In a career spanning three decades, the Beastie Boys have lived by a mantra of innovation and reinvention, never being afraid to try the new (and sometimes absurd) to please themselves. Thanks to a cult following which has kept them in bread even when critics and radio stations panned their music or refused to play it, the Beasties have enjoyed this unique metamorphic ability to the fullest. They rap when they feel like it. They jam when they want to. Their music has explored every facet of life from the drunken debauchery of young punks to the solemn spirituality of Buddhism. Through it all their fans took each new style in stride, with an acceptance of the eclectic akin to Grateful Dead-heads who followed them city to city on one (acid) trip after another (R.I.P. Jerry Garcia).
Perhaps the most surprising announcement of all to come from the Beastie Boys publicity machine was that the year 2004 would feature a “return to their roots” for the Boys, making a purely hip-hop album devoid of trippy instrumentals, wild musical hairs and jam sessions more akin to Phish than Public Enemy. The latter reference is important, since the two were both once employed by the now titanic label Def Jam in it’s relative infancy. While P.E. found their niche there for the better part of two decades, the Beasties felt trapped by the success of their liquor-soaked hip-hop hooliganism and left for the friendly confines of Capitol Records, where they could spread their wings and soar in any direction they chose. To their credit, each group made the right choice. P.E. lead Def Jam into the 90’s on a rising tide of anger over social injustice, whereas the Beasties lead Capitol into the 90’s with a seemingly limitless curiosity over all the ways rap could inform other genres and vice versa. Both were remarkably successful.
Titling their new album “To the 5 Boroughs” seemed both a dedication to rap’s birth in New York City and a plea to both old fans and new to join them on a journey through hard-edged hip-hop. This change in direction for the group began six years ago on “Hello Nasty,” but also resulted in their longest absence to date from record to record. Compilation sets like “The Sounds of Science” and an instrumental version of “Hello Nasty” filled the void, but left many wondering if the Beastie Boys were content to live off their royalties and the occasional tour – which a group with their many achievments in music probably could. The first single off “To the 5 Boroughs” proves otherwise, as “Ch-Check it Out” picks up where “Intergalactic” left off but also proves that the Beasties were serious about returning to a style more akin to their “Licensed to Ill” days. The unabashedly explicit and goofy introductory verse is the stamp that seals the deal:
“All you Trekkies and TV addicts
Don’t mean to diss don’t mean to bring static
All you Klingons in the fuckin house
Grab your backstreet friend and get loud
Blowin doors off hinges
I’ll grab you with the pinchers – and no, I didn’t retire
I’ll snatch you up with the needle nose pliers”
The song that follows is a freeform romp over a subdued but energetic drumtrack that’s punctuated by samples of horn stabs, reminiscent of the stripped down strength that Rick Rubin put in their mix back in eighty-six. With the superlative scratching of Mixmaster Mike, their self-produced beats and a desire to get funky like a “Brass Monkey,” the song kicks butt and takes no names. The follow-up track “Right Right Now Now” says it all: “We’ve gotta work together, it’s been too long.”
Unfortunately, it’s right here and right now where the concept of “back to their roots” starts to fall apart. When the Beastie Boys debuted their hip-hop hooliganism in 1986, it was informed by nothing more than how much more tail they could score and how much debauchery they could enjoy. “Licensed to Ill” summed up the theme of the album quite well – they drank, they partied, they bragged, they partied, they went all around the world living it up and regailed us with silly but seminal hip-hop classics like “Paul Revere” and anthemic songs like “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” where they rocked and rolled all the way home. In the years since the Beasties moved away from many of the vices and excesses that informed the album and made it a classic, resulting in many other classics of a different sort. The Beastie Boys have walked a carefully cultivated line at times, with open calls to free Tibet, and advocation of a spiritual lifestyle, packaged together with enough jamming and slamming one could largely ignore the politics if one chose. There’s nothing subtle about the politics of “Right Right Now Now” though – references to “Bowling for Columbine” in once verse, and in the next the words “I’m getting kind of tired of the situation/The U.S. attacking other nations” in the next.
Seems a little too serious to be hedonistic, doesn’t it? If this were an isolated example there wouldn’t be a reason to make a point out of it, but it’s not. They can at times be witty, like a sly reference to Digital Underground in “3 the Hard Way” with the line “I’m Mike D, the one who put the satin in your panties.” At other times they are shockingly preachy. What should have been a fun update to “Rappers Delight” on “Triple Trouble” ends up being a lecture on not selling out followed by an admonishment about boozing it up:
“Cause I’m a specializer, rhyme reviser
Ain’t sellin out to advertisers
What you get is what you see
And you won’t see me in the advertising
See I like to party not drink Bacardi
Cause I’m not lookin to throw up on nobody
Known for my spiel – a wheelie one wheel
This is like having a delicious meal”
Rather than lightening up, they seem to get more and more heated as the album goes on. “That’s it That’s All” opens with nothing short of a call to remove George Bush from office. I suppose that would be old school if we were talking about George Sr., but clearly we’re not:
“Back on the scene for y’all people’s delight
You want peace for the people then ya say alright
Cause George W’s got nothing on me
We got to take the power from he”
In all honesty, it’s not the sentiment that bothers this reviewer. Rather, it’s the insertion of the sentiment into what should have ostensibly been a light-hearted romp, a fun return to their days of old. Musically the album succees in this regard quite well. The musical boom bap and harmonic dischord of “Rhyme the Rhyme Well” is quite invigorating. “Hey Fuck You” is as brazen and funky as it’s title would imply. “Oh Word?” is an electronic smash melded with back-in-the-day hand clapping and vintage 80’s electronic voices and lyric breakdowns sans a structured chorus – even using a vocal manipulator straight out of the Casio SK-1’s archives. It’s also the album’s silliest song – just check Ad Rock’s rap:
“What the falafel? You gotta get up awful
early, to fool Mr. Furley
And that’s, word to Aunt Shirley, and – you could
stick your head in the toilet give yourself a swirlie”
If the entire album had been filled with this kind of light-heated fun, “To the 5 Boroughs” would have been the return to their old school roots that was promised. It’s perplexing then that their politics, which had been largely more subtle in days past, suddenly seem to have shot straight to the forefront on what was billed as a party-harty album. There are plenty of songs that work just fine from “3 the Hard Way” to “An Open Letter to NYC,” but then just when you think you’ve escaped the didactically preachy raps the album closes with “We Got the (Power),” clearly taking itself way too seriously. The Beastie Boys are taking advocation of policy chance and social consciousness to a level Public Enemy would clearly recognize and feel comfortable with, but which would be much more APPROPRIATE coming out of Chuck D’s mouth. While the music on “To the 5 Boroughs” is pretty damn good, this reviewer wanted to kick back and have fun listening to it, instead of being reminded how much Dubya sucks. Boys? You blew it.