These are some things that have changed since the Beastie Boys’ last studio album, Hello Nasty, was released in 1998: There is no Grand Royal Records; the trio shut down its eccentric custom label in 2001. Adam “MCA” Yauch’s deep, rough growl is now an even deeper, stranger weapon of taunt; he now fires boasts and insults like a hip-hop Tom Waits, in a smoker’s-cough harangue scoured free of melody.
And there is no World Trade Center. This may seem like a weird time — wartime, everywhere you look — for Yauch, Adam “AdRock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond, all on the cusp of forty, to make a record that in its gibes and hyperspeed is the closest they have come to their old-school fight and comedy on 1986’s Licensed to Ill. Actually, it is the perfect time. To the 5 Boroughs is an exciting, astonishing balancing act: fast, funny and sobering. “I bring the shit that’s beyond bizarre,” Horovitz asserts against the quick hop and spears of sampled brass in “Ch-Check It Out.” “Like Miss Piggy,” he adds, apropos of nothing, to which all three respond in idiot falsetto, “Who moi?” In “Right Right Now Now,” the Beasties lament Columbine and call for “more gun controlling” over tense rolls of Muzak harpsichord, then twist the chorus of their biggest hit into a free-speech cheer, retrieving Public Enemy’s inversion from 1988: “We’re gonna party for the right to fight.” The Beasties pour the Pink Champale and Riunite here, but they’re not drinking to forget. They turn the dis on “a president we didn’t elect” in “It Takes Time to Build”: “Is the U.S. gonna keep breaking necks/ Maybe it’s time that we impeach Tex.”
It’s risky business — odd, at first, to hear social protest in Horovitz’s cutting nyah-nyah-nyah or, in “All Lifestyles,” Diamond’s high, shrill yelp: “Walking down the block, you say, ‘Yo, D! When you coming out with the new CD that spreads love in society?'” But To the 5 Boroughs is a full-service gas. The Beasties produced the album themselves, spiking stark, muscular beats with incongruous cool, like the Brazilian rain-forest buzz of the berimbau in “Hey Fuck You.” You also get an encyclopedic torrent of cheesy-TV citations, as if the Beasties have spent the last six years sucking up nothing but Nick at Nite. And two decades after turning from hardcore punk to homeboy jollies, the Beasties are still the best rap band in the biz — three voices swinging like a jazz trio, racing like Bad Brains — and they don’t have big patience for the gold-plated phooey currently passing for gangsta. “I know you’re sitting pretty in the Hampty-Hamps/Posing like you’re rolling with the camp,” Yauch croaks in “Shazam!” That photo of P. Diddy on a jet ski, in his polar-bear beach robe, comes to mind.
More than anything, To the 5 Boroughs is the Beasties’ valentine to the city where they, and rap, were born. It is a brash, passionate toast to what we lost on 9/11 (in the cover illustration, the Twin Towers are still standing) and what survives: in memory, on the ground. The raps are packed with local cuisine (Blimpies, Murray’s Cheese Shop on Bleecker Street) and nostalgia (Yauch: “Used to ride the D to beat the morning bell at Edward R. Murrow [High School] out on Avenue L”). And in “An Open Letter to NYC,” the Beasties celebrate the city “that blends and mends and tests,” mixing prayer and pride with sampled shots of 50 Cent, RZA and Nas over the killer riff from the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer.” It’s a dark whirl, but never maudlin: “2 towers down but you’re still in the game,” Diamond crows, a line that also has everything to do with the state and fate of the nation. The Beasties are New York from head to heel, but they’ve made To the 5 Boroughs for the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island in all of us.