From its artwork down, To The 5 Boroughs is situated in the opposite of Hello Nasty’s intergalactic headspace: firmly rooted, the line drawing of the Twin Towers recalled not only a lost skyline, but a lost time and place when the hip-hop aesthetic was stripped-back; all you needed were a handful of DJs backed by a mix master on the ones and twos. In keeping it old school and not over-complicating things, Beastie Boys made sure their message was loud and clear.
Opener ‘Ch-Check It Out’ may sit comfortably in Beasties’ great tradition of party-starters, but, with its straight-up Golden Age sound it only partially set the scene for what would come. With Beasties at their most overtly political, ‘It Takes Time To Build’ calls out President Bush and US foreign policy (“We’ve got a president we didn’t elect… And still the US just wants to flex/Keep doing that, what, we gonna break our necks”); ‘Right Right Now Now’ takes a stand for gun control; ‘An Open Letter To NYC’ is full of love for their home turf in a way that eschewed the Bronx-Queens territorialism of hip-hop’s past for a collective shout out to the five boroughs.
Not that To The 5 Boroughs was solely fixated on New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. Released on 15 June 2004, almost three years after those events, ‘Triple Trouble’ found them determined to recapture the good times, grabbing the mic from ‘Ch-Check It Out’ and extending the block-party stylings. Elsewhere, ‘Crawlspace’ finds Beasties creeping around in their rival MCs’ homes, delivering a weirdly spoken-word rap over a squelchy synth that’s like little else in their discography. “This may be one of my favourite songs we ever made,” Ad-Rock recalled. “Not a lot of weirdo stuff in rap… It makes me laugh out loud every time.”
Hailed by PopMatters as “their best album since Paul’s Boutique” and Rolling Stone as “an exciting, astonishing balancing act: fast, funny and sobering”, To The 5 Boroughs eventually found Beasties straddling two worlds: the irreverent humour they’d mastered with ease over the previous two decades, and a newfound political outlook that may never again have been given such free rein on record, but which chimed with the group’s latter-day position as husbands, fathers and elder statesmen of hip-hop.
As Ad-Rock later put it in Beastie Boys Book: “I’m proud that in a serious time, we got serious.”