In looking back over a long list of embarrassing phases I passed through on my way to adulthood, the one in which I thought it was inexplicably kEwL to communicate via freestyle rap feels particularly cringe-worthy. Not that these e-mail raps—yes, they were disseminated by e-mail!—necessarily sucked, though they did, but just that expecting someone to wade through all that fanciful hooey to get to the point or even thinking the question of what my sister wanted for Christmas necessitated a rhyme scheme strikes me as painfully immature, though somehow not the least bit lame.
I get that same loserish tingle when I listen to the new Beastie Boys album, To the 5 Boroughs, and Adam Yauch ("MCA"), his voice now deep, grizzled and devastatingly sonorous, raps about Bush neglecting the Kyoto Treaty. The thing about the Beastie Boys' traditional quick-rhyming style is that it flattens all the rapid-fire references contained therein into a blunt pastiche of kitschy pop culture and local flavor. Which was fine—better than fine—when they were a bunch of whiffle-ball-bat-wielding, good-time-seeking kids. But now they're socially conscious elder statesmen in the autumn of their careers, trying to fold political topics fraught with complicated meaning and implication into a sonic stew too flimsy to sustain it. Instead of dissolving into solution or taking its place among the pop culture bric-a-brac, these undetonated little word bombs just sit there, awkward and incongruous.
On this album, the Beasties clearly have something to say—they just aren't saying it clearly, which is frustrating. It's not necessarily for lack of trying. Certain tracks want so badly to communicate. "Walking down the block you say, 'Yo, D! When you coming out with the new CD that spreads love in society?'" Mike D raps on the up-with-people cut "All Lifestyles." And so there's this question of whether the Beastie Boys style is the appropriate one for mediating complex issues. It pains me to say it, but I think the Beastie Boys have outgrown "The Beastie Boys."
What goes unsaid but looms in the air is the fact that the Beastie Boys have changed so much since first coming onto the scene in the early '80s, when they were largely expected to be a one-hit-wonder. And their music has also evolved over the years as they've explored different beats, instrumentals, rock, punk and hardcore. But the growing bloom of politics that's increased with each album now threatens to overtake them. Something as devastating as Sept. 11, which seems to be the shadow in which this album sits, has given the Beastie Boys full-fledged license to clumsily crank up the gravitas. So it's curious then that they return here to the minimal old-school stripped-down silly-stoopid flavor of License to Ill on this album. It's a fine and interesting choice, but one no longer amenable to who they are now. Which is not necessarily to say that old school is hostile to politics. On the contrary, it's hospitable if done correctly. But the Beastie Boys refuse to relinquish anything, trying to keep a foot in every single world, so their songs feel at times like plodding scrapbooks. The more they hold onto everything, the less they "come correct."
This split pops up in a curious way in their liner notes. Enmeshed into their lyrics are constant "editor's notes" and footnotes. This winking, splintered view suggests that for whatever reason, they also know you aren't quite buying it this time out. And so, perhaps nervously, they're letting you know they know you know. But really, when they comment on their own rhymes, even if it's in the voice of a fictional "editor," it serves to undermine their message.
But the funny thing is To the 5 Boroughs isn't really that bad. The more I listen to it, the more I feel it getting under my skin. It's least contentious when the Beastie Boys put aside the politics and show off their clowning, inventive wordplay. It's impossible not to fall for the lopsided silliness of "Oh Word?" Same thing with "Hey Fuck You"—its gloves-off hostility crackles with vitality.
Still, this album could have been so much better. Songs like "That's It That's All" and "All Lifestyles" are somewhat depressing because the tension between the Beastie Boys style, who they were and who they are now has locked all three into a holding pattern. And it's surprising no critics have really come out and said this. (It's hinted at in a number of reviews I've read, but seldom stated.)
Could it be because it's politically incorrect to take digs at New York, and this album is so drenched in the metaphorical blood of Sept. 11? Yes, the artwork is a beautiful testament to the former NYC skyline and everything you read about the band talks about how this is a valentine to New York, but every Beastie Boys album oozes New York. It's who they are.
I suspect the Beastie Boys—respectable family men pushing 40, wildly hedging, commenting on their own lyrics within the lyrics, feeling conflicted over their youthful indiscretions—know they've hit a wall. You get the feeling they realized the only other option left was complete and utter reinvention, and then for any number of reasons, they just didn't take that monumental step. Here's hoping next time they do.
The Beastie Boys perform with Talib Kweli at the Long Beach Arena, 300 Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 436-3661; ticketmaster.com. Tues., 7:30 p.m. $29.50-$40. All ages.
Somehow, the Beastie Boys were able to follow up the success of "Fight for Your Right"—and the still-mounting millions of records that Licensed to Ill sold—with some of the best and most artistic hip-hop (or not) albums ever released. Like:
Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989): Arguably the B-Boys' best record, Paul's Boutique bombed on the sales charts—it was so good it took people years to understand. Constructed during the time when you couldn't get sued for sampling, the boys connected with the Dust Brothers to make an album with samples galore, including the Beatles, Johnny Cash and the slashing scene from Psycho. Check Your Head (Capitol 1992): Following a long hiatus, the boys picked up their instruments for the first time since their punk days and put out a 20-track masterpiece that jumps from hip-hop to jazz to funk and punk with deftness and vision that not many fans of Licensed to Illwould've ever expected. Aglio E Olio(Toshiba EMI, 1999): After the success of Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys ducked into a studio in New York and recorded this nine-track, 13-minute hardcore EP, a kind of an homage to their roots. Not quite as raw and gritty as the tracks collected on Some Old Bullshit, but tight and fast nonetheless. Country Mike's Greatest Hits (Unknown, 1999): With dreams of becoming a country and western singer, Mike D took matters into his own hands with this recently rereleased vinyl-only collection of country hits. Yes, it's odd, obscure and actually not bad in a campy kind of way—sort of like Batman doing the Batusi! To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol, 2004): The biggest knock on this record is that it's too hip-hop. What? Did anybody call Miles Davis too cool or the Kinks too pop? Returning to form, the boys deliver a heartfelt ode to their hometown.
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