|Photo by Danny Clinch|
Throughout their 18-plus-year career, the Beastie Boys have been The Exception, The Alternative, The Antidote — anything but just another rap group. In their mercurial transformations from frat brats to sonic scientists to skate rockers to elder statesmen, Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D have also become empty vessels their fans and critics fill with their own attitudes about pop music, hip-hop, race, etc. As the No. 1 Rap Group for People Who Don’t Like Rap, Beasties become a convenient counter against the perceived excesses of hip-hop, especially when applied as a cooling salve for the fierce heat of rap’s blackness. At times the Beasties’ symbolic weight threatens to eclipse their artistic importance, but just to speed the process along, the group do themselves in with their new, lackluster To the 5 Boroughs.
Being everyone’s favorite go-to iconoclasts comes with great perks, not the least of which is that the Beasties can win over millions on the strength of concept alone. To the 5 Boroughs has already been hailed as the best dang rap album since their own Hello Nasty (1998), and on paper 5 Boroughs seems golden. Not only does its old-school feel tap into the contemporary “we love the ’80s” nostalgia trend, but the album is openly critical of the Bush administration when not tendering love paeans to post-9/11 New York. Certainly, this is the group’s most personal, sentimental and topically ambitious effort ever. It’s also the most mediocre album of their career — if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the Beastie Boys have the hottest record out this summer.
For all its ’80s aesthetics, 5 Boroughs is less throwback and more step-back. As songwriters, the group have never sounded more insipid, which is saying a lot for artists who’ve always been pleasingly long on lyrical style but spectacularly short on substance. Check this out: Ad Rock opens “Hey, Fuck You” with “Which of you schnooks took my rhyme book?/Look give it back, you’re wicky wack.” With lines like that, it’s unlikely anyone would want to steal his rhyme book, except for laughs. The entire disc is filled with similarly painful prose and shows little of the imagination or sophistication heard on previous albums.
As for the much-praised anti-war, anti-Bush, pro-NYC sentiments, Beasties’ stances are admirable, but their output simply never lives up to their intent. “An Open Letter to NYC” boasts all the heft of a Times Square post card: “We’re doing fine on the One and Nine line/On the L we’re doin’ swell/On the number Ten bus we fight and fuss/’Cause we’re thorough in the boroughs and that’s a must.” Truly, the album’s cover art — a portrait of Manhattan with the Twin Towers still intact — makes for a far more powerful statement than anything the group manages to write.
More surprising is how tiresome and monotonous Beastie Boys’ music grows through 16 tracks of minimalist, old-school-inspired electro-grooves. The Beasties have always been impressively forward-looking with their aural inventions, but considering the trio’s six-year hiatus, 5 Boroughs’ skeletal sonics are far less developed than the full-bodied brilliance of Hello Nasty or the rock-inspired experimentations of Check Your Head (1992). There are some genuine points of excitement in the energy and simplicity of tracks like “Ch-Check It Out,” “3 the Hard Way” and “The Brouhaha,” but the rest are all variations on a theme that wears thin early and often.
The Beasties have never lacked for a nostalgic vibe, but 5 Boroughs is drowning in sepia. Maybe that reflects how all three are now over 40, yearning for the halcyon days of their world and careers pre-9/11. Yet staring backward so hard won’t bring about the kind of future they envision, nor does it advance the momentum the group have built over nearly two decades of album making. Just at the time when they should be pushing forward to party for the right to fight, the enduring image from 5 Boroughs is a trio of aging icons awkwardly frozen in a b-boy stance.
BEASTIE BOYS | To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol)