The Beastie Boys vs. the "Beastie Girlz" of Northern State.
Remember when the Beastie Boys were both fun and inventive? Sure, their debut was big, dumb, and full of cum (and beer), but you still loved them for it, right. And then they went on to become full-on sonic masters with a deft choice of collaborators. They had a really nice, long run. And then, sometime in the last decade or so, the Beasties became more interested in Tibet, basketball, and other adult pursuits, and gradually they started to lose their mojo. The cracks really began to appear in Hello Nasty, but I still held out hope. They tried to get it back by recording the "back-to-basics" To The 5 Boroughs a few years later, and I'm sorry to say it was the least inspired, both musically (and we're talking in comparison to the dumbed-down Led Zep tunes directly following their hardcore origins) and lyrically.
So when I heard earlier this year there was a new disc in the pipeline, the news was met with suspicion and pretty low expectations. Then the news broke that the disc was going to be 100% filled with instrumentals. While I applauded the notion that I wouldn't have to put up with any cringe inducing rhymes, the move still seemed borne of middle-aged complacency. The group's instrumentals, trotted out most often in their mid-period discs Check Your Head and Ill Communication, have always been marked with a mid-tempo fascination with mid-'70s blaxploitation flicks. And while they've always been pleasant enough, they don't exactly set any of the five senses on fire. (Taste too? Yes, taste too. A good song makes you taste the sweat rolling off your upper lip.)
Sure enough their new disc, The Mix-Up is a snooze-inducing, innocuous little piece of mimicry. The band continues to try and reinvent themselves as something beyond the lyrical pranksters and sonic innovators everyone fell in love with in the first place. I mean, that's okay, they're allowed to do whatever they want, but they can't count on me to care about what it is that they want to do anymore. This is music for wanna-be hipster dads pushing their stroller along the line at their neighborhood Starbucks. I always thought of the Beastie Boys as the soundtrack to the suburban basement party, but I never imagined they'd become the soundtrack for the mini-van soccer mom set.
On the other side of the spectrum, we've got a new disc by the ladies of Northern State coming out soon too. These three female MCs from New York City were unfairly written off as a crude girlie version of The Beastie Boys when their first EP dropped a few years ago. That original offering was actually a fun little slice of retro-minded hip-hop, but the full-length debut that followed failed to follow through on the group's promise, and folks, myself included, were disappointed. The group went silent and I just assumed the group had broken up.
So imagine my surprise when I heard they had a new Northern State tracks surfaced a few months ago. "Away Away" was a buoyant slice of hip-pop right out of the Luscious Jackson school of songwriting, which sort of fit right into the shorthand Beastie comparison since Luscious Jackson originally appeared on Grand Royale. it was pleasant, but hardly groundbreaking.
Then their new disc, Can I Keep This Pen?, arrived for review. And goddamned if The Beasties comparison doesn't pop up yet again, only this time it's because Hesta Prynn, Spero, and Sprout have recaptured the fun the Boys used to be known for. The music isn't groundbreaking, but what it does do is remain flexible enough to avoid boring the listener with rote repetition. The lyrics are alternately goofy, sexy, biting, playful, and largely satisfying. Northern State remembers that there was a hugely successful branch of hip-hop, once upon a time, that was bent on being inventive and valued imagination over street cred.
The disc opens with the severely old school, and high energy, "Mic Tester." We're reintroduced to the band, their personalities, their history, and the fact that Spero heard "you mom drives an ice-cream truck." Huh? Exactly. it's just a series of playful rhymes loosely held together by the simple conceit of the girls riding along in the back of a van telling you a story. The disc doesn't always stay this light, and at times Sprout's lines veer a little too close to granola territory for my tastes, but Northern State seems to have found the happy balance of goofiness, ambition, social conscience, and skill that eluded them on their last album. They combine humor and vitriol expertly on "Sucka Muthafucka" as they call out the poseurs and Johnny-come-latelies that pervade their scene. It contains what might be my favorite diss on the album, "Sucka put down that 40-ounce beer, you were shopping at Abercrombie just this year." Purr-fect.
Later on the disc grows a tad too self-important, and veers further into the hip-pop lite hinted at on "Away Away," but I'm more than willing to forgive a few minor missteps in a field as satisfyingly populated by sure-footed musical decisions. The Beastie Boys would do well to grab their own copy of Can I Keep This Pen? in hopes it'll remind them of what they should be doing. I'm not saying the new Northern State is the best hip-hop album of the year, but I am willing to wager it's the most entertaining thus far.
I offer "Oooh Girl" for your listening pleasure since I think it's a particularly good example of how the ladies of Northern State deftly move between humor, politics, camaraderie built upon a pleasantly rubbery track of staccato guitar, burbling bass, and various samples and synths.
MP3: Northern State "Oooh Girl"