By Tom Sinclair
Updated June 18, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Beastie Boys: David Titlow/Retna

Who could have predicted the Beastie Boys would become such upstanding elder statesmen? When ”Licensed to Ill” put white rap on the map back in ’86, the notion that these obnoxious cutups would grow old(er) gracefully, much less still be around close to two decades later, seemed ludicrous. Charmingly lovable louts who brought a hedonistic sensibility to everything they did, the trio seemed destined to crashland in rehab and, once their moment waned, the cutout bins.

Thankfully, they’ve carried on, sporadically releasing records, getting involved in good causes, and letting their licenses to ill lapse. Album by album, lyrics glorifying getting drunk and high (not to mention objectifying women) have gradually vanished from their music, to be replaced by something resembling family values. The New Agey piety they’ve sometimes exhibited (for a while there, you half expected to find the guys sporting caftans and rapping in Zen koans) might be embarrassing if it weren’t so obviously heartfelt. Hey, even white punks on dope can grow up.

”To the 5 Boroughs” is the Beasties’ first all-new CD since 1998’s ”Hello Nasty” and thus has the feel of a bona fide event. As might be inferred from the title, ”Boroughs” is the group’s gift to their hometown in the post-9/11 era. ”Dear New York, I know a lot has changed/Two towers down but you’re still in the game,” Mike D raps on ”An Open Letter to NYC,” the album’s anthemic centerpiece. The track includes a ton of New York-specific shout-outs (”I remember when the Deuce” — 42nd Street and Times Square to you out-of-towners — ”was all porno flicks,” raps Ad-Rock wistfully) and prominently samples the Dead Boys’ ”Sonic Reducer.” It sounds so rousingly righteous you don’t even mind that the Dead Boys were from Cleveland.

Sonically, the disc falls somewhere between the Beasties’ two best efforts, ”Licensed” and 1992’s ”Check Your Head,” minus the latter’s weird, megaphone-like vocal effects. The beats — by Mixmaster Mike and the Boys — are simple and effective, with a welcome lack of distracting bells and whistles that made ”Hello Nasty” feel overstuffed. It’s also the globally aware group’s most politically charged album to date. ”Is the U.S. gonna keep breaking necks?/Maybe it’s time we impeach Tex,” raps MCA on ”Time to Build,” one of several instances in which George W. is given a lyrical smackdown.

Elsewhere, the trio come off as flag-wavers for a multiculti, worldwide peace-and-love movement. On ”We Got The,” they pose the rhetorical musical question, ”Who got the power to make a difference?” while ”All Life Styles” offers ”My name is Ad-Rock and I aim to please/And I gotta spread love in society.” In Beastieland, it seems, positivism, self-respect, and clean living is the new style, while bling-blingin’, thuggin’, and quaffin’ Courvoisier is wack. On ”Triple Trouble,” Mike D even manages to insert an alcohol-awareness verse: ”See, I like to party, not drink Bacardi/’Cause I’m not looking to throw up on nobody.” Fight for your right to party — but party responsibly! (We can only assume Ad-Rock is being ironic when he brags that he’s ”got class like pink Champale.” Isn’t that sort of like proclaiming yourself a gourmand because you eat at Taco Bell?)

Don’t think ”Boroughs” is all about deep moral issues, though. There’s plenty of the usual pure, dumb fun here. One of the things that make the Beasties such a hoot is their knack for spouting eye-rollingly silly boasts with unabashed glee. Check these: ”I’ve got billions and billions of rhymes to flex/I’ve got more rhymes than Carl Sagan’s got turtle-necks”; ”I splash on beats like sauce on spaghetti/Putting MCs out of business like they be Crazy Eddie”; and — my personal fave — ”…a track so sick it’ll make you feel all queasy/Make you do like Fred Sanford with ‘I’m comin’, Weezy!”’

Ultimately, a session with the ’04-model Beasties is like getting together with old friends with whom you used to engage in stupid behavior, and finding the bond is still there even if the vices aren’t. Factoring in the social commentary and implicit preachiness, the Beasties still yield (almost) as many yuks per minute as a ”Three Stooges” marathon. Need a break from bad news, bad feelings, and bad music? Think of ”Boroughs” as license to chill.