Album Review

Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ at 25: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

Beastie Boys, Paul's Boutique

Believe it or not, there was a time when not everyone loved the Beastie Boys. It was back in the late '80s, before "Sure Shot," "Sabotage" and "Intergalactic" cemented their status as both rap and alt-rock elder statesmen. Despite monster sales of the group's 1986 debut, License to Ill—the first hip-hop album to top the Billboard 200—many critics dismissed punks-turned-rhymers Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA as loutish frat-boys fixated on sex and booze. A segment of their fan base loved them for those very reasons, and while the Beasties were, on some level, playing characters, it was a blurry line between what was irony and what was genuine youthful idiocy.

With Paul’s Boutique—released 25 years ago today, on July 25, 1989—the Beasties set out to clarify things. The album arrived at a pivotal time for the trio. They’d parted ways with their label, Def Jam, and landed in Los Angeles, light years away from their beloved NYC home. Instead of giving the world another "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" or “Brass Monkey," they hit the studio with the Dust Brothers, a little-known production duo with a mix-and-match, Franken-funky approach to sampling. This partnership wasn’t going to yield any major hits, and that was precisely the point.

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Given the extent of the partnership, the Dust Brothers should’ve received equal billing. Michael Simpson and John King had crafted about half the tracks before contracting with the Beasties, and for as sharp as the wordplay is, Paul’s Boutique is more a musical triumph than a lyrical one. Each track plays like a sonic fire sale: all sounds must go. Buy one Deep Purple riff, get two Beatles beats and an Eagles bass line absolutely free. They’ll even throw in a banjo solo and a snippet of a Bob Marley interview. The only semblance of a single is "Hey Ladies," and compared to the Motley Crue-meets-Run-DMC smashes from "License to Ill," it might as well be free jazz.

For all its experimentation, Paul’s Boutique sold reasonably well, reaching No. 14 on the Billboard 200 chart. Over the years, its critical standing has grown exponentially—especially since copyright laws passed in the early '90s have made such wide-scale sampling prohibitively expensive.

In terms of the Beasties catalog, Paul’s Boutique is seen as the turning point, the record where the group began to scale back the sexism and hedonism and tackle some weightier subject matter. While there’s some truth to that, Paul’s Boutique is 99 part sugar, 1 part medicine. The fellas still talk about sex and weed and '70s TV shows, and there's no sleep 'til they’ve rocked your house party, stolen your girlfriend, and made it back to Brooklyn (possibly in a stolen car). It’s like they say on "Shadrach": "We’re just three MCs, and we’re on the go."

Read on to get our track-by-track take on this hip-hop classic.

"To All the Girls": It ain’t exactly feminism, but here, the Beasties show how far they’ve come since the tongue-in-cheek sexism of "Girls," the last of seven singles from their first album. Chatting over jazz drummer Idris Muhammad laidback "Loran’s Dance," MCA sends his love to ladies of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. It’s well-intentioned buffoonery set to a cool sample—Paul’s Boutique writ small.

"Egg Man": With its "Superfly" bass, "Psycho" shrieks, and "Jaws" strings, “Egg Man” is a rumbling cinematic jumble all about chucking eggs at passersby. "Suckers they come a dime a dozen," the Boys rap, making one of several egg-related puns. If you’re looking for proof these knuckleheads have grown up, your favorite line comes at the end, when Mike D tells racists, "You go through life with egg on your face."

"High Plains Drifter”: Relatively light on instrumental samples—that’s a surprisingly funky Eagles groove heard throughout—"High Plains Drifter” cruises along at a slow and steady tempo. Lyrically, it’s a pell-mell coast-to-coast joyride that finds our heroes running over mailboxes and knocking off convenience stores. At one point, they get busted and thrown in the clink, but this is an escapist crime fantasy, not a cautionary tale. It ends with the BBs busting out, boosting a car, and blasting the Ramones—all the while tag-teaming lines with cat-burglar precision.

"The Sounds of Science": As far as musical thievery goes, this one’s like leaving the Louvre with the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo tucked up under your trench coat. In the first half, the Beasties ride an oompah beat pulled from the Beatles’ “When I’m 64.” Later, they do the unthinkable and plunder the Fab Four’s catalog again, swiping Ringo’s thumping drums from "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)." (They also lift bits of "The End" and "Back in the U.S.S.R.") In the second half, the Beasties really start dropping knowledge—first about the cops distributing crack, then about explorer Ponce de Leon and the arcade game Robotron. There’s even a pair of essential life lessons: (1) Rock Adidas, not Filas and (2) Do pot, not coke.

"3-Minute Rule": Instead of finishing each other’s thoughts, as they usually do, the Beasties go the divide-and-conquer route, each rapper taking a verse. Together, they touch on drugs, "Dragnet," and Jack Kerouac—all in less than 4:00. First up is Mike D, who dubs himself "the cool coper" and declares, "Not perfect grammar, always perfect timing." MCA steps up next with some gangsta posturing and justifications for weed smoking. Lastly, Ad-Rock dogs on a girl caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle. With its minimalist backing, "3-Minute Rule" is a showcase for each rapper’s unique voice and writing style. It’s one of the few tracks that probably would’ve worked without a Dust Brothers assist.

"What Comes Around": The Alice Cooper sample hits right as Ad-Rock asks, "Yo, why’d you throw that chair at Geraldo Rivera, man?" The answer: "’Cause one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor." It’s a semi-profound line that Ad-Rock follows with, "So get that money out of your ass, you whore"; and then it’s back to more sex brags and lines about baseball and cheeba. The journey toward maturity begins with a single wobbly step.

"Shadrach": In the Old Testament book of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are young Jewish wise men who refuse to bow to false idols. Naturally, the Beasties feel a kinship—they’re young Jewish wiseasses with a similar aversion to bullshit—but "Shadrach" isn’t a song of religious devotion. It’s about the Beasties having faith in themselves, and had the Dust Brothers stuck on a stronger hook, this one might have burned up the singles chart.

"Ask for Janice": Too bad Paul’s Boutique wasn’t a real place. The dude in this fake 11-second ad makes it sound like a rad store, and you just know that Janice was a hell of a salesgirl.

"B-boy Bouillabaisse": The Beasties and Dust Brothers save the tastiest helping of musical stew for the very end. This nine-part, 11-minute suite is fully loaded with fat beats, lover-man bravado, and references to sports figures, French painters, and marijuana. The highlight: "A Year In a Day." It’s an early indicator of MCA’s philosophical leanings and a mission statement from three guys who’d sooner eat a "bum cheese" sandwich than write such a thing: "Because I'm down with the three, the unstoppable three / Me and Adam and D were born to MC."