Licensed to Ill
The Beastie Boys created a seminal album that at once put them on the map and also made many doubt whether they could attain more than party band status (a poor prognosis). On Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys drive a hard, slightly insane trip that crosses pig-headed adolescence with believable thick-skinned toughness. They create their very own world of sound on this album, well worthy of its historic praise, but they sometimes raise the question of where the line between ferocious brashness and novelty/comedy music really lies.
However jocular the Beastie Boys really are on this album, “Rhymin & Stealin“s introductory mash-up of “When the Levee Breaks” and “Sweet Leaf” is about as serious as it gets. The music and samples on this album focus on sharp attacks that hit the ears quickly, leaving a deserted battleground of silence between each note. This album’s sound, while forceful, is brazenly sparse. At first, it sounds like a garage demo with unusually superior production at some point. What I think is happening is that the Beastie Boys are creating as unique a sound as possible by painting on an almost desolately blank canvass. This tactic allows them to avoid unnecessary noise and ensure that they speak with their own voices. Considering that most of this album’s sound is made up of samples, I must say I’m impressed.
This tactic can be a little limited at times; I definitely warmed up to this album, but it took several listens. First, these guys sound like a couple of kids with god-given confidence on this album. The vocal rhythm is laid back and simple, the Beastie Boys instead emphasizing long, swooping yells and theatric, bombastic displays of just about everything else. It really tends to sound repetitive and gimmicky because it is so highly animated. With songs like “She’s Crafty” and “Girls”, I really started off wondering whether I was listening to a bunch of guys sitting around drinking and making fun of rap. Also, the samples’ simplicity sometimes works against itself. The sing-song melodies in “Slow Ride” and “Girls” seem awfully questionable. Sometimes, the best I can think is “yeah, I get how a bunch of friends had a laugh over this song one day”. You have to peel back the surface and realize the beautiful Seinfeld esque quality of this album: it’s about everyday life for these guys, which can involve being crude, tough, funny, and irreverent.
The real golden quality of Licensed to Ill is that it is, as a whole, almost as similar to punk as it is to rap. The samples have a simplistic mixing style that emphasizes force over pleasant melding and mixture of sounds, which gives it a sort of “I don’t care, I’m just gonna blast it” attitude. ”Fight For Your Right” raises a good question: are these guys using a really old school rap style, or are they punk rockers who could care less about the pretense of tone and instead jumped into the rap scene in the 80’s just to poke the world with a giant stick? The absolute best part: they don’t just mix punk sounding instruments with rap sounding vocals. I’m not just making this up to get around admitting that some kind of rock/rap fusion sounds good. I would never even admit that to you if I did. I’m saying that they get behind the idea, perhaps feeling, that practically gave birth to punk music, to rock and roll even, and they channeled it into a very early style of rap.
The refrain of “Slow and Low” ramps up the raw, mean energy that defines this album. The track pushes the album’s boundary in a new direction to round out an experience that is more diverse than it seems. Although the sonic universe of Licensed to Ill can’t compare in size to that of Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys find a way to explore different sides of their own outlooks and ways of living. It’s a very interesting statement with a very interesting angle on the idea of similarities between punk and rap. My last thought on this entry is that I’m probably not going to use and abuse this record as I have Ill Communication. Even with the kind of appreciation for this album that I’ve explained here, I don’t have but a couple of stand out tracks that I’m going to keep in my mind and my playlists (“Slow and Low”, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, “Brass Monkey”).
3 out of 5 stars.
Epilogue: Going through these albums felt, and was, completely backwards in this order. This one represented the raw idea of the Beastie Boys, while Ill Communication represented one of their higher points of refinement. Plus, Ill Communication still blows my mind. I cannot stop listening to it. Licensed to Ill is more along the lines of what I was afraid of with regards to critiquing this group. I wasn’t really feeling this one, but it’s good to keep current with the practice of it.
Up Next: The Beatles!