Review Summary: The difficult third album - a confusing, but great listen.
Naturally, the Beasties were in a pretty weird position when it came to Check Your Head
. They'd had a debut that was commercially an absolute blockbuster, breaking all manner of records and, really, marking the moment when most people had to accept that rap was a legitimate musical form, rather than just another subcultural movement that would fade into obscurity within five years. And yet, about half the songs on it were offensively bad; "Fight For Your Right" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" may have been gold, but as an album it was mediocre at best. It still stands today as the worst album the Beasties have ever made. The follow-up, Paul's Boutique
, was exactly the opposite - as groundbreaking artistically as Licensed To Ill
had been commercially, it remains one of the most untouchable documents in hip-hop's history. Naturally, nobody bought it. The contrasting fates probably damned mainstream hip-hop to a future of general mediocrity, but that's an argument for another time.
The M.O. for Check Your Head
was simple - combine the two albums, and somehow come up with something that was artistically valid, and would still sell. This album was their first step into the world they'd stay in, and effectively are still in - hip-hop that displays a sense of musical intelligence and invention and a finely-tuned sense of humour, but doesn't stray too far from the frat-boy friendly vocal trade-offs that made a million white kids buy their first album. "Intergalactic", "Check It Out", "Sabotage", "Sure Shot" - the blueprint is here. Naturally, they had to sacrifice the psychedelic sample-heavy collage of 1989's Paul's Boutique
, for financial reasons as much as anything - De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising
, also released in 1989 (and seen by some as Paul's Boutique
's nearest musical twin), had seen the group sued for one of the many samples used. The ground that hip-hop stood on had changed forever - songs built from dozens of carefully pieced-together samples were out. So a fresh musical outlook was needed.
They kept it simple. There's effectively only two songs on Check Your Head
- the first is a stomping, guitar-driven rap track that allowed the group to do what they do best (rap, basically), while the second is a lightly funky, vaguely dubby downtempo lounge track with little or no vocals. They'd return to the latter on 2007's The Mix-Up
for a full album, but here's it's slightly jarring - it really does feel like you're listening to two albums. Those instrumental (or near-instrumental) tracks might add variety to the album, and they might actually display some good musical ideas here and there, but put them next to the hip-hop powerhouses elsewhere on this album, and well....they're pretty boring, to be honest. It's especially jarring when "Something's Got To Give" follows on from the album's feted excursion into hardcore on "Time For Livin'", making it sound like a new age track in comparison.
Which is a shame, because the straight-up rap tracks are excellent. The musical simplicity that underpinned everything on Licensed To Ill
is still here, but the group have matured, and got much better as rappers to boot - unlike something like "Girls" or "Slow & Low", this album doesn't glorify the art of being a retard. The imperious "Pass The Mic", "Finger Lickin' Good" (with its very subtle Bob Dylan sample), and "Jimmy James" are impressive enough, but "So Whatcha Want" is the jewel in the crown here - quite possibly the best single the Beasties have ever released. The most simple drum beat in hip-hop, distorted vocals, a choppy organ riff and a 3-note guitar lick is all there is to it, and it's hard to explain exactly why such a simple song makes the listener feel like they're the baddest mother***er around, but it does. It's punchy enough to soundtrack a fight scene, AND sleazy enough to get played in a strip club. Really, what's to dislike?
The blend of styles on here and ability to swap between moods and textures this effortlessly was probably a big deal to rap music back in 1991. But today, listening to this album fresh with the knowledge of what's happened since, it feels more odd than anything. Still, what's good here is excellent, and what's bad really isn't bad at all, just bizarre. This is an album that, much like Paul's Boutique
, begs to be dissected, but for entirely different reasons. On that album, you're trying to discover exactly how The Dust Brothers made it sound the way it does, and trying to figure out where the hell this or that sample came from. Here, it's just to find out what song does what, so you can take the album apart and put it back together in an order that makes more sense. The programming does hurt this album - as the album progresses, the rap tracks are fazed out and the instrumentals take over, and that can't help but be an anticlimax. But hey, let's not complain too much - while their talents may still be up for debate in some quarters, there aren't many artists in hip-hop who've made as many great albums as the Beasties have, and this is another. As far as blending their two previous efforts together goes, they basically succeeded - this is fun, upbeat, and NOT retarded, with a lot for both B-boys and bedroom music lovers to enjoy.