CD Review of To the Five Boroughs by Beastie Boys

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To the Five Boroughs
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Capitol
Released: 2004
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While there is no denying the incredible career and massive influence the Beastie Boys have had on the landscape of hip hop and modern rock, they should be seen for what they are: the best singles band since the Stones put out Tattoo You. The last album they released that sent more than two songs to radio or clubs was their first album, 1986’s Licensed to Ill. Everything they’ve released since was good for about two songs – which also meant two spectacular videos – and little else. It could actually be argued that the Beastie Boys are a better video artist than a musical one, but that is a subject for another time.

The Beasties’ newest album, the politically charged To the Five Boroughs, is not likely to send six tracks into the upper echelons of the charts either, but it is easily their most consistent and focused album since 1989’s Paul’s Boutique. It’s a straight-up old school 80s-era New York rap classic, chock full of jerky electro beats and riffs stolen from NYC stalwarts like Run DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. And, just to be typically perverse, they sample the Dead Boys and Partridge Family as well. The biggest complaint is that the album is saddled with some of the most wack rhymes in the band’s history, which is saying something. They acknowledge this shortcoming in the lyric sheet, which is commendable, but a better tack would have been to write a better rhyme.

If there is one thing the Beastie’s have mastered, it’s the art of sequencing, or at the very least, they don’t beat around the bush in terms of giving up the goods. Within the first two tracks on each album have been the songs “Rhymin’ and Stealin’,” “Shake Your Rump,” “Sure Shot” and “Intergalactic.” Boroughs is no different, starting off with the smokin’ “Ch-Check It Out,” propelled by little more than an “Apache”-style percussion beat and a horn section hit. “Crawl Space” is another standout solely because of the smooth delivery by all three Boys, speaking their rhymes rather than shouting, though Mike D sounds a little too much like one Robert Van Winkle for comfort. Still, the track is slick. It’s also wisely brief; nearly every track on Boroughs is less than three minutes, which works to each song’s favor. Get in, drop your rhymes and get out, as it should be.

Where the album suffers is on songs like “Right Right Now Now,” an indictment on recent acts of foreign diplomacy. The song clearly has its heart in the right place, but lines like, “I’m getting’ tired of this situation / The U.S. attackin’ other nations” would have gotten 8 Mile’s Rabbit a swirlie after he was dragged offstage by his short and curlies. (Hey, that was a pretty dope rhyme right there. Pass the mic, yo.) Mike D drops his share of lyrical bombs as well, but most of the truly wack rhymes are the intellectual property of one MCA (whose voice is absolutely shot). Ch-check out this line from “Shazam”: “I’d like a lettuce, tomato and Muenster on rye / All this cheese is gonna make me cry / Gorgonzola, provolone / Don’t get me started on this microphone.” That’s right, 18 years into his musical career, MCA is rapping about cheese, which has to make Biggie Smalls spin in his grave, assuming there’s enough space in the casket for him to do so. Only Ad Rock emerges relatively unscathed, with easily the best flow and sense of humor of the three, though his references have to sound dated to the Generation Y and Z kids.

However, these preposterous lyrics can be forgiven in the wake of the band delivering big time goods on the tracks. The Beasties were never a listen-first, rock-second band anyway, going back to their days of stealing Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. The use of Chuck D’s “Wellllllllll” on “Rhyme the Rhyme Well” is as perfect an example of that as you’ll get. However, the band engages in so much theft – “It Takes Time To Build,” “3 The Hard Way” and “Hey Fuck You” are all solid tracks, but all based around other people’s rhymes – that it’s hard to tell if this is tribute, plagiarism or fatigue, or a combination of all three. More moments like “Oh Word” would have helped, with its deliberately dated drum track, cheesy hand claps, synthesized robot voice and Fairlight sampling, but even more moments like “Ch-Check It Out” would really close the deal. Boroughs is good, but not terribly danceable or club friendly.

Messrs. Diamond, Yauch and Horowitz put a hell of an effort into To the Five Boroughs, hence the six-year gap between this and their previous release, 1998’s Hello Nasty. They tried to be more socially conscious, and they tried to pay tribute to the scene which spawned and nurtured them, but in the end, they tried, above everything else, to simply remain relevant in the most unstable music scene in history. Boroughs succeeds at this, though it doesn’t change their status in any tangible way, the way most new releases from veteran bands do. They’re not any better or worse than they were six years ago; they just are who they are.

~David Medsker