Beastie Boys – Check Your Head
Beastie Boys – Check Your Head (1992)
I was sitting around scratching my head today, wondering what album to write about – and then I looked down and saw I was wearing a Check Your Head album T, so there you go. All else aside, I've always loved the album art: the grainy black-and-white, the normcore, the instruments, MCA's pom knit beanie. As questionable as it might seem from a standpoint of practical comfort that he's wearing such an elaborate winter hat while Ad-Rock rocks a T, this image actually does a lot of justice to the Beasties' contemporary identity and milieu. It also not only looks good on a shirt, but on a wall poster too, which my high-school era bedroom proudly attested to.
The "contemporary identity and milieu" of the trio in this album's era were both notable. Like it is in all of their music, their hometown is present, but on Check Your Head it's there in memories and echoes, with few explicit references. The album's perhaps their most geographically decentered. By this point, they'd been in LA for a few years; they'd built their own studio (complete with a half-pipe) and returned to playing their own instruments. Perhaps with something of a sense of being settled, the artistic freedom of their own studio, and the stability and expansive wisdom accorded by the crossing from "early" to "mid-late" twenties, the creative process could be loosened. The inspiration began to flow from the internal as well as the external. The result is an album of sprawling stylistic experimentation unencumbered by expectations. If 1989's Paul's Boutique was the sound of the young, famous New Yorkers gleefully crashing face-first into the West Coast and capturing a bicoastal synthesis of these two colorful worlds to tape, Check Your Head is taking a breath, tuning out the noise of the city (either or both), and the Beastie Boys giving Adam, Adam and Mike space to be themselves.
The results must've been a curveball for fans and industry wonks alike who'd already over the last couple years watched the band's hip-hop partyboy persona eclipsed by the brainy, radio-phobic beathead collage art of Paul's Boutique. Luckily, there were hits: the booming "So What'Cha Want" I have to assume had an outsized role in keeping one foot (of their total six) in the mainstream and saving the album from obscurity. But it was a far cry from anything that had come before. It was the beginning of the band finding the sound and methodology that would guide their next few albums – 1994's Ill Communication and 1998's Hello Nasty – which, while becoming steadily more professional and radio-philic, retain a characteristic fidelity to the identities of the people behind the music.
It's that unimpeded expression of identity that I think makes Check Your Head my favorite Beastie Boys album. It was especially influential during my high school years, when there were lots of forces tugging at an inchoate identity. The poster on my bedroom wall reminded me that a plain old pair of Adidas Gazelles could be kick-ass, or that donning a winter hat in the middle of summer could make perfect sense, if it flowed from an honest expression of inner self. The album's rapping and amateur production might age, but that message certainly doesn't.