The Beastie Boys (1989)
I don’t want to overstate how phenomenal and important Paul’s Boutique is, especially since at first blush it may seem like nothing more than a dense, goofy bunch of references and clips of old songs. But I will say this: A lot of things happened in music in the 1980s, and after repeated listens, I’ve found that this record encompasses most of them.
A hip-hop LP this long is going to have a lot of lyrics, and Boutique doesn’t disappoint on that front. The liner notes present them as an impermeable wall of text, so it’s worth seeking out the numerous websites devoted to dissecting everything that’s going on here (yes, it’s that deep). Not a single line is wasted; if I remember correctly, there are no repeated verses here, which is a refreshing decision. Each stanza is crammed full of allusions, metaphors, philosophy, obscene humor, autobiography, surrealism, wordplay, and a brilliant blend of verbal agility, complex rhyme and consonance. In my opinion, this is the pinnacle of spoken word as creative art. The boys’ breathless, nuanced delivery (usually tag-teamed and sometimes stepping on each other’s lines) makes it all especially memorable. Beyond the vocals, there are still many layers: it could function as a slice-of-life of the hooligans themselves, a reflection of New York City culture and geography, or a canny reassessment of all the trashy art they’ve consumed. It is an unsurpassed historical document, cataloguing and fusing together all manner of social trivia from the mid-20th century. Not to be stopped there, it also charmingly and methodically evokes pre-9/11 New York City in all its grandeur and decay, with all the locations mentioned nearly functioning as a rambling tour.
After I’ve spent so much time with the record, it seems infinitely more mature than the debut. But at heart, it really isn’t. The crude jokes and absurdity still abound; they’re just far more robust and delivered with tons more creativity. For example, one particular funny line of “Shadrach” (I’ll let you discover it) seems much more elegant once you realize that the Beasties INVENTED a rhetorical device within it: a double-simile metaphor crossbreed. Details like these capture a transition period between the obnoxious, self-satisfied and jokey adolescents of Licensed To Ill and the pretentious, laid-back philosophers of Check Your Head. Countless lines seem like pearls of wisdom and hyper-literate references, but with a literal interpretation, they’re ridiculous and funny. (As previously mentioned, the band’s three distinct voices and their rhythmic interplay are milked for all the entertainment they’re worth.)
And I’ve only really mentioned the lyrics so far! The music is an impossibly dense museum and celebration of music the likes of which had never previously been assembled. This LP alone is justification for sampling in music, showing how it can be done right. The boys take strange cross-sections of obscure funk and soul jams and complement them with edited tidbits of rock music from across the spectrum. Music fans are still dedicating themselves to unearthing all the musical motifs and swipes in this melodic ziggurat. In a feat I’ve seen few, if any, other rap LPs match, the tunes here are as interesting as the words. People like to bandy around the (totally accurate) factoid that, with current sampling laws, an album like this could not have been remotely attempted today. Thank God the Beasties got to it before the government did.
Even in a modern media and culture-saturated environment, Boutique holds up. Its power and magnificence is not necessarily evident from moment to moment, but rather in the scope and contrast of the work as a whole. From rock-rap to trip-hop to sample-fests to beatboxing to the crazy twelve-minute suite that closes the album (in a veiled tribute to Abbey Road referenced by the LP title), they cover an amazing amount of ground. Their attitude alone is remarkable. Irony may have become a dominant factor in 90s alternative rock, but it was the Beastie Boys’ good-natured mocking and simultaneous embracing of America’s cultural past that begat that trend. Growing up as latchkey kids with access to all kinds of kitschy, ephemeral art, they took that experience and made it into a strength. They’re proud of their heritage, balanced between the Borscht belt humor of Jewish culture, the philosophy and community of black hip-hop, and the snobby priviliged nature of the middle class. The Beastie Boys embody one of my favorite cultural tropes: the capability of being all things to all people.
Now, as I mentioned, a first listen to Boutique may be a bit perplexing. Its successes seem modest upon first listen, but when it’s put into the context of its time, its influence, diversity and sustained quality tower over all competitors. It goes without saying that it still holds up wonderfully. There have been plenty of whip-smart verbalists, robust musical mashups, scene-setting biographical details, diverse moods, etc. in the rap game, but the Beastie Boys cram so much of those qualities into every minute of this nearly hourlong masterwork that there’s always something new to look out for. It’s genius the likes of which only happens a few times in a given medium, and it never gets old.
These Brooklyn jokesters’ debut ushered them in as contenders to the hip-hop world. Paul’s Boutique was so well-made, it made the most vital architects of the genre admit humiliating defeat at their own livelihood. This is a record FULL of ideas, colliding together every second. It is art, and it is perfect.
Key track: “Sounds Of Science” (my favorite hip-hop song ever)
See also: Hello Nasty – the Beastie Boys (1998)