The 90’s were very good to the Beastie Boys. During that decade, the New York City trio released two great albums (Check Your Head and Ill Communication) and one good one (Hello Nasty), all of which were built on the same career-defining blueprint; drop whip-smart wisecracks and obscure cultural references in a bare-bones MC-ing style over an eclectic bevy of record samples, then brace it with a backbone of buzzing guitar riffs and devastating hip hop beats. Their albums were designed like DJ sets, with peaks and valleys, hit singles interspersed with ingenious experiments, hardcore punk blasts mixed with golden era-style rap joints. While the Beasties were never prodigies as rappers, sound collage artists, or musicians, their ability to blend all of these talents into an unmistakable mélange of swagger, hipness, and goofy humor made them icons of the Lollapalooza generation.
So when they dropped the organ funk bomb “Make Some Noise” a couple weeks ago, you could hardly fault the Beastie Boys of 2011 for wanting to tap into the sonic milieu of their younger days. The song was exhilarating, the kind of should-be-patented, head-bobbing collision of rock, rap, punk, and funk that makes all of those genres suddenly seem like one. But it proves to be a tough act to follow for the rest of Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2. The Beasties’ eighth album tries like hell to recapture the magic of their commercial and creative golden age but falls short, ultimately mimicking the style and structure of those 90’s albums while lacking their substance.
It’s easy enough to spot the similarities between the old Beasties and the new. Their rapping technique is still built around the predictable yet loveable, tag-you’re-it handoffs between Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D. Most of the vocals and instruments feature heavy studio processing — everything is distorted, scuffed-up, echoed, or bled with feedback. It’s a great trick that worked well for the Beastie Boys in their prime, lending their songs a grimy, thick-as-syrup inflection, and it does so again on tracks like “Tadlock’s Glasses,” which pops and pings as if stuck in a lo-fi digital swamp and “Funky Donkey” whose warped steel drums sound like they’re being fed through an Activision game console. But their once innovative tactic of straying outside the lines of hip-hop now now feels paint-by-numbers; Hot Sauce has the requisite excursion into hardcore punk (“Lee Majors Come Again”), the trippy instrumental (“Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament.”) and the sophomoric answering machine interlude (“The Bill Harper Collection”), but none of them surprise you in the slightest.
Beastie Boys albums in the 90’s were famous for having a monster opening track then a hit single at track seven (“Jimmy James” and “So What’cha Want”) (“Sure Shot” and “Get It Together”) (“Super Disco Breakin’” and “Intergalactic”). Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 repeats the pattern by housing its two most appealing cuts — “Make Some Noise” and dub-heavy crowd pleaser “Don’t Play No Game (That I Can’t Win)” — in the one and seven slots. But the songs between them just don’t carry enough weight. “OK,” “Too Many Rappers” and “Say It” have all the usual elements of radio-friendly alternative rap/rock but come across as formulaic; you’ll appreciate their sturdy construction but won’t be inspired to shake your booty. It was the groove-heavy non-singles like “B-Boys Makin’ with the Freak Freak,” “Finger Lickin’ Good” and “The Move” that gave their 90’s albums staying power, and Hot Sauce doesn’t have anything else close to those tracks.
Lyrically, there are a few wacky rhymes (“Dropping bombs like a bombadier / Cacao! It’s a chocolatier”) that you can only shake your head and smile at, but the Beastie Boys’ trademark witticisms and offbeat comedic instincts are largely absent from the songs (or maybe they all went into the video for “Make Some Noise.”) Perhaps it’s inevitable that a 45-year old singing about “douche powder” just doesn’t garner the same laughs as 20-somethings sticking their dicks in the mashed potatoes, but part of the Beasties’ appeal has always been their willingness to crack up at their own jokes.
These days, life has gotten decidedly more serious. One of the album’s most memorable lines is delivered with lethal urgency when Adam Yauch references his 2009 battle with cancer. “Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision/ I’ll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitching/ Put it in formaldehyde and put it in the shelf/ And you can show it to your friends and say ‘that’s my old self’” It’s the sound of a grown man coming terms with a life-threatening illness and persevering through his craft.
Hot Sauce Committee, Pt 2 is a fine album but not quite the classic that some fans and critics want it to be. There are plenty of hooks and sound effects to go around, but the album’s street-smart savior faire feels a bit forced (not surprising given the fact that the Beastie Boys are all but domesticated nowadays). Their greatest records are tributes to b-boy culture, fashion, and wordplay, and those influences feel strangely absent here; I miss the heavy record scratching, the obscure record samples (there’s surprisingly few), and most of all, the impulse to dance. On Ill Communication’s “Alright Hear This,” Ad-rock captured the essence of the trio’s success with the succinct line “I don’t give a fuck ’cause I’ve got the beats,” but Hot Sauce seems rather mechanical in its movements. If you were breakdancing to this, you’d be doing the robot instead of 6-stepping.
The best Beastie Boys’ records have enough aural layers and intricacies to sustain detailed, thoughtful listens, but let’s face it — these songs sound best cranked up loud at a summer BBQ with a drink in your hand. Under those conditions, I have a hard time believing Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 will stack up against its predecessors. And while it might seem unfair to keep comparing it to Check Your Head and Ill Communication, there isn’t much choice when the Beasties seem intent on making the same album over and over again. Even so, I’m amazed that three middle age white dudes can still make such tight rap music while staying true to their creative roots; the last time I went on and on ‘til the break of dawn was when my two-year old woke up sick at 4 a.m.. There’s something to said about the ability to keep it old school, even when you get old.