Saturday, June 19, 2004


when can we start calling them the beastie men?

I don't know if it's just post-9/11 sentimentality gone amok or a case of temporary insanity but Rolling Stone's David Fricke (or someone else at the mag) gave this album 5 stars. I thought The Source made a bad call giving Biggie's Life After Death 5 mics (bottomline: if he hadn't died, he wouldn't have gotten 5) but this really defies any sense of rationality to me and suggests that either RS or Fricke are far out of step with 1) the Beastie Boys, 2) hip-hop and 3) pop music in general. I'll get to the Beasties' album in a second but for a moment, just read this:
    "the Beasties are still the best rap band in the biz -- three voices swinging like a jazz trio, racing like Bad Brains -- and they don't have big patience for the gold-plated phooey currently passing for gangsta."
Remember my "how NOT to write music criticism" from a few weeks back? Well Fricke committed the main sin I highlighted: it's weak sauce to set your own piece up by creating a sweeping generalization in opposition, i.e. "gold-plated phooey...passing for gangsta." What is this, an message board posting? Plus, it's such an empty an editor, I wouldn't let one of my newbie writers put that line in an URB review, let alone having someone at RS sign off on it.

As for the Beasties being the best rap band in the biz...such a statement requires a little more support than comparing them with Bad Brains. Last time I checked Outkast kind of had that title on lock plus the Roots were in the competition too. In the six years that it took the Beasties to put out a new album, Outkast gave the world: Aquemini, Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The Roots had Things Fall Apart and Phrenology. I rest my case. Moving on...

To the 5 Boroughs is not an irredeemably bad album, it's just not a great album (and certainly not 5 stars). I'm not simply evaluating the album by pop standards but by the Beastie Boys' own. Let me just start off by saying: I really like the Beastie Boys, always have. I've long thought these three were some of the most creative minds in pop music today (hip-hop and otherwise). I especially enjoyed Hello Nasty which I welcome as a return to the group's hip-hop roots rather than all the skater rock they put out on Check Your Head and Ill Communication. By that token, 5 Boroughs should find me as happy as a lark since the group nods even further back to their old school days. Not so fast.

There are two primary problems with this album. First of all, lyrically, it's laughable. WAIT! Someone is going to chime in, right about now, "but the Beasties were never known for their lyrics." Yes, that's absolutely correct but that the Beasties were able to do, throughout their career, is write entertaining lyrics that were long on style even if they were short on content. No one EVER confused these three for Rakim-reincarnates but there is some surprisingly shitty songwriting on this album. For example, this is from "Triple Double" (MCA's verse, I think):
    Cause I'm a specializer, rhyme reviser
    Ain't selling out to advertisers
    What you get is what you see
    And you won't see me on no advertising
MCA is using advertiser/ing twice in just four lines and more than just word repetition, he's repeating the same idea: the Beasties won't sell out - so why be redundant? That's just unforgivably lazy lyricism (not to mention "advertising" is a hard word to flow with). The album abounds with this crap and believe me, I NEVER remember the BBoys sounding this inane. Check out this from, "Hey, Fuck You":
    Which of you schnooks took my rhyme book?
    Look give it back, you're wicky wack
That's not a throwback line - even cats on Sugar Hill had more skills than that. I also don't cut them much slack just because they're penning love letters to New York. If that was the case, they should have put this album out TWO YEARS AGO when it would have carried more emotional weight and more importantly, they needed to step up their songwriting rather than offer up the lyrical equivalent of a Times Square postcard. To wit:
    Brownstones, water towers, trees, skyscrapers
    Writers, prize fighters and Wall Street traders
    We come together on the subway cars
    Diversity unified, whoever you are
    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 - "Open Letter to NYC"
"On the L, we're doing swell?" Are you fucking serious? That's the BEST thing you can come up with? Putting that aside even, this is a portrait of NYC that seems to me incredibly superficial - I could spend a few hours watching Law and Order and manage to come up with a vision of Manhattan that's comparable to this. Can me demanding but I want something deeper, something more heartfelt, something that says, "goddamn, I love this fucking city forever and let me put my heart into it." This reads rote and maybe that's just a reflection of the Beasties' historically limited lyrical skills but while rock lyrics are historically insipid, hip-hop fans have every right to want just a lil' more effort.

Second of all, the music on this album is rather one-note and while I don't think it's terrible production, it does get tiring to hear 16 tracks of minimalist, old school-inspired, electro-fuzz. There are some genuine points of sonic excitement - I really love the energy and simplicity of tracks like "Ch-Ch-Check It Out," "3 The Hard Way" and "The Brouhaha" but almost all the songs on the LP are variations on the same theme and the formula wears thin quickly. This was the biggest surprise to me: the Beasties have always been incredibly forward-looking with their music (well, at least post-Rick Rubin) and I thought Hello Nasty was brilliantly inventive. This album, especially considering the intervening six years, is unimaginative and repetitive at too many points. And not to pick on this song, but "Triple Double" gets a special demerit for reuising, for the umpteenth time, the "Rapper's Delight" beat (aka "Good Times") without doing anything to it at all. They get detention and are forced to listen to Joe Budden's "Body Hot" 100 times (which uses the same beat but chops it up something lovely). (Just to note too: Mixmaster Mike gets wasted on this album. For such an "old school" ode, there's very little scratching save "3 The Hard Way."

Despite all this, I still think the album is likable. I don't hate it, I don't think it's total shite, but it is, by far, the worst album this group has ever released and a major disappointment after a six year hiatus.