Ask any politician: Make a couple of mistakes in an otherwise excellent career, and you’ll be remembered forever for the faux pas. The Beastie Boys have been blessed with the inverse problem. Three albums of sheer brilliance—each of a different sort—have granted the crew a seemingly limitless license to strip-mine said territories without fear of reprisal, backlash, or credibility damage. They get to grow old, all the while pretending time isn’t passing them by. Six years have elapsed since their last album, Hello, Nasty, and it’s been more than a decade since the white polyglots’ last work of real note, Check Your Head. Who’s picked up the slack? Not seamless integrator Eminem, but rather movements—rap-metal and big beat come to mind—that clumsily lift from black culture, then pummel their booty with pneumatic subtlety. The Beasties themselves were never so gauche, but the casual appropriation that their appropriations allowed has, over the past decade, done far more harm than good.
On one level, To the 5 Boroughs is an apologia. Much has been made of the album’s political tracks (“Time to Build,” “We Got The”), but whatever role politics play in the Beasties’ personal lives, it’s just one input among many in their music. And considering how loosely stitched their songs are, their proselytizing (Ad-Rock: “It’s easier to sit back than stick out your neck/It’s easier to break it than build it correct”) can’t be anything more than limp lip service. 5 Boroughs—unlike the big-in-Japan Hello, Nasty—is meant to be a statement of cultural relevance and awareness, and that position has a time stamp. By exercising their old-school bona fides, the Beasties are hoping their more egregious crimes—inept lyricism and flow, narrow concepts, lackadaisical work calendar—will be pardoned.
One after the next, the stratagems fail: spitting over “Rapper’s Delight” (“Triple Trouble”), sampling LL Cool J and Chuck D (“3 the Hard Way,” “Rhyme the Rhyme Well”), engaging in battles with imagined foes (MCA: “You sold a few records but don’t get slick/’cause you used a corked bat to get those hits.” Uh, OK), and revisiting the cadences of “Paul Revere” without any of the song’s brashness (too many instances to count).
Even the vision of New York on their album cover is a throwback to more innocent times. Matteo Pericoli’s skyline sketch dates to June 2000, and the twin towers loom weightily in the image. But why the intense focus on the rear view? Can it be that it was all so simple then? “An Open Letter to NYC” holds some answers. Riding along on a chopped-and-sorta-screwed Dead Boys sample—and cutting up hometown-repping chants from native sons 50 Cent, RZA, and Nas at track’s end—this should be the song that establishes the group as visionaries of a better tomorrow, not as excavators of yesteryear’s rubble.
Ad-Rock raps, “Since 9-11, we still living/And loving life we been given/Ain’t nothing gonna take that away from us/We’re looking pretty and gritty ’cause in the city we trust.” These are survivor sentiments, but they’re also deeply nostalgic. The NYC they’re feting is the one from before the buildings fell, just as the era they’re toasting on this album is the one before they became self-parodic. But clinging to the past is, ultimately, an admission of defeat. And what’s worse, it’s deliriously shortsighted, especially for certified pop eccentrics with a gift for artful transgression. Put simply, the Beasties of 5 Boroughs seem scared—reluctantto innovate; serving up nonsense lyrics and numbing production that are just plain lazy (what must a Beastie Boys writing session look like these days?) rather than considering each song an opportunity for creative experimentation (or even to flop audaciously); sensing that there’s nowhere to go but down, so better to establish a passable holding pattern than risk an inexcusable backslide toward irrelevance. Stopping the clock would mean acknowledging that it’s still ticking, and making progress would be an admission of defeat. Or worse, of trying too hard.