The Beastie Boys's long awaited sixth studio album is a decisive return to the old school beat-boy roots they laid down in their genre defining debut album "Licensed to Ill". The result, "To The 5 Boroughs" is nothing short of brilliant. With catchy, tightly focussed grooves overlaid with the Boys' signature high pitched rapping and punctuated by playful samples, the album should satisfy hardcore fans and could even attract a few new Beastie lovers.Critics will, no doubt, brand the album as passé - a musical landscape long ago explored and stripped of all its worth. But the strength of the Beastie Boys has always been their total independence from the vagaries of musical trends and fads. When they crossed over from the New York Punk underground to Hip Hop in 1984, they were slammed by media and musicians alike as fools, frauds and pirates. Their abrasive, outwardly arrogant stage presence didn't help their credibility and, for most of the '80s, they were dismissed as a noisy, musically confused flash in the pan.But by the '90s the influence of their smash hit debut "Licensed to Ill" was beginning to be felt. Their rough-edged, DIY, cut-n-paste ethic became one of the major musical trends of the decade, spawning whole new genres. And their goofy, ironic but always intelligent lyrics with their infectious rhyme sequences won them legions of fans and admirers around the globe.The most significant growth that "To The 5 Boroughs" showcases is not in the Boy's musical talents (which remain undimmed), but in the social conscience they have developed. Where their early albums were more narrowly focussed on fun and musical exploration, "Boroughs" is full of overt social and political commentary. Some may find this irritating or inappropriate, but their music is so well suited to this kind of positive rabble rousing that it's hard not to get swept along by their good intentions.
Heartfelt politics aside, the Beastie's infectiously cheeky brand of fun is still very much alive. As always their lyrical power comes from their razor sharp awareness of how ridiculous human beings can be. Lyrics like "You sold a few records but don't get slick / Cause you used a corked back to get those hits / You've been in the game, your career is long / But when you really break it down, you've only got two songs" will reassure fans that the Boys' haven't turned soft.The album opens with "Ch-Check it Out" - a blustery tribute to the self-aggrandizing "east-side" tracks of the Boys' youth. Next up the driving rhythm of "Right Right Now Now" gives a taste of some of the rhetoric to follow with lyrics like "I'm getting kind of tired of the situation / The US attacking other nations ". For the rest of the album the tracks alternate between jocular playfulness and earnest social commentary, pausing for an obligatory dis track in "Hey F**k You". But the jewel of the album is undoubtedly "An Open Letter to New York" - an engrossing, intensely felt musical love poem to the Boys' deeply wounded hometown. Another great track, the irresistible "We Got The", closes the album with an emphatic call to action.There are plenty of things one could criticize about this album: its blatant social agenda, its lack of significant musical innovation, its sentimentality. But all of these issues are overshadowed by the sincerity of the Boys' intentions, their keen awareness of ridiculousness (including their own), and the casual brilliance that 20 odd years of making music has lent them. The Beastie Boys were never trying to be cool - on the contrary they always KNEW they were cool. Just because everyone else has passed through their territory of coolness and left it for greener pastures, doesn't mean they should move on.
- Alistair Fairweather
WHAT OTHER CRITICS ARE SAYING:
"And two decades after turning from hardcore punk to homeboy jollies, the Beasties are still the best rap band in the biz -- three voices swinging like a jazz trio..."- David Fricke, Rolling Stone
"It's as if the Beasties got back to basics and instead of pushing the envelope some more, just took it to what they were best at, which has always been creating entertaining rhymes and interlocking them between the three members."- Jason Thompson, PopMatters
"The Beasties of 5 Boroughs seem scared--reluctant to innovate; serving up nonsense lyrics and numbing production that are just plain lazy... sensing that there's nowhere to go but down, so better to establish a passable holding pattern than risk an inexcusable backslide toward irrelevance."- Jon Caramanica, The Village Voice
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