Album: Beastie Boys

To the 5 Boroughs, Capitol
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The Independent Culture

The cover, at least, is spectacular: a pen-and-ink depiction of the Manhattan skyline drawn by Matteo Pericoli with the kind of fine detail exhibited by autistic savant artists, it stretches across 14 fold-out panels, with the Twin Towers prominently featured on the front panel to remind us that this is the Beastie Boys' tribute to their hometown, New York, the five boroughs of the title.

The cover, at least, is spectacular: a pen-and-ink depiction of the Manhattan skyline drawn by Matteo Pericoli with the kind of fine detail exhibited by autistic savant artists, it stretches across 14 fold-out panels, with the Twin Towers prominently featured on the front panel to remind us that this is the Beastie Boys' tribute to their hometown, New York, the five boroughs of the title.

Not that that would be particularly evident from the contents until track 12, "An Open Letter to NYC". "Just a little something to show some respect to the city that blends and mends and tests," they explain. Up to that point, there's no specific reference to the city's travails, although there's no shortage of didactic sloganeering on what is probably the most overtly political rap album since the demise of Public Enemy and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

"Columbine bowling, childhood stolen, we need a bit more gun controlling," runs "Right Right Now Now", their viewpoint broadening as the track proceeds to take in foreign as well as domestic policy: "I'm getting kind of tired of the situation/ The US attacking other nations/ False elation's got me losing my patience." Elsewhere, George Bush is attacked for his attitudes to the Kyoto Treaty and Iraqi WMDs in "It Takes Time to Build" ("It takes a second to wreck it, it takes time to build"), while the album concludes with a rallying cry for homeland regime-change in "We Got The".

Mostly, though, what you get with To the 5 Boroughs is outrageous braggadocio and "dozens"-style dissing of (unnamed) rivals. Even if you don't wince at their rhyming "scientist" with "applying this" (ouch!), it's tough to conceive of any circumstance that might justify a line such as, "Like Ernest Shackleton said to Ord Lees, 'I'll have dog pemmican with my tea'". Although it does, admittedly, fit in neatly with the Beastie's continuing food theme.

Though the music on this, the band's first entirely self-produced album, is not quite as tasty as might suggest. More stripped-down and streamlined than the grooves on Hello Nasty, these tracks are often little more than a brutal breakbeat and a single staccato horn stab, as on the opener "Ch-Check It Out", or a twitching techno breakbeat pulse, as on "The Hard Way" and "That's It That's All". Only the very occasional innovative element is allowed to interrupt the album's sleek, utilitarian lines.

There's little to distract one's attention from the vocals, which is the criterion upon which To the 5 Boroughs will ultimately stand or fall. And despite the copious jocular footnotes and editor's comments, I'm not too sure whether that's really enough to keep me coming back to it.

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