Like this summer’s block-buster movie sequels, the Beastie Boys’ second album was anticipated with some hope tempered by much dread. On their bratty 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill, the Beasties — Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Michael “Mike D” Diamond — established themselves as the Sultans of Swagger. Thanks to the heavy-metallic single “Fight for Your Right (to Party),” the album went multiplatinum and helped bring rap to a wider (whiter) audience.
But Ill was often credited solely to scratch-meister producer Rick Rubin — and seemed destined for the one-shot-wonder bin. When the Boys weren’t being called Monkees for not playing instruments, they were being called Blues Brothers for plundering a black music form and making more louie off it. Compounding the usual pressure of a follow-up, the Beasties split from Rubin and his label, Def Jam, over a royalty dispute and set up shop in L.A., far from the urban blight of New York that fueled the pillage-and-anarchy lyrics of their debut.
Yet with the dense, crafty Paul’s Boutique (produced by the Dust Brothers, including Tone-Loc helmsman Matt Dike), the Beasties reinvent the turntable and prove they’re here to stay. Gone is Rubin’s wailing guitar (and with it, probably, the chance of a crossover hit single), but in its place is a nearly seamless set of provocative samples and rhymes — a rap opera, if you will, complete with an Abbey Road-like multisnippet medley called “B-boy Bouillabaisse.” If the misogyny, hedonism and violence of the first album bothered you, the sequel shows little remorse — merely replacing beer with cheeba — but it’s a much more intricate, less bludgeoning effort.
Paul’s Boutique — named after a Brooklyn store whose radio ad is tossed in the mix and whose picture graces the cover — surprises from the get-go. Instead of opening, as Ill did, with wall-to-wall drum wallops, it creeps up on you like an alley cat: A quiet organ and snare fade up as a mellow DJ voice dedicates the ensuing set to (who else?) the girls of the world. Then, of course, drums rat-a-tat, and we’re back in naughty-boy land. “I rock a house party at the drop of a hat/I beat a biter down with an aluminum bat,” snarls Horovitz on the opener, “Shake Your Rump.” But even in the midst of this obligatory strutting, the Boys slyly acknowledge their tarnished public image: “I’m Mike D, and I’m back from the dead,” brags Diamond.
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“A puppet on a string, I’m paid to sing or rhyme,” adds Yauch.
That out of the way, they’re back on the streets, dissing and snickering. The next song, “Johnny Ryall,” set against a blues-riff loop and dissonant guitar solo, spray-paints a wry, detailed portrait of a bum living on Mike D’s block. This runs into “Egg Man,” a nightmarish cartoon of shell-cracking hooliganism that starts with the slinky bass line from “Superfly,” features echoey shrieks on the choruses and closes with a slice of the theme from Psycho, which jarringly snaps off like a TV set. (In the midst of the vigilantism, the Boys do sneak in this tip: “You made the mistake you judge a man by his race/You go through life with egg on your face.”)
Each track brims with ideas and references too numerous to catalog, veering in new directions at every verse: “The Sounds of Science” builds from a casual, smartass schoolboy singsong to a breakneck chant against repeated guitar strums from “The End,” by the Beatles. Here and throughout, the songs are buoyed by the deft interplay of the three voices and a poetic tornado of imagery.
In terms of lyrics, the posturing that dominated Licensed to Ill is still in evidence — witness “High Plains Drifter” and “Car Thief” — but it’s been leavened by an approach that’s almost, well, literary. Sure, Paul’s Boutique is littered with bullshit tough-guy bravado, but it’s clever and hilarious bullshit: Who can be put off by claims like “I got more hits than Sadaharu Oh” and “I got more suits than Jacoby and Meyers”? In the catchy, Sly Stone-based “Shadrach,” this would-be terrible trio compares itself to biblical heroes Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
And while the Boys’ rap references range from Magilla Gorilla to Dickens, their musical samples are equally far-flung, including Johnny Cash, Hendrix and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” (Acrostic-minded listeners should know that Jerry Garcia, Sweet and George Carlin are also allegedly in here somewhere.) Though the group seems most proud of the twelve-inch-vinyl version — the cover of the first pressing is an impressive eight-fold wraparound photo — Paul’s Boutique seems mixed especially for a Walkman. The voices shimmer around the listener’s head in an artful dance, and the musical “steals” effected by the Boys and Dust Brothers Matt Dike, John King and Mike Simpson are much more complicated than the first album’s, changing speeds, inverting or abstracting themes until they’re virtually new. If you can recognize them, fine, but they stand on their own; it’s no more thievery than Led Zep’s borrowing from Muddy Waters.
In the works for a year and meticulously constructed, Paul’s Boutique retains a loose, fun feel. The infectious “What Comes Around” (in which they taunt skinheads, rapping, “You’re all mixed up, like pasta primavera/Why’d you throw that chair at Geraldo Rivera?”) winds up with a wild Beastie version of scat humming. The Boys kick off side two by hollering at one another over a hillbilly hoedown called “5-Piece Chicken Dinner.” There are abundant inside jokes — a line delivered by a blow-hard New York TV weatherman, references to close friends and local events like Brooklyn’s Atlantic Antic — but they are never made in an off-putting way. The Boys are just being themselves, thrashing about in a reality ignored by too many mainstream white-rock acts.
In “Three Minute Rule,” Yauch says, “A lot of parents like to think I’m a villain/I’m just chillin’, like Bob Dylan.” May they stay forever def.