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No Fun in Troubled Times


Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs

Capitol, 2004

Rating: 3.0



Posted: June 14, 2004

By Laurence Station

On "An Open Letter to NYC," the Beastie Boys (Adam "MCA" Yauch, Mike "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "Ad Rock" Horowitz) pay tribute to the post-9/11 city they love, rhyming "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." To the 5 Boroughs, the innovative hip-hop trio's sixth album, would have been better served opening with this heartfelt, unavoidably schmaltzy ("Two Towers down / But you're still in the game") but genuinely appealing track. Instead, To the 5 Boroughs is continuously distracted from its titular dedication by political concerns, severely dampening not only its replay factor but also proving to be the least fun album the normally surefire trio has made.

Despite their involvement in Tibetan Freedom Concerts and appearances at 9/11 benefit shows, the Beastie Boys will never be confused for Rage Against the Machine when it comes to politically-motivated lyrical content. The rappers are clearly passionate about their politics but consistently put their art above the fray. Until now, that is. To the 5 Boroughs, despite clever rhymes that name-check innumerable pop-cultural references and lively if atypically Spartan beats, is more about promoting a political agenda than serving up the soundtrack to your neighborhood block party. Where the Beastie Boys of two decades ago demanded that you've got to fight for you right to party, on "Right Right Now Now" it's time to, to borrow from Public Enemy, "party for the right to fight." Rather nonsensical to be sure, but this aggressive, "take the power back" tone permeates the album. "It Takes Time to Build" goes after gas guzzling automobile manufacturers ("Stop building SUVs") and a far easier target: "We got a President we didn't elect / The Kyoto Treaty he decided to neglect / And still the U.S. just wants to flex." And "That's It That's All" strives to take the "power" from Bush (presumably when the November elections roll around).

The Beastie Boys are certainly entitled to espouse their opinions on record, and consumers will obviously voice their opinions with their wallets. But it would have been nice if the rhymes had been a little less obvious and simplistic. Yes, the post-9/11 world is a scary place, and recent American policy hasn't exactly raised the country's popularity quotient. But to rail against an institution and then offer meaningless solutions ("party for the right to fight") just doesn't cut it.

What does work is what's always worked for the talented trio: The Beastie Boys' bread and butter, mugging for the mic ("3 the Hard Way," "Rhyme the Rhyme Well" and "Triple Trouble") with classic battle-rap panache. DJ Mix Master Mike shines throughout, with his scratching on "Shazam!" a particular highlight. The aforementioned "An Open Letter to NYC" is the one track that truly lives up to the album's title with affectionate shout-outs to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. But there's simply not enough of this sentiment, and the album gets bogged down in meaningless platitudes.

The Beastie Boys aren't exactly prolific (six studio albums since 1986). Thus, a new album from the trio is an event, a reason to get excited about where the band is heading and what, if any, trends will come from their new direction. To the 5 Boroughs is the first album to show the three MCs following, rather than leading. It's the C-SPAN of Beastie Boys albums, and that's about as unappealing as it gets.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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