Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
While revisiting Beastie Boys‘ Hello Nasty in the shadow of Adam Yauch‘s death ahead of the LP’s 15th anniversary, I realized that the 1998 album was the last true taste of the trio in carefree, happy-go-lucky mode. The Beasties’ following effort, To The 5 Boroughs, grappled with 9/11 and its aftereffects, and final album Hot Sauce Committee Part Two sounded fun, but it was released (and much of it was put together) as MCA underwent cancer treatment.
But Hello Nasty, released on July 14, 1998, can be approached in a vacuum, providing us our final opportunity to hear the three Boys being boys. And yet, among the frenetic beats and jokey rhymes, Hello Nasty slips in some engagingly weird and poignant moments, making it arguably their most intriguing effort.
At 22 tracks, Hello Nasty is a hefty offering, but it flutters and bounces, with sprightly arrangements and snappy beats broken up by a few off-kilter experiments (including some flirtations with electronica). And it’s littered with some of the group’s most potent hooks (listen to opener “Super Disco Breakin’” once, and you’ll have that playground chant chorus in your head for life).
Paul’s Boutique crammed more in, but Nasty pulled MCA, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Mike “Mike D” Diamond in more directions — rather than take the dense, super-sampling approach of their sophomore classic, they made looser, more linear arrangements that branched into loopier territory. In fact, the album feels like a full-length version of Paul’s Boutique closer “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” whisking the listener away to the Beasties’ absurdist, proto-hipster pop cultural multiverse.
Upbeat tracks like “Body Movin’” and “The Grasshopper Unit” exhibit a playful dexterity, lyrically and musically. The low end isn’t at the forefront like on Check Your Head, but when the bass does hit, such as on “The Move” or “Putting Shame In Your Game,” the undulating rumbles are paired with growling verses that recapture the balls-out, macho energy of that album or Licensed To Ill…even when they’re rapping about Boggle.
And while Hello Nasty may not hit the heights of “Pass The Mic” or “Sabotage,” it did give us “Intergalactic.” The album centerpiece and lead single earned Beastie Boys a Grammy in 1999, and it’s the ultimate manifestation of Hello Nasty: earworm hooks, rich acoustics, a vague space theme and a magnetic interplay between the three rappers.
The album has been criticized for being self-indulgent and unfocused, largely because Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D took 13 ridiculously catchy rap songs and watered down their impact by shoehorning in nine wack(y?) ballads and instrumentals. But I would argue that those non-rap tracks are central to the album’s appeal. (I would also argue that the two previous albums, though classics, were unfocused as well.)
Sure, a couple of these oddities fail — “Dr. Lee, PhD” is nearly unlistenable, and “Sneakin’ Out The Hospital” is a snoozer — but most of them are utterly captivating. “Song For The Man” attacks the male gaze (imagine that!), while the bizarre Moog-ahton of “And Me” levies a prescient view of life in the age of Facebook and smartphones (“Once again, I’m all wrapped up in me…My lifeline’s run by AT&T / They got their wires all up in me”).
It’s in these departures that we get some genuinely sad fare, too. On “I Don’t Know,” Yauch sings in a calm voice about the in-fucking-comprehensibility of life. Ad-Rock takes a similar tack on album-closing music box dirge “Instant Death,” with the snotty MC lamenting, “And what do you do when / Your man kills himself / How do I make friends now?… And please let me / Die an instant death.” The introspective ballad explodes with a shimmering electro coda after “death,” and then fades out, the carefree Beastie Boys era unknowingly fading into the ether along with the morose track.
Heading into this retrospective, I had no idea it’d be riddled with such heaviness, because I always remembered Hello Nasty as the “goofy” Beastie Boys album. That’s partly because of the “Intergalactic” video, but mainly because the charismatic characters on the mic are the first thing you notice. Ultimately, personality is the draw with Beastie Boys (which is why it was so hard to get into their instrumental album The Mix-Up), and Ad-Rock was the Hello Nasty MVP when it came to being engaging and entertaining. Not only did he add to his career highlights list with a bunch of rhymes (e.g. “Well I’m the Benihana chef on the SP12 / I chop the fuck out the beats left on the shelf”), but with “Instant Death” and “Song For The Man,” Horovitz furthered the “philosophizing manchild” persona that MCA fleshed out on Ill Communication.
Since the New York threesome had already revolutionized rap and had melded hip-hop and alt-rock into an uber-cool hybrid aesthetic by ’98, they were no longer saddled with the responsibility of being groundbreaking. This freedom let them really stretch out and explore (perhaps that explains the outer space motif?) fresh territory, and what they found were vibrant sonics, spastic beats, magnetic rhymes and a surprising amount of heart. It’s simultaneously Beastie Boys’ most playful and most thoughtful album, an unexpected dichotomy that kept me coming back to it over the past 15 years. But knowing that it was their last effort before Shit Got Real is what will keep me coming back to it for the next 15.
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