"The Beastie Boys' first album should bear a prominent label, not to protect impressionable teens so much as their elders. Warning: certain scenes and references contained herein may seem offensive, even dangerous, until you realize that it's all a colossal joke.”
– Mark Coleman, Rolling Stone review of Licensed to Ill, Feb. 26, 1987
“I went inside the deli and my man’s like, ‘What?’
I write the songs that make the whole world suck.”
– Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), “Unite,” 1998
Beastie Boys lyrics occupy a not-insignificant portion of my memory’s real estate. Obviously, the fervor with which I acquired this knowledge does not remotely match the likelihood of my being able to use it. An obsessive impulse common in teenage girls offers some explanation, but considering the Beasties’ 15-year-old back catalog of rap (and hardcore punk) I memorized, Beatlemaniacs had it easy. Still, the Beastie Boys’ lyrical contributions haven’t gone totally unrecognized: the Oxford English Dictionary credits them with coining “mullet,” a term that has taken on a cultural life all its own.
In retrospect, as a kid who took herself much too seriously, it was the Beasties’ signature sense of humor that propelled my dive into their discography. "The group is well-known for its eclecticism, jocular and flippant attitude toward interviews and interviewers, obscure cultural references and kitschy lyrics, and for performing in outlandish matching suits,” according to Wikipedia. And indeed, what’s not to like about outlandish matching suits? From red and black adidas track gear to multicolor workman’s one-piece uniforms to sober business attire, the Beastie Boys’ style has always conveyed a commitment to looking good that is somehow ironic and wholly genuine at once. That this 20-year commitment would repeatedly take the form of outlandish matching suits is no accident (and is actually quite impressive). In fact, I’d argue that outlandish matching suits are emblematic of a highly particular, appealing sensibility: what I’ll call the “half-serious.”
The half-serious aesthetic hinges on another career-long consistency that the Boys themselves might deny. 1986’s Licensed to Ill is often considered one of the first gangster rap albums; alongside stupid, harmless lyrics of hedonistic anthems like “Fight for your Right (to Party)” are more overtly, and confusingly, violent lines, such as “You better keep your mouth shut because I’m fully strapped” (“The New Style”). By 1998’s Hello Nasty, the group had entirely abandoned the trappings of their blend of punk gangsterism. On “Unite,” Adam Yauch (MCA) asserts, “I don’t like to fight, I don’t carry a piece / I wear a permanent press so I’m always creased.” The idea that it’s Yauch’s perfectly wrinkle-free clothes that give him street credibility comes off as partially self-deprecating but mostly just silly, even as listeners recognize he was nearing 40 and probably did take that kind of care to press his pants. In interviews, Mike Diamond (Mike D) has framed this shift as a progression, an eventual, conscious evolution toward maturity: “Obviously there are moments in the past that you look back at and cringe…but it’s actually a privilege to be able to change and to be making records that reflect that change,” he told SPIN in 2000.
It makes sense that the Beastie Boys themselves would understand what they’ve done in this way, and I was certainly aware of that narrative when I became a fan. Still, my own growing up didn’t match this arc at all; because I heard everything at once—beginning with a copy of Paul’s Boutique I had blindly ordered from BMG Music Service, moving in both directions quickly from there—Hello Nasty felt just as new to me as the puerile gangster posturing that came before. More importantly, all the output seemed equally absurd. To position the 1986 Beastie Boys as somehow incompatible with today’s group misses the point of their project—after all, they’ve kept the same alter egos. For me, it’s wrong to argue that a “mature” straight-faced pun like “You better think twice before you start flossin’ / I been in your bathroom often” (“Crawlspace,” 2004) is categorically different from a line like “My pistol is loaded / I shot Betty Crocker” (“Rhymin’ and Stealin’,” 1986). Both are idiotic, just not in the same way.
The notion that the Beastie Boys are fundamentally idiots originates with the (perhaps apocryphal) title of Rolling Stone’s Licensed to Ill review. “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece” suggests these goofy Jewish kids somehow weren’t aware they were making what would become the decade’s best-selling rap album. In truth, it’s hard to know how self-conscious the Boys were. While I don’t believe their success was an accident, the album doesn’t qualify as total parody. The group was thoroughly faithful to hip-hop’s tropes (and thus mostly respected in the rap community); it’s the fact that they’re white boys from Manhattan and Brooklyn that makes the committed engagement of these conceits ridiculous. The Beastie Boys’ early success is evidence that they understood how to exploit their inherent incongruity for maximum aesthetic effect. This embrace of complexity—intentionally taking on two seemingly opposite qualities at once, those of “real” rappers and “fake” rappers—is key to the half-serious approach.
By the time I started to listen to them, the Beastie Boys had largely apologized for their obnoxious behavior and devoted themselves to less foolish pursuits, notably activism for a Free Tibet. The five albums after Licensed to Ill had enjoyed near-unanimous acclaim; time legitimized the group’s status as hip-hop pioneers. In this context, a half-serious attitude generates another type of idiocy: because their personas are no longer ridiculous, the Beastie Boys must engage rap’s conventions in a facetious way. What was once a threat of murder is now a warning that MCA “will steal your keys and then…check your mail” (“Oh Word?”, 2004). On the same track, Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) politely disses an ugly adversary: “Talk about your face, now don’t get pissed / but I suggest you see a dermatologist.” It’s clear that the Beastie Boys are no longer idiots, but their nonsensical plays on typical forms of hip-hop posturing seem just as effortless as their early “accidental” success. Right at the moment when we realize they really are skilled rappers, the Beasties begin to undermine their image by haplessly failing at self-aggrandizement.
As an overachieving, self-doubting teenager, part of what I really loved about the Beastie Boys is how the half-serious approach seemed to obviate a lot of criticism. For me, this sort of calculated remove was a very desirable model to emulate; even though they’re experts, no one would ever accuse the Beastie Boys of trying too hard, which to me was (and in many ways still is) the telltale mark of the uncool. The music video for “Sabotage,” for example, works so well because it’s clear the Boys’ appropriation of the look is ironic while their excitement over and dedication to the appropriation is total. I’m obviously not the first to point out how the technique of sampling is analogous to the construction of a persona, the intentional amalgamation of different aspects of personality or culture a rapper adopts. But there’s something so great about the way the Beastie Boys have pulled off this balancing act—something inviting rather than alienating, flexible (always fresh), and above all, good-natured, with a knowing, and self-knowing, sense of humor.
As a model for working, the half-serious doesn’t preclude actual effort in order to make it look easy, but it provides mechanisms for absorbing and reconciling contradictory influences (and even realities) without a fuss. The result is genuine, but not earnest—sophisticated enough to know when sophistication is overrated; familiar, but always a shade unexpected. It’s a little bit like the story of the term “mullet”: the Boys called wide attention to a ridiculous hairdo in what was essentially a very public in-joke (with the song “Mullet Head”), but doing so had a real impact, solidifying the mullet’s cultural import. Anyway, especially now, I’m still listening, memorizing lyrics and taking notes.
 “Heroes and Antiheroes: Beastie Boys,” SPIN, April 2000, 66.