When we last left the Beastie Boys, they'd successfully channeled about 15 years' worth of versatile, chameleonic juvenilia into a decade-ending blitz of personality-cult DVD/box-set canonization. Even if they'd bowed out on the cornball hippie-dip "Alive" in '99 and gone on to semiretirement peddling designer ABA-inspired skate-punk wear and occasional instrumental schlepp-funk EPs, it would have been a career well done.
But they came back—only in a literal "we still exist" sense, though. Calling To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol) a "return to form" is a filthy lie. It's not a comeback—it's Willie Mays falling down running for shallow fly balls in a '73 Mets jersey. It's a haggard, toupeed Sean Connery playing deadly vector-graphic video games in Never Say Never Again. Worst of all, it's Crown Royal—albeit a different breed of awfulness. On that album, Run-D.M.C. tripped over their guest MCs' mike cords on their comeback- attempt flop; on To the 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys sound completely and utterly alone in their own cavernous, isolated boho loft, with nothing to keep them company but their Money Mark action figures.
It could just be shell shock from the collapse of their boutique label, Grand Royal (whose assets were recently auctioned off online for $65,000), or the rustiness of being almost completely out of the pop public eye for a half-decade that saw Timbaland, the Neptunes, crunk, Jay-Z, Eminem, electroclash, Definitive Jux, OutKast, and the DFA all usurp the Beasties' stranglehold on urban cool, but Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock all sound completely bewildered on the mike. MCA's vocals have mutated from merely raspy to a weak-lunged, "must avoid coughing" cadence, while Mike D and Ad-Rock sound increasingly interchangeable. They've always sounded somewhat like slide whistles were lodged somewhere in their lower intestines, but here their voices have been stretched to superdeformed anime caricatures, with giant saucer-eyed heads and tiny, tiny bodies that can't support their weight.
That's the tolerable half of their mike-skill deterioration. Good luck enduring the words themselves. What does it mean when Mike D's doctor tells them there's an electrician up his ass in "Ch-Check It Out"? When MCA says, "My rhymes are whales and yours are rodents," in "Crawlspace? Why does he feel the need to point out, "This means huge compared to very small," and follow that clarification with, "You look a little chilly, can I get you a shawl?" Are there really any bragging rights in being "the crew who put the 'cru' in Cruex"? Can't they, you want to ask somewhere around the middle of To the 5 Boroughs, just be the "ex" instead?
The Beasties' relatively recent tendency to rhyme like the '90s never happened is another sticking point. The "old-school" throwback status they've saddled themselves with is such a self-fulfilling prophecy that I'm not even going to bother decrying MCA's dismissal of other MCs' styles as "antique" on "Three the Hard Way." Believe it or not, that statement isn't a pot-kettle-black situation, because "antique" implies actual value. The lack of fire drags down the granola-crunk beats, too; imagine Timbaland slapping a "Mean People Suck" bumper sticker on his sampler. The Beasties ride over the cowbelly, non-Chic bits from "Rapper's Delight" on "Triple Trouble," too. I am picturing the Dust Brothers throwing their hats to the ground and stomping on them. I am also picturing a break-dancing robot caught on fire.
Like the Dead Boys they sample in "An Open Letter to NYC," the Beasties once prided themselves on being young, loud, and snotty. But the problem isn't that they're getting old (Beastie Boys, meet Sonic Youth; be sure to swap stories of nomenclature irony), or that they aren't bringing the noise (on many tracks, volume is the only presence they have). It's that they've traded their trademark endearing devil-may-care obnoxiousness in favor of a milquetoast "zany" niceness. There are few genuine smart-ass sparks on this album; the sampled "If you don't like it, then, hey, fuck you" chorus sounds a lot harder than the "dipsy doodle kit and caboodle" Catskills schmaltz that passes for battle rhymes on, er, "Hey Fuck You." And for all the to-do about the political posturing on the record (most infamously, Ad-Rock's line, "George W's got nothing on we/We got to take the power from he," from "That's It That's All"), none of the record's anti-Bush barbs really sting. It's Nerf-toothed Rock the Vote (But Not the Boat) earnestness where a bit of egg throwing would have been more appropriate. "All the wife beaters/And all the tax cheaters/Sittin' in the White House/Pullin' their peters," from Paul's Boutique's "Car Thief," said it better—and more entertainingly.
Which isn't to say To the 5 Boroughs isn't getting plenty of knee-jerk kudos—see David Fricke's moon-eyed five-star Rolling Stone exultation of the Beasties as "the best rap band in the biz," which smacks of Futurama's Philip J. Fry watching the Boys' preserved heads mumble a half-hearted a cappella "Sabotage" and declaring, "These guys rock harder than ever!" Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but for those of us who grew up in the '90s wanting to be kleptomaniac Kmart shoplifters whose every action was funky like Lee Dorsey, there's something disillusioning about watching the Beastie Boys turn into hip-hop's version of the latter-day Rolling Stones. What a drag it is gettin' old.