In Defense of the Beastie Boys' To the 5 Boroughs

Categories: Celebrations

The passing of Adam "MCA" Yauch two years ago was a devastating loss for music, but within the outpouring of mourning in the wake of his death was the reminder how much the Beastie Boys' music connected with several generations of listeners. Even prior to Yauch's passing, the Beasties' catalog had already been championed by critics as some of the most consistent and important releases of their generation and has continued to find new audiences by becoming something of a rite of passage for music obsessives and fun thrill-seekers alike.

But despite the universal love of the Beasties, the tenth anniversary of their To the 5 Boroughs album just passed with almost no retrospectives or think-pieces. In this era of hyper-nostalgia, why would an album that was critically championed upon release (Five stars in Rolling Stone, A- from Christgau) and the subject of an absolute media blitz be completely omitted from our collective "Remember when this happened? OMG, we're old! LOL!" mentality?

Probably because, truthfully, we didn't like it very much.

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Despite debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and quickly going platinum, this was the first time the feeling of "I have the new Beastie Boys record" wasn't as exciting as the "I can't wait for the new Beastie Boys" anticipation that preceded it. But why is that?

Well, it was a weird time to be a Beastie Boys fan, a weird time to be a hip-hop fan and a weird time to be in New York. Being this was the first Beastie Boys album that was solely rap music in 15 years and was entirely New York themed, you have quite a lot to digest. New York music was still largely in a post-9/11 haze and 50 Cent/G-Unit were still the most influential hip-hop figures in the city. This shouldn't have mattered much to the Beasties as the bulk of their other output was largely created in their own vacuum, with tremendous results.

But this time, the political climate made things different. Since their inception, the Beasties had dabbled in pretty much every major New York music scene and reflected fragments of it in their records. They also had slowly developed a conscience, becoming more vocal about causes they believed in. While we still had flashes of their political beliefs on their fun 1999 single "Alive," we didn't hear a proper Beastie Boys track with all three members again until the 2003 Iraq War protest song "In A World Gone Mad." You could make a case for "World Gone Mad" being the absolute worst track the Beasties ever released -- with rusty out-of-step flows, heavy-handed politics and uninspired lyrics, it even left Jon Stewart to remark at the time that it sounded "like a commercial for an extreme soft drink." Its timing with the unsuccessful Iraq War protests also may have inadvertently subconsciously linked this era of political frustration and disappointment with the Beasties' material, making the political themes of the following year's To The 5 Boroughs essentially nostalgia-proof.

The Beasties have shown in interviews since Boroughs' release that the political elements may have bogged it down. Adrock told Interview magazine in 2011 that 5 Boroughs was largely misunderstood, claiming "That was supposed to be our serious political album." Mike D concurred "There is an overall seriousness in tone that pervades To The 5 Boroughs. We're downtown New Yorkers and had very close proximity to the events of September 11th." Adrock went on to tell New York Magazine "At the time [of 5 Boroughs], our usual stupid shit wasn't that funny."

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