Those of us who cherish the Beastie Boys have come to expect a lot from them. When a group reinvents itself with each of its first three albums, it’s setting the bar high, and long gaps between albums only serve to heighten expectations. The longest such gap for Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D was the six years before the release of 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs. After the sprawling tour-de-force Hello Nasty, the stripped-down Boroughs disappointed a lot of fans, because it was the opposite of everything we’d come to expect: static rather than dynamic, simple rather than complex, brief rather than epic. While their previous albums sounded as though they’d benefited from the time and care put into them, this collection of solid but largely undifferentiated old-school jams could have been recorded in a week (or in 1983). And The Mix-Up, a 2007 album of pleasant, trivial instrumentals, was the furthest thing from a remedy for the sense of letdown.
Now we have Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. The sound, like that of Boroughs, is firmly rooted in early-80s hip-hop and electro, with nary a glance at modern trends. Some of its textures seem unreasonably harsh at first, but after a few spins the hooks sink in deep. The Beasties stretch out a little — not as much as on their 90s classics, but more than they did the last time out. Hardcore punk makes a triumphant return on “Lee Majors Come Again,” this time as a backing track for straight-up rapping, a hybrid the boys — surprisingly — have never tried before. The title and fuzz-drone guitar riff of “Long Burn the Fire” pay homage to soul-rockers Black Merda (and may also be a sly nod to Robert Christgau, who recommended the group’s 1972 album of that name to the Beasties in his review of Ill Communication). And “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” rides a dubwise reggae groove with guest Santigold. The album’s only other cameo is by Nas, on a remix of the 2009 single “Too Many Rappers.” Both spots by these like-minded, younger (i.e., in their 30s) artists are welcome, but Biz Markie’s loopy interludes are missed.
Meanwhile, echoes of past Beasties albums are all over the place — the slurping, backwards drums of Licensed to Ill’s “Paul Revere” on “The Lisa Lisa/Full Force Routine,” the percolating funk of Paul’s Boutique on “Funky Donkey,” the lo-fi psychedelia of Check Your Head and Ill Communication on “We Can Make It Happen,” and the wiggy analog synths of Hello Nasty throughout. The boys remain fond of old-school hallmarks like scratching and sampling, which have largely vanished from hip-hop and found refuge in turntablism. By now, they’ve perfected the craft of blending obscure samples with sample-like loops they’ve played themselves — a technique they pioneered on Check Your Head, which was furthered by their former colleagues the Dust Brothers in their work with Beck. As for the lyrics, the inventive wordslingers have rebounded from the sometimes tired and earnest rhymes of To the 5 Boroughs. The wacky pop-culture shout-outs (Wolf Blitzer, Tippi Hedren) are still in place, and the freewheeling influence of Bob Dylan, who was once rumored to be making a guest appearance on the album, is acknowledged with two quotations from “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In keeping with the album’s title, there is a new emphasis on dining: the boys dig profiteroles, mojitos, peanut butter “sammiches,” and chocolate fondue while dissing Kenny Rogers Roasters and Taco Bell.
From the start, the Beasties — as white practitioners of an art form whose chief creators and exponents are black — have used humor to deflate accusations of cultural thievery. In addition to their patented off-the-wall references, they have always juxtaposed self-deprecation with hip-hop’s characteristic self-aggrandizement. It’s a tactic rarely observed in rap, although it’s an integral part of the blues tradition that is part of rap’s bloodline. As they’ve gotten older, the Beasties have raised the self-mockery quotient; in one of Hot Sauce Committee’s key lines, Ad-Rock exclaims of himself, “Grandpa been rappin’ since eighty-three!” Hip-hop, like rock ’n’ roll, began as youth music, and has aged even more uneasily, casting aside its pioneers. It’s remarkable that the Beasties are still around, and they weren’t even among the first or second waves. Their days of wild experimentation seem to be over, but on Hot Sauce Committee (and the fine tracks they left off, some of which have been made available online), they demonstrate that there are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore within that style. Keith Richards has complained that while bluesmen are allowed to keep doing the same thing until they die, rockers are expected to either change or retire, and the same case could be made for rappers. With MCA now in remission from cancer, here’s hoping the Beastie Boys can keep making glorious noise for several more decades.