The question posed by “To the 5 Boroughs” (Capitol), the sixth album by the Beastie Boys, is: Can irreverence and social-consciousness coexist? As the three rappers push 40 — Adam Yauch, aka MCA, is 39; Mike Diamond, aka Mike D, is 38, and Adam Horovitz, aka Adrock, is 37 — it was perhaps inevitable that they would shed some of the endearingly playful antics that helped make them stars in the first place. During a tour supporting their uproarious 1986 debut, “Licensed to Ill,” the Beasties rapped about fighting for your right to party while they sprayed beer on girls dancing in cages. Now they seem slightly trapped between the impulse to say something more responsible and the desire to rock the party. For the Beasties, the challenge is to grow up without completely abandoning the adenoidal imperative to just not care.
As culturally literate Jewish hipsters growing up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, the Beastie Boys were too smart to take their B-Boy stance seriously. With nasal adolescent rhymes and bombastic, sloppy beats, they created something even cooler than the old-school hip-hop that they simultaneously poked fun at and emulated. Ironic, snotty-nosed and funny, they were not only charming — they were way ahead of their time.
If they began their career as a frat boy version of the Marx brothers, who easily might have been a minor footnote in pop culture history, their 1989 follow-up, “Paul’s Boutique,”was an astonishing masterpiece pastiche of delicious funk samples and intricate wordplay. And throughout the 1990s, the Beasties continued to stay one step ahead of the game, fusing funk, rock and hip-hop in appealingly off-kilter ways, adding live jams into the mix on innovative albums like, “Check Your Head” and “Ill Communication.” All the while, one thing that never changed was an element of boisterous, playful irreverence, a middle-finger-in-the-air aesthetic that promised never to take anything too seriously.
With “To the 5 Boroughs,” that promise has been broken. Musically, the album regresses (or painstakingly creates the impression of regressing) to the carefree days of hip-hop’s golden age, with simple loops, upbeat party jams and lots of space — an element that producers in and outside of hip-hop seem to have largely forgotten. In terms of rhyme style, the Beasties also sound like a throwback, making no attempt to keep pace with hip-hop’s increasingly dense and high-speed lyrical flow.
Equally surprising is the Beasties’ sudden embrace of their Jewish identity. In “Right Right Now Now,” Horovitz drops the first of several Judaeo-hip-hop nuggets: “I’m a funky ass Jew and I’m on my way, and yes I got to say f—- the KKK.” In the resolutely old-school stomp, “Three the Hard Way,” the Beasties fling more Jewish cultural references, albeit in a less political (some might say less logical) manner: “…clutch like Piazza, sneak between the sheets so hide the Matzoh. Holler back, challah bread….” In fact, “To the 5 Boroughs” is sprinkled with references, including “your grandma’s kugel,” “schnitzel” and “falafel.” But this isn’t mainly (or even slightly) an album about being Jewish. It’s an experiment in trying to inject social consciousness into music that’s really about just having fun, and that’s a tall order.
Given that “To the 5 Boroughs” is the first Beastie Boys album that re-creates past sonic achievements rather than breaking new musical ground, it’s a shame that the only thing really new here is a recurring impulse to insert a political message that drains the fun from several of these otherwise harmlessly retro efforts. In the electro-tinged “It Takes Time to Build,” the Beasties rail against hatred, SUVs, environmental destruction, the national debt and “a president we didn’t elect.” All nice sentiments, but not particularly compelling rap lyrics.
Indeed, when it comes to subject matter, the album is a bit like finding your favorite party animal drinking nonalcoholic beer and reading The Nation. For example, in “Right Right Now Now,” Yauch raps: “Columbine bowling, childhood stolen, we need a bit more gun controlling.” (This from a guy who once rapped: “We like beer and lots of cursing, .22 automatic on my person”?)
The song in which the Beasties’ newfound sincerity works best is “An Open Letter to NYC,” a moving ode to the city whose dense multicultural mix inspired three Jewish teenagers to form one of hip-hop’s most innovative crews nearly two decades ago. Accompanied by a driving surf guitar line and a fat, pounding beat, three old friends chant about the five boroughs where “Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin, black, and white” people rub shoulders on the subway. And while there’s nothing irreverent about lines like, “Dear New York, I hope you’re doing well/I know a lot’s happened and you’ve been through hell/So we give thanks for providing a home,” they work. Maybe because there’s something so specific and honest about the sentiment. After the September 11 attacks, the Beastie Boys, who had all been living in Los Angeles for several years, moved back to New York. While “To the 5 Boroughs” is less radically creative and risk-taking than any of the Beasties’ previous albums, perhaps that’s the unavoidable result of living and working in a city where the innocent playfulness of the 1980s and 1990s isn’t quite as easy to conjure up as it used to be.
Dimitri Ehrlich’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vibe and Interview, where he was music editor for many years. He is also a musician who once jammed with the Beastie Boys. His third album, “August,” will be released in August.