Black Thought & Danger Mouse - "Aquamarine" feat. Michael Kiwanuka
3.5 out of 5 stars
Last Wednesday, Black Thought and Danger Mouse released "Aquamarine," the third single from their upcoming album, Cheat Codes, with guest vocals by UK singer Michael Kiwanuka. Black Thought is the frontmen and co-founder (with Questlove) of the Philadelphia hip hop group The Roots (house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), and Cheat Codes is his fourth project without The Roots after 20 + years of never releasing solo material (besides guest verses and freestyles).
Danger Mouse is a Grammy-winning producer for artists like Gorillaz, MF DOOM, A$AP Rocky, Beck, Gnarls Barkley, Parquet Courts, The Black Keys, and others. It's the sort of hypothetical dream collaboration that typically yields great results in your head, but makes for disposable, disappointing art. The bargain bins of the world are littered with projects like Deep End, The Highwaymen, Electronic and Sonic's Rendezvous Band, and while most aren't colossal failures, they're generally underwhelming. Traveling Wilburys (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne) released some decent songs via two albums, but given the individual pedigrees they were not overwhelmingly brilliant. Similarly, Danger Mouse's collab album with MF DOOM yielded a pretty minor entry in DOOM's discography, and Black Thought's EPs with 9th Wonder and Salaam Remi were both well-received, but neither were classics, either.
Given my previous disappointments, I had low expectations. "Aquamarine" begins with the sound of an orchestra "tuning up" and then launches into a standard Danger Mouse beat. The liner notes haven't been published yet, so I'm not sure what he's sampling, but I know he samples a lot of vintage film/TV soundtracks -- he once made an entire album interpolating Spaghetti Western music -- and his contributions as a producer (not beatmaker) usually consist of adding a "chamber pop" feel, i.e., filling out the production with a lot of orchestral touches. On "Aquamarine," he appears to be using a choir, and he's substituted an open hi-hat sound for a snare drum. The 4-bar hook by Kiwanuka (singing through what sounds like a telephone filter) is pleasant enough and contains existential nuggets like "everything's burning down / when I close my eyes." Black Thought is (typically) in great form. His command of internal rhymes, multisyllabic rhymes, slant rhymes, alliteration, breath control, stressed syllables, double entendres, and other literary devices is, as always, otherworldly:
"We go from Lira to Libra
From cold water to fever
To World War 3 from the treaty signed at Geneva
The biology teacher said we used to be amoebas
The neighborhood preacher said we emerged from the ether
We converge from urethra and struck gold, eurеka
The morning star Tariq, I was born to be a teachеr
Whether scorpion or the frog, the nature of the creature
Is to evolve"
Yes. If there's one thing Black Thought's got, it's raw technique. For sheer lyrical complexity, he belongs in a category with artists like Leonard Cohen, Aesop Rock, MF DOOM, etc. It's impossible to listen to his work and not feel at least impressed. Very few can do what he does.
Personally I always wanted to like Black Thought a little more than I did. He's been named an all-time great emcee by more publications than I can count, but whenever I listened to old Roots' albums, I was always left scratching my head. Every lyric seemed to be riffing on the phrases "illadelph," "fifth," "dundee," "the Roots crew," and "South Philly," and I couldn't understand why that would earn him such superlatives. Even (admittedly jaw-dropping) showcases like Web or the Funkmaster Flex freestyle seemed to demonstrate intellect more than anything else. He shows up on a lot of lists of rappers with the biggest vocabularies. In "Aquamarine" he says, "my words should be studied up at Berkeley and Julliard" and he’s not wrong. He makes classroom music, simply put. MacArthur Genius Grant music. Poet laureate music.
The most memorable Black Thought song I ever heard was called "Fentanyl," a heartbreaking story about the opioid crisis off of Stream of Thoughts Vol. 2. It had subject matter, perspective, narrative, and it got its point across neatly in the span of two minutes. Certain images, like “tyin' off his arm with violin strings / his eyes and dreams diverted as the siren screams" really stuck in my mind, and it had all his characteristic, dense, highly-involved verbiage. But it's also one of the only songs where I feel like I KNOW Black Thought, and that gets to the heart of the issue. I get very little sense of the person behind his music, other than his obsessive dedication to technical skill.
For all his Pulitzer-worthy wordplay, there's an impersonality to his work that I always wished he would shed, and it’s really the only thing holding me back from giving "Aquamarine" a higher grade. The song doesn't really lead anywhere or make any lasting point. It doesn't have a topic. Its title is just a reference to a throwaway line from the second verse, and for an artist of Black Thought's stature, it just feels like exercise. I'll be sure to listen to the album when it comes out, but it doesn't sound like his most innovative work.
Mr. Diianni is an independent writer of music and film criticism from Wayland, MA.