(20th Anniversary Edition)
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Fast forward to July 25, 1989: After three long years of anticipation, Paul’s Boutique was finally released…to howls of critical derision and stifling commercial indifference. For hardly the first (and far, far from the last) time, Capitol was a laughingstock – rather than delivering another easy-to-sell disc of bratty rhymes on top of hard rock beats, the Beasties had gone on a crate-digging spree with new producers the Dust Brothers, and come up with an album so dense and fuzzy that, to ears expecting Licensed to Ill 2, it sounded like an elaborate practical joke.
That, of course, was only the first chapter of the story – and honestly, it’s been embellished a little; although always regarded as one of the year’s biggest commercial disappointments, Paul’s Boutique did peak in the Top 20, and "Hey Ladies" snuck into the Top 40, so it was never quite the flop it’s been made out to be. It is true, however, that large portions of its intended audience had no idea what to do with it in the summer of 1989, and the popular opinion of the day was that Capitol had paid an outrageous sum for Def Jam’s sloppy seconds; in fact, quite a few people believed the Beasties would go down as one-hit wonders.
What a difference 20 years can make. They’ve made plenty of horrible decisions, but in this case, Capitol’s execs got one right – something borne out by Paul’s Boutique’s slow journey from confounding dud to double-platinum hip-hop classic. That transformation is commemorated with the 20th anniversary edition, a repackaging that skimps on the usual stuff (no demos or bonus tracks) but nonetheless offers an improvement on the original disc.
For starters, the new Boutique does a better job of replicating the original artwork, presented here in an eight-panel foldout (fans who spring for the limited edition will be treated to an eight-foot poster). There aren’t any essays from peers or critics offering a reappraisal of the album, but that stuff is better left in the hands of the folks at 33 1/3, anyway; this reissue is less about making a case for the album’s cultural significance than it is about simply presenting the music in the best possible light – a goal accomplished through the industry’s favorite buyer-baiting shenanigan of the last two decades, the remaster.
At least half of the time, remastering an album offers no meaningful improvement, but Paul’s Boutique has been begging for this treatment since it was released; the original disc suffers from stupidly low levels and a muffled top end, and listening to it has always required an immediate and significant increase in volume (woe be unto the poor iPod owner who segues from a Boutique track into something more sensibly mastered while wearing headphones). The new mastering job, overseen by the Beasties, takes the pillows off the mix without burying everything under the bright digital crunch that plagues a lot of current releases; it isn’t quite the same as listening to it on vinyl, but it retains enough friendly analog warmth to present a noticeable upgrade – and you can hear more of what’s going on in the music, which is sort of the goal of listening to it in the first place, after all.
This brings us to the most important part of the album – the songs themselves. Licensed to Ill was drawn with bold, straight lines, mixing clean, obvious samples with big beats and easy-to-follow lyrics, so it’s easy to understand how people might have been put off by these songs, built from knotty wordplay and bits of everything from the Average White Band’s "Cut the Cake" to the Eagles’ "These Shoes." But the Beasties hadn’t lost the plot, they’d just switched frames of reference; Paul’s Boutique is the ‘80s hip-hop equivalent of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, except you can dance to it and nobody starved to death.
Unlike a lot of albums that lay claim to "classic" status, Paul’s Boutique doesn’t need to be heard in the context of its own era to be fully appreciated; then, as now, the songs sound like they’re being broadcast from a distant planet made from dusty vinyl and populated by young MCs with a penchant for coming up with pop culture-referencing rhymes. It’s as close to timeless as anything released in 1989, and whether or not you already own a copy, it’s one of the more worthwhile reissues we’re likely to see this year.