Album Reviews

Beastie Boys – To The 5 Boroughs

(david welsh) UK release date: 14 June 2004

Since Hello Nasty dropped in 1998, Beastie Boys fans have been witnessed the release of various compilations and anthologies, with no significant new material to speak of. Six years have been and gone, and we can all now belatedly get our hands on some of the most exciting new hip-hop around.

First up, there are two things immediately setting To The 5 Boroughs out from other Beastie Boys albums. Most importantly, this is the first full-length effort to be produced by the boys themselves. Gone are the overdriven guitars of Sabotage and in come classic trippy drum loops and dozens of samples. Triple Trouble, for instance, is a Beastie-style reworking of Sugarhill Gang‘s Rappers Delight. It’s not rocket science, but it is, without doubt, entirely fresh.

The other factor affecting To The 5 Boroughs is, inevitably, the issues that have affected Mike D, Adrock, MCA and Mix Master Mike in their long recording haitus. We have to remember that these are no longer the kids that brought us Fight For Your Right and Brass Monkey back in 1986. Instead the B Boys are now Tibetan Freedom Concert veterans and prominent political vocalists since the wake of 9/11. Exemplary, I’m sure, but what does it mean for their trademark style?

Simply put, To The 5 Boroughs is thoroughly political, serving as a platform for dissidence as much as anything. “Is the U.S. gonna keep breaking necks? / Maybe it’s time that we impeach Tex and the military muscle he wants to flex” (from It Takes Time To Build) is a passage you would never expect from a Hello Nasty-era Beastie Boys, the same applying to An Open Letter To New York‘s “Dear New York, I hope you’re doing well. I know a lot’s happened and you’ve been through hell”.

But let’s not get carried away – this is no Rage Against The Machine-style livid disection. If anything it’s a general call to arms, and, when you think about it, fighting for rights is a Beastie theme. To The 5 Boroughs doesn’t take itself too seriously; every track, satirical or not, appears to contain some form of party reference, whilst there are jibes at “sucker MC’s” liberally applied throughout. Moreover, the whole affair is one big ode to New York, a trend that helps tie everything together cohesively.

With the possible exception of Ch-Ch-Check It Out, the self-produced tracks are overtly old school, placing minimal emphasis on instrumental backing. There are no Intergalactic-esque powerhouses on show; a fact that will appeal to long-term B Boy fans and hip-hop purists rather than the mainstream followers who picked up Hello Nasty in their millions. I am therefore tempted, albeit reluctantly, to file To The 5 Boroughs in the “Fans Only” drawer. Yes, it’s an exciting prospect and leaves most contemporary hip-hop in its wake, but, at the same time, we waited six years and our expectations probably rose just a little too much.

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