Back in 1989, the Beastie Boys released the best rap and hip-hop album ever, the masterpiece Paul’s Boutique. At the time, it was roundly ignored because it wasn’t Licensed to Ill Part Two. Rick Rubin’s break beats-meets-metal guitar production had been replaced by The Dust Brothers’ finest hour. Of course, it would be hard to imagine making an album like Paul’s in this day and age of strict sampling clearances. But back then, somehow it was done, with everything including The Beatles thrown in to the mix. It still makes that recent Grey Album by Danger Mouse look like child’s play.
After Paul’s Boutique, the Beasties rediscovered their roots and picked up the instruments and fused them into the mixes of both Check Your Head and its follow-up placeholder Ill Communication which felt less like a step forward than just a mere clone of its predecessor. Still, it was packed with tight beats and smart rhymes that other rap artists and groups couldn’t touch. The Boys were still on top for Hello Nasty which featured the 303 work of Adam “Adrock” Horovitz, and even an acoustic ballad from MCA called “I Don’t Know”. It was an interesting album, even if the Fatboy Slim remix of “Body Movin'” was better than the album version, but there was something slightly scattershot about the affair. It almost seemed like the group’s White Album in a way.
So six years have passed. Eminem has become the biggest thing in white rappers. New York City went through 9/11 and its aftermath. George W. Bush continues to lead the country around in spastic circles, as if his executive decisions are being made by a Magic 8 Ball. And the Beastie Boys have returned with To the 5 Boroughs, a 15-track love letter to New York City. Has the time taken off in between it and Hello Nasty brought about any changes? Well one would hope so, and one would also be more than happy to know that indeed this album is, as they say, the shiznit.
In fact, it’s the best album the Beasties have put out since Paul’s Boutique. Think of it as a more stripped down version of that album. The tons of samples are gone, leaving tastefully selected bits from older records in the mix along with tight beats and fresh rhymes. Any can fan tell you that the lyrical content on Paul’s Boutique was almost like a comic book on acid. The name dropping, the pop culture references, the sheer audacity of the silliness and fun were every bit as memorable as the great production by The Dust Brothers. That’s how it is on To the 5 Boroughs. It had been quite a long time since I found myself laughing along with Beastie Boys rhymes, but this album is chock full of their unique wit.
But to digress for a moment, this album also explicitly deals with George W. Bush and the Iraq war in a few tunes here. On “Right Right Now Now”, MCA raps “I’m getting kind of tired of the situation / The U.S. attacking other nations, and narration, and every station / False elation’s got me losing my patience.” And then on “It Takes Time to Build”, he rhymes “It’s easier to sit back than stick out your neck / It’s easier to break things than build it correct / We’ve got a president that we didn’t elect / The Kyoto treaty he decided to neglect, and still the U.S. just wants to flex.” In an interview featured on the group’s website, MCA notes that these tracks were written shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and as the album progressed and time went on, the songs began to loosen up.
And loosen up it does on hilarious cuts like “Crawl Space” (“No I’m not Herman Munster nor Dr. Spock / I go by the name of King Adrock / So here’s a match, my ass and your face / Listen when I tell you, dog; I’m in your crawl space”), “Hey Fuck You” (“You sold a few records but don’t get slick / Cause you used a corked back to get those hits / You’ve been in the game, your career is long / But when you really break it down, you’ve only got two songs”), and “The Hard Way” (“Holler back challah bread… next / We are the crew that put the crew in Cruex / I can see that Def Jam doesn’t recognize me / I’m Mike D, the one who put the satin in your panties”). It’s all these rhymes and ideas that are put into the spotlight once again. A number of the cuts seem skeletal at first, as what you’re hearing is just those words and the backbeat, but then the hooks come out to play.
This time around everyone from Run-DMC to Kool and the Gang and The Dead Boys get the sampling treatment. Don’t expect these elements to smack you over the head instantly like on past albums. On To the 5 Boroughs, they are used more to spice up the tracks rather than be the entire backbone of them. And this makes for a much stronger performance all around. It’s as if the Beasties got back to basics and instead of pushing the envelope some more, just took it to what they were best at, which has always been creating entertaining rhymes and interlocking them between the three members. This is very much an “on the street” type of album more than a studio spectacular.
The question is, are the Beastie Boys still relevant? Of course they are. While artists like Eminem are still working the shock circuit, the Boys are still here to have a good time, even while dropping a few important messages. It’s going to be interesting to see if an artist like Eminem will have the shelf life that the Beasties have had throughout their entire career. But the Beasties’ audience has grown up with them. Even those that initially shunned the majesty of Paul’s Boutique eventually came around to praise its greatness. On To the 5 Boroughs they’ve brought it back to the people once again. Not through alienation, and not through Us Vs. Them, but through a calling of togetherness, good times, and that not so funny peace, love, and understanding. Mark it down as one of the best of this year.