To all intents and purposes, hip hop is a young man’s game. The genre’s current saviours, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, all but rub their youth in their audience’s faces, and pleading doe-eyed that “we’re just kids, don’t listen to us” as a defense for their morally questionable – though technically incredible – rhymes. Meanwhile, the growing trend for sequels to classic LPs by canonised rappers – Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, say, or Method Man and Redman’s Blackout! 2 – may be fine in their own right, but also suggest a dearth of inspiration.
The big three players from the genre’s late-eighties golden age have spent their third decades comabtting this problem in decidedly different ways: the band Run DMC may be dead, but through synergetic sneakers and reality TV, their brand remains in high demand. Public Enemy are the closest the game has to a “heritage rap” group, putting out fan-funded new material for the faithful, while indulging the retro-minded with Don’t Look Back performances of their biggest albums. Only Beastie Boys have managed to survive on a major label for all this time. Free to do their own thing in their own time – eight albums in twenty-five years, hardly a prolific track record – they’ve been one of the few rap groups who’ve been allowed to grow old gracefully, with seemingly little to prove. Maybe too little; you can’t help but think that most young hip-hop heads see the Beasties as the ghetto grandpas they depicted themselves as on the cover of The Sounds of Science.
It was this self-awareness that marred the Beastie Boys’ last hip hop album, 2004′s To the 5 Boroughs, but by also tapping into aspects of hip hop that the band were never a part of to begin with – minimalist 808 beats and clumsy attempts at social conscience, never the Beastie Boys’ strong suit – its ‘classic’ sound portrayed three people desperately proving their place as elder statesmen. Not to begrudge them for trying, but the back-to-basics mentality was a somewhat counterintuitive concept for a band who thrived on experimentation. Thankfully, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two finds the Beastie Boys back at play, a lean set of their darkest and densest beats in years, which mixes the basement beats of Check Your Head with Hello Nasty‘s madcap sci-fi production (and, thank goodness, none of its rambling genre excursions). Sure, there are in-jokes and throwaways – ‘The Bill Harper Collection’ is little more than a riff on an answer phone message, while the old-school tag game of ‘The Larry Routine’ is good for a quick laugh – but the flow never lets up over the course of HSCII‘s forty-five minutes.
“Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision / I’ll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitchin’ / Put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf / So you can show it to your friends and say ‘that’s my old self’,” storms MCA on the shitkicking ‘Make Some Noise’ as, somewhere in the background, you can almost hear the rest of the band drop their mics in awe. While nothing else on the album quite matches the fury of that opening track, you can’t help but get drawn in by the way the album’s lyrics get mangled through distortion and reverb, with Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D throwing out rhymes over the unlikeliest of beats. The day-glo new wave of ‘OK’ sounds strangely like Great Escape-era Blur (probably not intentional), the closest thing ‘Say It’ has to a hook is some niftily-treated guitar feedback, while ‘Lee Majors Come Again’ is another winning stab at the kind of hardcore/hip-hop hybrid the band haven’t touched since ‘Remote Control’. The two big-name collaborations – the kind of thing the Beasties are normally above doing – are less consistent; the dub-tinged Santigold co-write ‘Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win’ makes the New York trio sound like mere sidemen on their own album. Much better is Nas’s guest spot on the relentlessly rhythmic ‘Too Many Rappers’, reinforcing the song’s anti-gangster sentiments perfectly (“Drug dealer you’re not. Mafioso? No!”), and almost putting shame in the Beasties’ game in the process.
Nothing on Hot Sauce Committee Part Two strives for the kind of brainworm found on ‘Intergalactic’, but they hardly need to rely on easy hooks anymore. A quarter of a century on from being granted their License to Ill, the band have pretty much earned the right to do whatever the hell they want, and on this record, in their own unique way, it seems the Beastie Boys want to give the world an tantalising glimpse at how hip hop could grow old gracefully.