Visionaries? Once it didn’t seem possible. No joke was too low, no music (hardcore punk, hip-hop, metal) above ridicule. The Beasties rode their often wickedly funny bad taste to the bank, only to later explore subject matter and craft music beyond the world of bongs, beer and groupies that made them early role models for the Limp Bizkit generation. In the last decade, they’ve grown from cartoon hip-hoppers into respected innovators.
Now — after five studio albums, a batch of EPs and singles, and millions of sales — The Sounds of Science tries to make sense of it all, with forty-two tracks spanning the Beasties’ eighteen years. But it’s more of an odds-and-ends compilation for committed fans than it is the definitive overview that the Beasties deserve. Though the two-disc set covers most of the obvious career high points — the rap-metal party tunes from Licensed to Ill, the groundbreaking sonic collages of Paul’s Boutique, the funky rap-rock of Check Your Head and Ill Communication, and the old-school reaffirmations of Hello Nasty — it’s also clogged with esoterica: more than a dozen B sides, unreleased tracks and rarities.
Most of this extra material was originally shelved, with good reason: The twang of “Railroad Blues” and tropical cool of “Twenty Questions” come off as novelties, and “Soba Violence” and “Believe Me” affirm that the Beasties made the right move when they abandoned hardcore punk for rap in the mid-Eighties. “Boomin’ Granny” is a mildly funny sendup of LL Cool J-like hip-hop Lotharios that doesn’t stand up to repeated listenings. And the cover of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” and the falsetto-soul ballad “Netty’s Girl” have the warmhearted glow of tributes delivered by an overserved karaoke singer.
The Sounds of Science pretty much ignores the more politically incorrect side of the Beasties’ early material: There’s no sign of the pillaging brats who rode on “Paul Revere.” Instead, there’s a new single, “Alive,” which brims with straight-edge earnestness: “Don’t smoke cheeba/Can’t stand crack.” The song also acknowledges the Beasties’ unlikely new role as keepers of the hip-hop flame by sampling one of Boogie Down Productions’ mottoes: “Bringin’ back that old New York rap.” On recent albums, the Beasties have done that as well as any three MCs of the Nineties. But The Sounds of Science doesn’t convincingly make the case.