To The 5 Boroughs
By: Eric Greenwood
I've never been much of a fan of rap. Look how white I am…I still call it rap. And I always felt kind of ashamed that one of the few rap groups I ever liked was the Beastie Boys because it made me look even whiter. I never got into the whole shell toe Adidas, baggy sloganeering t-shirt, hat tilted to the side fashion that typically goes with being a Beastie Boys fan, but I remember the first time I ever heard "Brass Monkey." I remember it more vividly than I do supposed milestones like graduating from High School or even my first kiss. It made me want to jump around and act ridiculous, and it does so to this day.
Listening to the Beastie Boys removes any pretentious or affected tendencies you may have. It's impossible to put on Paul's Boutique and remain still, unless you are utterly devoid of rhythm or a sense of humor or are a goth. They may be silly and lowbrow on the surface, but musically the Beastie Boys set the standard for the art of sampling. When Check Your Head came out in 1992, the band pushed the fusion of sampling, punk, hip-hop, funk, metal, and soul to a new level. Rap may have been the mouthpiece, but it was getting harder and harder to pigeonhole the Beastie Boys' musical aesthetic.
1994's Ill Communication was more of a lateral move, musically. The Beastie Boys had simply perfected their own game, and the public finally caught back up with them. The ensuing years leading up to 1998's Hello Nasty saw the Beastie Boys become "serious musicians." There's nothing worse that watching one of your favorite bands embarrass you to the point that you are embarrassed for them. I think I can pinpoint the moment they jumped the shark. It was at the 1997 Tibetan Freedom Festival in New York. Three white rappers in their mid-30's jumping around in orange jumpsuits while real Tibetan monks watched from the side-stage utterly confounded. It was ridiculous and surreal.
Suddenly, License To Ill wasn't cool anymore, at least according to the Beastie Boys. The band's Criterion Collection DVD compilation of its videos completely ignored the album that made them famous (but it's still a must have). I hate political correctness, especially in rock stars. It's so boring and predictable. There are many people I don't want preaching to me, and the Beastie Boys are pretty high on that list.
By the skin of its tail, Hello Nasty overcame its didactic tendencies with a solid amalgam of everything that made the Beastie Boys great. Catchy rhymes, virtuoso turntable skills, and the type of larger than life personality that you just can't fake. It was a leap forward after Ill Communication's lazy rehash of Check Your Head, and it sold truckloads.
To The 5 Boroughs reveals the Beastie Boys in nostalgia mode. The band is no longer on the cutting edge. Instead of creating pop culture, they're now a piece of it, and the music follows suit. It's the first self-referential Beastie Boys album, and it's chock full of politics and positive affirmations. The rhymes are still staggeringly clever, full of ridiculously arcane references to the junk culture that these guys have always lapped up, but the music is decidedly retro. You won't mistake it for mid-'80s rap, but the brass and the beats are clearly stripped down and basic.
After a few listens, you'll grow attached to it just like every other Beastie Boys album, but it won't give you that adventurous feeling that you're listening to something no one has ever done before. You might not even notice at first that Ad-Rock has lowered his rapping register to a much calmer, more restrained tone. That instantly recognizable nasally screech hits every now and again, but when you're wondering who the hell is rapping- it's Ad-Rock.
The lyrics aren't exactly cringe-worthy, but some of the political jabs teeter on the brink of self-importance and caricature: "I’m getting kind of tired of the situation/The US attacking other nations/And narration, on every station/False election’s got me losing my patience" ("Right Right Now Now"). Luckily, it's all catchy enough to overlook without feeling like you're giving them a pass just because they're the Beastie Boys.
MCA is 40. I don't know about you, but that freaks me out. The Beastie Boys are dancing around middle age, still rapping and, uh, in a band called the Beastie Boys. Surely, they have discussed this absurdity. When you put all of that out of your mind, though, To The 5 Boroughs is easy to cope with. It's a solid Beastie Boys album. And as long as they sound this good, I don't care how old they are or what they look like.