In an in-joke nod to Nasty Little Man, the company that coordinates their publicity, the Beastie Boys call their first album in four years Hello Nasty. Aside from the occasional butt joke, though, there’s nothing particularly nasty about it. If anything, the album could have been called Modern Immaturity, as the Beasties continue their quest to evolve from Boys to semi-grown men.
That transition began in earnest (or as close as Adam Yauch, Adam Horovitz, and Mike Diamond approach it on record) on their last album, 1994’s Ill Communication. Amid in-our-faces hip-hop and scuzzy hardcore tracks, they snuck in pro-ecology sentiments and references to the then-burgeoning free-Tibet movement. Even there, though, they couldn’t play it straight. During some of the album’s grim-faced moments, they contorted their voices, as if they didn’t want to risk sounding foolish or naive.
Comparatively, Hello Nasty is as unguarded as the Beasties have ever been. In “Flowin’ Prose,” leading Tibet advocate Yauch raps–with minimal sonic distortion–of “giving shouts to Gandhi, Garvey, and King/His Holiness and all the enlightened beings.” “I Don’t Know” sets its quasi-mystical lyrics to acoustic guitars, like the Beasties unplugged. “Putting Shame in Your Game” takes on multinational corporations and musicians who sell their songs for advertisements. It’s bizarre, to say the least, to analyze a Beastie Boys album in terms of its lyrics, but Hello Nasty invites it. The Beasties’ voices–deeper and grainier, now that they’re in their early 30s–only contribute to the grown-up effect.
The Beasties’ mental journey coincides with their musical one. Hello Nasty contains plenty of moments that hark back to their smart-ass, white-rap past, but they don’t dominate the record’s 22 tracks. Instead, Hello Nasty is a sonic smorgasbord in which the Beasties gorge themselves with reckless abandon. They dabble in lounge-pop kitsch (the loser put-down “Song for the Man”), make like a summit of Santana and Traffic (the Latin-flavored “Song for Junior”), and subtly incorporate a drum-and-bass shuffle into the mix (“Flowin’ Prose”). The mélange makes for a looser, more free-spirited record than their earlier albums; the music invites you in, rather than threatening to shut you out.
There’s a rub, though: For all their leaps toward maturity (a word they probably hate), the Beasties are still most distinctive when they’re randomly accessing crazy rhymes over big beats. The timing is entirely coincidental, but it’s fascinating that Hello Nasty is being released the same summer as The Truman Show. Like Jim Carrey, these aging wild-style goofballs are deeper than we think (and want us to know it), and they yearn to transcend their early image. But like Carrey, they still can’t help indulging in crass-crown jesting–it’s their fountain of dumb youth.
Slamming through first-rate tracks like “Super Disco Breakin’,” “Body Movin’,” and “Just a Test,” the Beasties treat the trademarks of old-school rap (boasting, scratching, references to “krush groovin'” and rocking till the break of dawn) as if they were part of a classic tradition, like the blues. No one makes old-school still sound so new–or reels off hilarious lines like “they’re Lovey and Thurston howellin'” or “I’m the king of Boggle, there is none higher/I get 11 points off the word quagmire.” Even their positivity statements are better when rapped: The rhyming and skank-funk groove of “Remote Control” compensate for strikingly corny lines about how you have to “share your love with a friend/That’s all that you’ve got left in the end.”
Ironically, one of the album’s unquestionable highlights is its least self-conscious leap. “The Negotiation Limerick File,” which weds their helter-skelter rapping with a scalding sample from an old R&B record by Barbara Lynn, swings like nothing they’ve done before. It’s a natural progression into funkier, more danceable music. Next to it, tracks like “Dr. Lee, PhD” (a laid-back dub jam with genre founder Lee “Scratch” Perry) and the bossa nova stroll “Picture This” (sung by pale-voiced Brooke Williams) feel a little forced, and they lack any strong sense of personality. They embody the Beasties’ biggest challenge for their postHello Nasty future: not just proving their versatility, but finding a strong, unified voice as well. As they themselves might put it, they got more growing pains than Kirk Cameron.