Most importantly, they were original and fresh--clever, smart-aleck kids from New York who never met a cultural reference they didn't like. Chuck D famously called hip-hop the "black CNN"; the Beasties were always better, being Comedy Central crossed with Nickelodeon and BET. As they approach their 40s, however, the Beastie "Boys" feel a parent's need to get all preachy. Granted, many of the leftist sentiments that effuse from Boroughs are shared by their fans and some of the TW's readership. But their artless delivery of simplistic and dated political raps makes for a peculiar comedy indeed.
Boroughs begins on the good foot: The lead single, "Ch-Check It Out," finds the Boys treading familiar, but updated ground. The percussive use of a horn sample, which references early innovations by Run-DMC and Public Enemy, punctuates mildly amusing lyrics ("I go by the name of the King Ad Rock / I don't wear a cup nor a jock"). In short, it's a great little Beastie Boys single.
Then things take a dismal turn from which they do not recover, making Boroughs an almost unlistenable, poorly phrased exercise in white liberal pedagogy. On top of which, they've largely forgotten how to rap.
Case in point: On "Right Right Now Now," they're reduced to rhyming the same goddamn phrase in the chorus. Try to believe that this is the best these veterans can do: "Right (right) / Now (now) / what is goin' on? / We've (we've) gotta (gotta) get it goin' on / Be (be) / fore (fore) it's too far gone / we gotta work together / it's been too long." Prior to To the 5 Boroughs, the Beasties largely avoided repeating themselves. Here, they can't get from track three ("3 the Hard Way") to track six ("Triple Trouble") without the same exact sentiment: There's Three of Us, and we're here to Rock This Motherfucker.
Boroughs is rife with generic, feel-good motivational propaganda peppered with anti-Bush sentiments that are far too literal to be interesting (sample: "George W got nothin' on we / we got to take the power from he"). In perhaps the Most. Awkward. Couplet. Ever., MCA babbles, "We got a president we didn't e-lect / the Kyoto Treaty, he decided to ne-glect." That's true and all, Adam, but ... damn.
And of course, no review of Boroughs would be complete without addressing the titular sentiment--on "An Open Letter to NYC," the Beasties take a feeble stab at Sept. 11. "Dear New York / I know a lot has changed / two towers down / but you're still in the game." What game is unclear, but once the San Antonio Spurs lost one of their two towers, they didn't even make the finals.
While the "beats" component of Boroughs is fairly tight, getting past the shoddy lyrics is almost too painful to enjoy what sounds like some degree of innovation. But I have a remedy for the B-Boys to consider: Do a reverse Jay-Z. Instead of releasing an a capella version of this record for DJs to mash up (as on Jay-Z's The Black Album, which resulted in some tremendous remixes), release an all-instrumental version and invite other rappers to do their best. The results could hardly be worse.