Review of “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys

My drawing of the Beastie Boys. From left to right: Ad Rock, Mike D, and MCA. Source: http://afistfulofculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/beastie-boys.jpg

So this drawing happened ages ago, but the review took a lot longer, so this is only coming out in the early hours of New Years 2016 instead of November 2015. Well, it’s here now anyway. As there were three people instead of just one to draw, I don’t think it’s as good as my drawing of James Murphy and I didn’t actually *finish* colouring in Mike-D’s clothes. Even still it looks OK, even if Ad Rock looks a little like Tom Hanks.

***

Paul’s Boutique is the Beastie Boys’ magnum opus. Though not as successful as their brilliantly juvenile (and catchy) rap-metal debut, this warm, multi-faceted sprawl of an album is something smart to shake your rump to.

The album was the perfect meeting of the beat-making brilliance of the Dust Brothers, whose eclectic but carefully selected samples (including a live ping pong match) made the album such a rich tapestry of music to rap against, and the easy flow of words between Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D, sometimes cringy but always affectionate and startlingly clever. Their lyrics matured with the music (they bring alive New York and the world at large with a few deftly chosen words) but they never take themselves too seriously, so thankfully we still get lines like ‘My man MCA’s got a beard like a billy goat’ without any sense of guilt.

The Beastie Boys begin their album by dedicating the album ‘To All the Girls’ around the world, Ad-Rock listing, in a stoner drawl, women from all walks of life over a breezy soul-jazz sample. Then the group get down to business on ‘Shake Your Rump’, their bare-faced tribute to dancing, as well as the album’s first single. If that was it, the song would be fairly standard, but the boyish teasing (‘What’s up with your bad breath onion rings’, they ask Mike-D), the vocal tics (like the way MCA spits out the last syllable of ‘Shake Your Rump-a’) and the samples used (from genres ranging from funk to old-school hip hop to metal) elevate it to a classic.

From here, the song subjects are as kaleidoscopic as the music, ranging from parties to science experiments, New York to not New York, chicken dinners to car thieves. Scattered over the whole album are sly pop-culture references that don’t discriminate between the kitsch and the sophisticated and are all the better for it, seasoning over an already vibrant meal.

The world of Paul’s Boutique is populated with characters straight out of a bar joke: gangsters (in ’Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun’) inspired by every macho film from ‘Clockwork Orange’ to ‘Die Hard’, getting paid and getting rich; holy men straight from the book of Daniel in ‘Shadrach’, a maelstrom of funk, Biblical allusions, and pop culture references; cowboys from spaghetti films in ‘High Plains Drifter’; a serial egger in the song ‘Egg Man’, which has menacing music, sampled from ‘Psycho’, ‘Jaws’, and Elvis Costello, if not menacing subject matter; famous scientists in ‘Sounds of Science’; and a charming old rocker called ‘Johnny Ryall’ who wrote ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ but has still somehow fallen into homelessness (even if he does have a Gucci watch).

‘Hey Ladies’ finds the Beastie Boys on the prowl, using “cowbell” as an aphrodisiac in one of the best songs on the album. On the other hand, ‘Car Thief’ is concerned with MCs who steal rhymes from the Beasties (or maybe cars) over one of the funkiest beats on the album (probably because of that Funkadelic sample), and ’What Comes Around’ mentions everything from the Flinstones to baseball players to the blaxploitation film ‘Dolemite’, while also coming down on domestic violence.

The album is held together using two song fragments, both on the second side. While these are probably the worst tracks on the album, they both have a purpose. ’5-Piece Chicken Dinner’, which starts the second side, is nothing more than a 23-second fragment sampled directly from ‘Shuckin’ the Corn’ (there’s a lot of banjo, as the name would suggest), but it only adds to the wild diversity of the album, as well as being quite a funny, raucous way to open the second side of an album. You expect a rap song and BAM here’s some twangy bluegrass and some Texans. The second fragment ‘Ask for Janice’, serves a similar purpose; it is the short ad break before the epic finale, the calm before the storm, and it too adds some levity to the occasion.

However, the album’s best use of song fragments is in the final track, B-Boy Bouillabaisse, a glorious 12 minute medley of nine song fragments which range in length from less than a minute to two and a half minutes. The track concentrates everything great about the preceding fourteen songs into one cohesive suite. There’s the banter between Mike, Adam and Adam in ‘Get on the Mic’. There are the references to New York in ‘Stop That Train’ and in ’Hello Brooklyn’, which, by the way, features not only the dirtiest beat on the album, but also a wonderful, Johnny Cash, who pops up at the end of the song in the best sample on the album. And then there’s the raucous dance-ability and pop culture references we’ve come to expect from the Beastie Boys.

But then, out of the blue, appears ’A Year and a Day’, the most epic song on the album even though it lasts less than three minutes. MCA examines his inner most being over the same Isley Brothers sample that Kendrick Lamar uses in ‘i’, defining himself as an emcee, as one of the Beastie Boys, but also as an individual, the last bard, the king in his castle. And yet, despite his bragging, he sees that this can’t last for ever. Here he asks not for a Hollywood lifestyle but simply to be king every now and then. For now, he is content merely to look out a stained glass window and see the world in all it’s multi-coloured glory, and if that isn’t maturing, what is?

Paul’s Boutique was one of the best albums of the 80s, late though it was in the decade, and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to compare the Beastie Boys to the Beatles circa Abbey Road. Both have similar names (‘Beastie’ and ‘Beatle’ are both alliterative and assonant) and both ended their last albums of the decade with song fragment medleys. As well as this, the Beatles are sampled fairly heavily on Paul’s Boutique. In fact, according to Rolling Stone, the album is even named after Abbey Road, or Paul McCartney’s “boutique”; and in ‘Shake Your Rump’, Mike D even mentions being ’back from the dead’  after facing an eerily similar situation to that of Paul in the 60s.

And, most importantly of all, both pushed the boundaries of music. One was much more commercially successful than the other, but both Paul’s Boutique and Abbey Road have had a similar effect on music today, and, as I enter 2016 watching Pitch Perfect with my family, it’s a warm, comforting embrace that I’m sure I will cherish in years to come.

Happy New Year everyone!

Joe

 

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