There’s always a temptation to compare each new Beastie Boys’ disc to their first album, 1986’s brash, boyish and bombastic “Licensed to Ill.”
This is probably because pretty much anything would seem mature, considered and complex in comparison to a record that includes tracks like “Girls,” “She’s Crafty” and “Fight For Your Right.” It would be considerably less charitable to
compare each new effort to 1989’s “Paul’s Boutique,” one of the best hip-hop albums ever cut.
“To the 5 Boroughs” doesn’t break the kind of new ground that “Paul’s Boutique” did, nor does it come crammed with quite as many ironic pop-cultural references. But these older Beasties, ever wiser, mellower and more political still have a magic touch when it comes to involving the listener in their inner world of manic New York hipster lingo.
The album’s first single and first track “Ch-Check It Out” opens with MCA calling out a few constituencies that most other rappers wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole: television addicts and Trekkies. Of course, it’s always impossible to tell whether the Beasties’ name-checks constitute acknowledgement of the breadth of their fan-base, gentle taunting or simply the weirdest reference that fits into the rhyme.
“Ch-Check It Out” represents the now expected up-tempo single that eventually gives way to slower, more contemplative tracks later on the album. Unlike 1994’s “Ill Communication” and 1998’s “Hello Nasty,” however, “To the 5 Boroughs” never drops down to the sleepy pace of “I Don’t Know” or “Eugene’s Lament.”
Seeing as how it’s been six years since the fans have had a chance to hear MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D drop knowledge, an album full of high-energy raps is not only deserved, but expected.
The weak link in the Beastie Boys’ newest iteration of the New Style is their reliance on repetitive choruses. What made “Paul’s Boutique” such a breath of fresh air in the world of hip-hop, as well as an album that is infinitely re-listenable, was the incomparable complexity of each song. In contrast to later albums, choruses, musical interludes and other filler were minimized in favor of cramming as many unique lyrics into each song as humanly possible. On that album, even MCA, avowedly “not known for (his) speed raps” managed to squeeze more words into each track that some rappers say in an entire record.
“To the 5 Boroughs” might not be the Beasties’ best work yet, but even a less-than-perfect outing from the grand old men of crossover hip-hop is welcome proof that they have not slipped into obscurity or irrelevancy.