For a while there, things looked grim: six years, two towers, one Lower Manhattan, Jam Master Jay, W., so much to spit about, so many sharp darts to throw, no new Beastie Boys. Shit, I thought the terrorists had won. And then, after six years of nothing and six months of hype, "Ch-Check It Out"? This rerun, this Fisher-Price "It's Tricky" they've been touting for 15 years? It's all right to keep the Beastie personality -- the cymbal-heavy big beats, the purposefully cornball orchestra hits, that NYC weed-cloud vocal delay. But why make that song again? If I'm tired of it just listening, they've gotta be going through motions.
Then To the 5 Boroughs and the immediate headrush of Beastie nostalgia: squeaky-voiced slow-mo surrealism, pop-culture-twisting lyrics, massive beats brought down to head level, quotes headed straight to the hip-hop Bartlett's ("I got more product than Ron Popeil"). The whiplash of shared nostalgia: I've been waiting 20 years for the line "... Running home after school to play PIX." Pix! Pix! Pix! They're shooting laser lines at my cynicism in To the 5 Boroughs, but not gunning it down; it's just nostalgia, it's just old men waxing on for their fellow old. Fuck it, my mind's made up -- no, I won't ch-check it out.
But yeah, of course I will. "Crawl Space": dark and musty, secretive and individual, chalked-up playbook with fast-cut samples. "3 The Hard Way": car-shaking basses, old-skool-yard braggadocio. "An Open Letter To NYC": looks too touching to work on paper, on disc it's a masterpiece, just like "We Got The" (as in "... power"), the required political statement buoyed by bad-ass house-inspired tracks. Yeah, maybe I will ch-check it out. Over and over again.
The Beastie Boys have spent their considerable careers in two shadows, with every record, video and appearance simultaneously trying to live down the misunderstood frat-boy banger Licensed To Ill and trying to live up to the mold-breaking artistry of Paul's Boutique. To the 5 Boroughs is still there, under those shadows, and like Ill Communication and Check Your Head, it's largely successful at breaking out on its own.
"Crawl Space," 13 tracks into the 5 Boroughs, feels like the confirmation. It's bubbling rhythms, tripped-out attitude, like a walk around the office in Being John Malkovich -- the Beastie Boys are used to being hunched over and h-h-high on shitty bridge-and-tunnel weed, but you're brand-new and intrigued. Like its surrounding tracks, the Beastie-style love letter to L-train attitude, "An Open Letter to NYC" (complete with Dead Boys sample), and "The Brouhaha," "Crawl Space" made me rethink 5 Boroughs: This isn't "the new Beastie Boys album"; this is the kind of album the Beastie Boys and New York City make every day, but once every few years they let the rest of us in on the secret.