To The Five Boroughs
n an album stuffed full of the agonisingly predictable and the painfully obvious, the sole surprise is peripheral. Ad-Rock is still only 36. All of the Beasties are still in their thirties. It seems, and feels, like they’ve been around a lot longer. But, then again, they have. Check the history lesson: it’s been 22 years since “Pollywog Stew”, 19 years since they signed to Def Jam, 18 years since they toured with, and stole the crossover rap/rock blueprint from Run DMC, 15 years since “Paul’s Boutique” explained the 1990s a year early, 10 years since “Sabotage” started its never ending run on music video channels, and six years since “Hello Nasty”. To put that in some kind of context, when they released their last studio album, Eminem hadn’t signed to Interscope.
So, the Beastie Boys. An act who’ve been around for over 20 years, yet are still only in their mid 30s. On their sixth full-lengther to date, To The 5 Boroughs, they sound a lot more like the former than the latter. They sound old. They sound past it. They sound, and this is one word that nobody would have ever thought could be used to describe the Beasties, irrelevant.
It comes through in the little things. The lyrics have always been the little things on a BBs album, nobody could ever accuse Michael and the Adams of genii on the mic, but here we’re flooded with lyrical crimes of two flavours. Firstly, the Beasties aren’t as clever as they think they are. Secondly, they’re not as good at being dumb as they think they are.
If you ask people to name their least favourite things about the Beastie Boys, the way they torturously drop pop culture into their lyrics would come second, behind “giving Bis a recording contract”. Here it reaches epidemic proportions. The main problem isn’t that these clever witty namechecks of the zeitgeist debris that permeates our life exist in the first place, but rather that they disrupt whatever little flow the three have in the first place. And they’re not really worth holding the show up for. With the exception of an amazingly pointless 50 Cent parody (the intro to “In Da Club” done with answering phone messages. Brilliant. They could have at least mocked his lisp), we’re given a lyric sheet that could double as the topic list for an observational comedy circa 1983. Ron Popeil, Mr Furley, Miss Piggy… they seem to be unaware of the past twenty years.
Which is probably the point, actually. The obvious idea behind “To The 5 Boroughs” is that the Beasties want to present a deliberately old school set. The beats are, for the whole, minimal and electro. On “Triple Trouble”, they make reference to their role in hip-hop’s earliest hours with a Sugarhill-tributing run through of the “Good Times” beat. Except… they weren’t around in 1979. As stated above, they turned up in rap’s second wave of commercialism, when it was all radio-friendly metal guitars and big drums. So don’t pretend that this is them casting a clever eye back on their past. It’s, instead, the Beastie Boys doing what they do best: being cultural and musical magpies. They know the trend to fetishise hip-hop’s beginnings, and they also realise that the bands who have been doing it the best have been taking their fanbase in these interim six years. They surely know this though: they’ve never been rappers, they’ve just been America’s most successful fashion models: always with an eye for the next trend. “We Got The” hints at this well, finishing off with one of most popular items from their 1998 catalogue, a big beat cutout (thus making it sound exactly like the single release of “”Body Movin’”).
The thing is, though, aside from the lyrics being too clever when they try to be dumb, and too dumb when they try to be clever (their much heralded (by themselves, if nobody else) barrage of anti-Bush rhetoric comes across as well as you’d expect to, infantile sloganeering that’s a lot more playful than their actual attempts at wit) the beats are, as seems to be de riguer for the BBs, pretty lovely. “3 The Hardy Way” is a nice enough tribute to Jam Master Jay, if by “tribute to” you mean “Xerox of”, whilst “All Lifestyles” sounds bizzarely like the Boogie Pimps. “An Open Letter to NYC” (Or “9/11 Isn’t A Joke”, as they should have called it) has the dubby overtones that made the latter half of “Hello Nasty” a rare listen (in both senses of the word), whereas “We Got The” is an absolute blazer, with jittering guitars and a synth attack that kills hard enough to detract away from the Michael Moore 101 hideousness of the lyrical content.
Overall, the Beastie Boys have absolutely nothing to say, and spend 45 minutes saying it. In the old days they were worried about people rapping like it’s a commercial. In 2004, I’m worried about them rapping like an infomercial. Face it—old people suck.
Reviewed by: Dom Passantino
Reviewed on: 2004-06-18