The Beastie Boys have been around the block and back again (and again). As teenagers in 1981, they forged their name as New York City punk brats (“Beastie” stood for “Boys Entering Anarchistic States Toward Internal Excellence”). Then the unpredictable trio of rascals hooked up with a young Rick Rubin, made Licensed to Ill and became MTV darlings and Madonna’s tour partners. Their psychedelic follow-up, Paul’s Boutique, introduced the world to the Dust Brothers’s sound and consequently altered the legal consequences of sampling in hip-hop production. In the early ’90s, the Boys picked up their instruments (again) and entertained a musical identity crisis, resulting in two of their most successful albums, Check Your Head and Ill Communication. They re-recycled their sound on 1998’s Hello Nasty before vanishing for more than five years and releasing one god-awful anti-war song. Now they’re back again (again), and it’s okay to like them (again). So where does To the Five Boroughs fit into the legacy? As a disappointing blemish on their career.
Fans and journalists have let the album slide because of the band’s altruistic intentions, the hip-hop history they represent, the great music they used to make. In light of all the Beasties have accomplished, they deserve to be held to the high standards that they’ve set for themselves. That said, To the Five Boroughs finds Mike Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz trying to prop their sound up on several frail crutches.
Word was that To the Five Boroughs would resurrect a stripped-down old-school rap approach. This is true, but as producers, the B-Boys have sampled obvious, over-sampled rap hits from the likes of the Sugarhill Gang and Boogie Down Productions. If they’re so well-versed and true to their roots, the Beastie Boys should have been able to use unexpected samples in fresh ways. “Triple Trouble” is a trite party jam, and “Hey Fuck You” is a limp dis song that insults bitin’ emcees without ever getting specific or, for that matter, interesting.
The Boys boast about their styles with their tired culinary similes (On “Shazam!” MCA says, “I splash on beats like sauce on spaghetti”). When it comes to the art of the threat and the wit of the insult, the Beastie Boys can’t compete with old-school running mates like Run DMC or new-school champs like Jay-Z and Eminem. The art of the emcee has changed over the years, and the Beastie Boys have failed to keep up with the competition or rhyme with the same sly fire they used to.
The buzz also referred to a self-critical patriotism and New York sentimentality. The Beastie Boys aimed to boost local pride and self-awareness during the conflicted months preceding the city’s Republican National Convention, the anniversary of 9/11 and the upcoming presidential election. An admirable goal, of course, but songs like “An Open Letter to NYC” contain mostly vague sincerity and two-dimensional social criticism. The three emcees search in vain for inspiration as they offer empty shout-outs to New York locales. They rhyme about where they buy sneakers (the Fulton Street Mall) and underwear (V.I.M.). When it comes to political themes, it’s too easy for Ad-Rock to say “Fuck the KKK” (as he does in “Right Right Now Now”) before returning to trite bragging and cringe-inducing references to Miss Piggy (“Ch-Check It Out”) and Winnie The Pooh (“That’s It That’s All”). Sure, he means well, but remember when he was “the original nasal kid” with the devious flow?
The Beasties have held on tightly to certain parts of their stylistic reputation. They’re still endearing, and Adam Yauch is still the wisest man in hip-hop (unfortunately for his group, it would take divine inspiration to make a hot rap album based on their “spreading love in society” theme). The Beasties can still tear it up live, as was evidenced during a recent performance of “Ch-Check It Out” on The Late Show With David Letterman, when they rhymed their way out of the subway, through a crowded Rockefeller Center, into the backstage of the Ed Sullivan Theater and onto Letterman’s stage.
But some of their best qualities are no longer present. Gone are the hilarious storytelling rhymes (“High Planes Drifter”) and the rabid party jams (“So Watcha Want”). Gone is their rambunctious youth, and it shows in rhymes about sustaining from drinking alcohol and buying grandma a new broach (seriously). Despite a few decent beats and a touch of nostalgia, To the Five Boroughs is a flaccid caricature of what the Beastie Boys used to be.