Check Your Head is the third studio album from one of rap’s best and most underrated acts, the Beastie Boys. Most people know this as the follow-up to Paul’s Boutique, which is the follow-up to their juvenile party rock/rap debut success Licensed to Ill, and is also the defining moment in the entirety of the Beastie Boys’ long career. Following up Paul’s Boutique quality-wise was a tall order. Looking back, it was practically the album that invented experimental hip-hop. But Check Your Head feels nothing like an attempt to recapture old energy, it feels like an uncompromising effort from visionary musicians that were still as fresh, creative, and passionate as they were when they were making their debut, perhaps even more so. They were challenging themselves, after making an album comprised totally of samples, to make a borderline punk rock album and play almost all the instruments.
Just like most albums made prior to the CD boom, Check Your Head is front loaded with all the songs they thought might make a hit. Almost none did, but despite the lack of commercial recognition, every song on the first side feels like its own juggernaut. “Jimmy Jones” not only sets the stage perfectly with its muddy production and masterful record scratching, it also gives us one of the many, many, MANY earworm moments on this stacked album. “Funky Boss” is one of those moments, and, despite its brevity, it’s one of the most funky, unique, and sticky songs in the B-Boys’ discography.
On “Pass the Mic”, the overblown, distorted cymbals are proven to literally always be cool (case in point: Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitled 05”). This song is special because it contains one of the very few legitimately bad lines of the Beastie Boys’ post-LTI discography: “Well, everybody rapping like it’s a commercial / Actin’ like life is a big commercial.” But apparently this was a mistake that was left in as a joke. Every song on this first side has something to love, like the incomparable energy on “Gratitude,” the out-of-this-world flute sample and silky smooth rhyming on “Finger Lickin’ Good,” or the pummeling drums and guitar on “So What’cha Want.”
But I don’t want to give the first side all of the light. Despite the lack of single potential on the second side, the Beasties amp up the smoothness and the atmosphere, and introduce a more trippy, funky, and more sophisticated vibe on standout tracks like “Something’s Got to Give,” “Live at P.J.’s” and the defining “Namaste,” as well as plenty of incredible instrumentals that don’t pale in comparison at all.
As this pandemic drags on, I look back on my music stats to see what I’ve been streaming most, and it is by far Check Your Head. The fact that I didn’t care for the album until just a few weeks ago baffles me. But everyone who is in the boat I was in should know that you don’t fully appreciate Check Your Head until you get addicted to it, and get addicted you will. Somehow I manage to always convince myself that Paul’s Boutique is their best album, but this is damn close. Despite the raw and seemingly unrefined sound of this album, it is as slick as Vaseline. Check Your Head has an atmosphere, vibe, and energy unlike anything else you can listen to.