Black Thought and El Michels Affair
Photo: Sesse Lind / Big Crown Records

Black Thought and El Michels Affair Team Up for Throwback Hip-Hop

El Michels Affair’s Glorious Game blasts through its 12 tracks in a brisk 31 minutes and changes approach but keeps the focus on Black Thought’s verses.

Glorious Game
El Michels Affair and Black Thought
Big Crown
14 April 2023

Glorious Game is the second long-gestating project from Black Thought to be released in less than a year. The previous, Cheat Codes with Danger Mouse, was started in the late 2010s before finally seeing the light of day in August 2022. Black Thought and Leon Michels, the long-running leader of the El Michels Affair, had crossed paths many times over the years and had made nebulous plans to work together. The pandemic-induced break from Thought’s day job as part of the Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon finally allowed the pair the time needed to collaborate on a project.

The results are impressive on Glorious Game. El Michel’s Affair’s smooth, 1970s-indebted R&B gives Black Thought a classic hip-hop template to rap over. Consequently, he’s often inspired to reminisce about his younger days. The combination of live R&B and an experienced rapper still at the top of his game is potent. There’s plenty of variety in what El Michel’s Affair and Black Thought are doing, keeping what could be a static-sounding record fresh and exciting.

The clearest example of this is the standout track “The Weather”. A relaxed groove opens the song, as gentle guitar chords, smooth bass, and many keyboard splashes set the mood. Female backing vocals with tightly layered harmonies punctuate the song with “Ooohs” and “Aaahs”. Black Thought starts rapping about 15 seconds in and does not stop until the song ends, two-and-a-half minutes later. He talks about hot summer days in South Philadelphia, days and nights spent at his Grandma’s house, sneaking girls up to his room, and eventually meanders into the drug dealing and deaths that made life in the neighborhood less than ideal. All the while, El Michels Affair speed up and slow down the tempo, shifting at least three or four times while Black Thought effortlessly follows the changes. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of a virtuoso guitar solo, with the added benefit of Thought’s attention-grabbing narrative.

Glorious Game starts with “Grateful”, which begins with a rapid drum fill that slows down into a more measured groove. A mostly unintelligible voice helps set the rhythm of the track before a simple two-note flute figure arrives as the melodic hook. This hook repeats under Black Thought’s rap, mainly concerned with criminal types lurking in the city at night. The song briefly changes as Black Thought arrives at his point, “Never-ending pursuit of the American Dream / Winner take everything is still a regular theme.” The second verse continues similarly, finishing with another stop: “I guess the moral of the story is / Any sip I take is a toast to those who bit the dust before me, kid / Be grateful.”

The change of pace songs on Glorious Game shows a different side of Black Thought. “I’m Still Somehow” features a simple, relaxed guitar riff and sparse, slow beats. Thought’s rap is laid-back and calm, even though he goes nonstop except for a brief mid-song break. The attention-grabbing line here is, “They say Black joy is rebellion / A happy Black boy’s like an alien.” “That Girl” has a bright but tense groove, with hard-hitting drums and unsettling guitar lines. Black Thought raps with his usual fierceness, but it’s a genuine love song, with the lyrics solely focused on how great “that girl” is.

The title track features a languid, liquid bassline and slow drum groove. Thought boasts his way through, opening with, “I’m too Black for y’all to erase / Shoot too straight for y’all to replace.” Guest vocalist KIRBY sings an extended chorus in a high falsetto, landing on “these are the glory days” and nicely breaking up the two rapped verses. The chorus returns before the outro, where El Michels Affair go on a brief musical tangent. This allows the song to finish in a noticeably different place than where it started.

Other songs here employ similar R&B choruses to provide the hooks. “Alone” features a thick, gospel-style refrain backed by trumpet fanfare. That chorus goes, “You are not alone,” and Black Thought’s upbeat, positive verses mesh nicely with that sentiment. Son Little‘s catchy, pop-adjacent refrain on “Protocol” is substantial enough to split the focus with Thought’s verses effectively. “I Would Never” is darker and slower, with the sung hook of just the title phrase floating through the track over the top of Black Thought’s rapping. It’s a different sound than making it the song’s chorus, which gives it a bit of a dreamy feel.

Glorious Game blasts through its 12 tracks in a brisk 31 minutes. El Michels Affair change the approach here and there, but they keep the focus on Black Thought’s verses. There aren’t any extended instrumental passages to be found; the music is serving the vocals. Putting Thought’s storytelling front and center helps draw attention to his rhythmic skills and wordplay. As one of the few rappers who has fronted a live band throughout his career, hearing Black Thought with a different live band is thrilling. This project is worth checking out, with excellent production and even better verses.

RATING 7 / 10