehow invokes both ‘90s boom-bap and a glorious moment in a Scorsese film. On “Aquamarine,” he makes you ponder the fleeting nature of existence — from the schoolhouse to the sanctuary — with a luminous couplet: “The biology teacher said we used to be amoebas/The neighborhood preacher said we emerged from the ether.”
Black Thought emerged from some other realm where it’s impossible to spit a wack rhyme. Thankfully, he checks in from time to time to bless us mere earthlings with his incredible verses. He proved a long time ago that there are no more worlds for him to conquer; it’s great to have him home.
Cheat Codes is out 8/12 on BMG.