In Defense of the Beastie Boys' To the 5 Boroughs
The passing of Adam "MCA" Yauch two years ago was a devastating loss for music, but within the outpouring of mourning in the wake of his death was the reminder how much the Beastie Boys' music connected with several generations of listeners. Even prior to Yauch's passing, the Beasties' catalog had already been championed by critics as some of the most consistent and important releases of their generation and has continued to find new audiences by becoming something of a rite of passage for music obsessives and fun thrill-seekers alike.
But despite the universal love of the Beasties, the tenth anniversary of their To the 5 Boroughs album just passed with almost no retrospectives or think-pieces. In this era of hyper-nostalgia, why would an album that was critically championed upon release (Five stars in Rolling Stone, A- from Christgau) and the subject of an absolute media blitz be completely omitted from our collective "Remember when this happened? OMG, we're old! LOL!" mentality?
Probably because, truthfully, we didn't like it very much.
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Despite debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and quickly going platinum, this was the first time the feeling of "I have the new Beastie Boys record" wasn't as exciting as the "I can't wait for the new Beastie Boys" anticipation that preceded it. But why is that?
Well, it was a weird time to be a Beastie Boys fan, a weird time to be a hip-hop fan and a weird time to be in New York. Being this was the first Beastie Boys album that was solely rap music in 15 years and was entirely New York themed, you have quite a lot to digest. New York music was still largely in a post-9/11 haze and 50 Cent/G-Unit were still the most influential hip-hop figures in the city. This shouldn't have mattered much to the Beasties as the bulk of their other output was largely created in their own vacuum, with tremendous results.
But this time, the political climate made things different. Since their inception, the Beasties had dabbled in pretty much every major New York music scene and reflected fragments of it in their records. They also had slowly developed a conscience, becoming more vocal about causes they believed in. While we still had flashes of their political beliefs on their fun 1999 single "Alive," we didn't hear a proper Beastie Boys track with all three members again until the 2003 Iraq War protest song "In A World Gone Mad." You could make a case for "World Gone Mad" being the absolute worst track the Beasties ever released -- with rusty out-of-step flows, heavy-handed politics and uninspired lyrics, it even left Jon Stewart to remark at the time that it sounded "like a commercial for an extreme soft drink." Its timing with the unsuccessful Iraq War protests also may have inadvertently subconsciously linked this era of political frustration and disappointment with the Beasties' material, making the political themes of the following year's To The 5 Boroughs essentially nostalgia-proof.
The Beasties have shown in interviews since Boroughs' release that the political elements may have bogged it down. Adrock told Interview magazine in 2011 that 5 Boroughs was largely misunderstood, claiming "That was supposed to be our serious political album." Mike D concurred "There is an overall seriousness in tone that pervades To The 5 Boroughs. We're downtown New Yorkers and had very close proximity to the events of September 11th." Adrock went on to tell New York Magazine "At the time [of 5 Boroughs], our usual stupid shit wasn't that funny."
These are all understandable sentiments, except when you factor in that the lead single "Ch-Check It Out" and three months of promotion leading up to the album's release was anything but serious. Perhaps the Miss Piggy impressions and wacky electrician-in-ass lamenting was needed to distance the trio from "In A World Gone Mad," and the wonderfully absurd music video is anything but political. Yet, making this the first offering from the first Beasties album in six years at a serious time when their silliness was needed the most, and then spending half the time talking about a President whose name alone was the ultimate buzzkill, it did make receiving To the 5 Boroughs as too little too late.
Also frustrating was how the Beasties handling all their own production, for the first time, seemed detrimental. The Just Blaze remix of "Ch-Check It Out" refreshingly showed how the trio who had been putting out rap records for two decades by that point could still sound current in the rap game. The officially sanctioned DJ Green Lantern New York State of Mind mixtape that paired classic and new Beastie vocal tracks over iconic and chart-topping New York instrumentals further demonstrated how easily they could have slid into the mix of the 2004 hip-hop soundscape. When you hear "Open Letter to NYC" over Biggie's "I Got A Story to Tell," it's pretty hard to go back to the album version.
All of these issues considered, probably the biggest problem with To the 5 Boroughs was that, thematically, it felt like two different projects smashed together. On one hand, you had the aforementioned vitriol aimed towards "a president we didn't elect," but then quickly shifting gears to the playful old school hip-hop vibe of "Triple Trouble." While the Beasties were no strangers to covering a variety of topics -- after all their previous record Hello Nasty began with "Super Disco Breakin'" and ended with "Instant Death" -- the back and forth of these two vibes really made it challenging to appreciate either.
As much of a major issue as that was in 2004, 10 years later the album has aged surprisingly well. While calling To the 5 Boroughs "a love letter to New York" at the time may have been a cheap palatable selling point, it's ultimately the key to appreciating this album. Sonically, it's a neo-classical rap project at a time when dipping into the throwback sound was either reserved for the occasional one-off or, in the case of revivalists like Jurassic 5, an artist-defining element.
Being that the Beasties were actually a part of the '80s hip-hop scene makes their channeling of pre-Licensed to Ill hip-hop all the more genuine, well-executed and, unfortunately, over the majority of their listeners' heads. That vibe was pretty easily detected by the most novice of hip-hop heads with "Triple Trouble's" sampling of "Rapper's Delight," but Adrock channeling Malcolm McLauren on the same track isn't quite at the same level of visibility. Truthfully, the old school electro-hop elements all over To the 5 Boroughs take cues less from the Sugar Hill standards, and sound more-so like the type of singles you would find in an Enjoy Records sleeve. Basically, it's more Fearless Four than Furious Five, but hearing it today, the synth slaps all over the record sound like they have far more in common with 2014's soundscape than 2004's.
It's precisely this celebration of the New York they love where the heart and soul of To the 5 Boroughs can be found. As clunky and try-hard as the chorus of "An Open Letter to NYC" may be, the verses are some of the best rapping that the group's ever done, channeling specific locations and elements of the city that, even if listeners haven't stepped foot in the Big Apple, hometown pride can be easily emoted.
As unfavorable a task as reminding oneself of the Bush Administration may be, there's enough Beastie goodness on To the 5 Boroughs to warrant a re-visit.
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