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Beasties tackle hip-hop, politics

June 17, 2004

What can be said about the Beastie Boys that hasn't already been said in the past six years?

They take too long to come out with a new record. They don't tour. The gray in their temples has gone from speckled to straight on salt-and-pepper. The voices are acquiring a touch more gravel, and anyone who gave the anti-war plea "In a World Gone Mad" last year knows their lyrics were getting a little suspect.

So it's 2004 and we're all six years removed from the universally acclaimed "Hello Nasty," and MCA, Adrock and Mike D are pushing 40. The prospect a self-proclaimed, full-on hip-hop release after a lengthy hiatus was, frankly, wringing hands from their beloved Manhattan to Tibet.

The answer to facing their first skepticism in 15 years? Never sleep on Adam, Adam and Mike. "To the 5 Boroughs" is a murky, thumping rhyme-fest love letter to New Yorkers that delivers a glove-slap to the current face of hip-hop, the president of the United States of America and everyone who had their doubts. Which was, well, everybody.

It would sound beautiful rattling off a subway turnstile. It's a record that deserves to be blared from a tenement's fire escape. The hard work and perfectionist attention to detail that went in to this album is more than apparent. But it's not the Boys' best work.

Putting it delicately, the Beasties try to tackle too much on this album. If a track isn't a sonnet to New York City, it's a bash of President Bush. If it's not the outright smarmy chest-thumping we're all used to ("We're the super elastic bubble plastic/Got ethereal material that's straight up classic" on "3 the Hard Way") the track's an inside joke.

The only surprise the Beastie Boys give us in "To the 5 Boroughs" is the one theme they nail on the head - their indictment of hip-hop as we know it. "Hey F--- You," one of the rawest on the album, calls out pop-rap for what it is with smirking accuracy. It rattles off without regard for personal safety, let alone irony.

"You people call yourselves MCs, but you're garbage men/Takin' out the trash when you take out the pen."

If nothing else, "To the 5 Boroughs" is a refreshing diversion back to MCs addressing the subjects they can put a stamp on. In the middle of politically-tempered times - a subject the Beasties certainly don't avoid - the world is without a politically charged artist. Overtly politically rap ("Maybe it's time that we impeach Tex?") won't see the coin of say, the Black Eyed Peas, but this isn't something the Boys need to be reminded of.

But from a group of middle-aged men who still call themselves boys, you can't expect a complete CNN bill of fare. "Rhyme the Rhyme Well" is a throwback to "Pass the Mic," a non-blaspheming sample of "Rapper's Delight" on "Triple Trouble" is a tasty groove that is just as poignant now as it could have been in 1986. The single "Ch-Check It Out" is reminding ears all over the nation that thirty-somethings can still take a swing at the crown.

But in a record that's a self-described love letter to New York, "To the 5 Boroughs" stumbles as more of a postcard. The most redeeming aspect is still in the consistency MCA, Adrock and Mike D bring to the table - making hip-hop conform to you will always be better than the hip-hop that conforms to popular demand.

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