Donna-Claire Chesman shares her personal thoughts on hip-hop albums that make her nostalgic for memories she has yet to make come true.
Nostalgia is something of a promised return on investment: put in the work now, and when you’re about to fall asleep, all of these memories will come rushing back to take the edge off.
Of course, there is too much of a good thing, especially with music. More often than not, nostalgia goes beyond sweetening a scene and warps our perception of a record. Sometimes the memories attached to an album carry more weight or age better than the record itself. Classic albums lose their spark, or maybe they weren’t classics in the first place. Either way, losing an album to our human predisposition for sentiment is not always the worst case scenario—there’s usually a great story attached.
Maybe it’s because I am Jewish and from Brooklyn, but I am a bonafide Beastie Boys fan. They have their classic records, of course, and we can never underestimate the impact Paul’s Boutique had on sampling in hip-hop, but not every album in their catalog can be a homerun. Enter: To The 5 Boroughs. Far from a dud, Boroughs, is simply a very solid album that had the misfortune of being surrounded by landmark works of hip-hop.
To The 5 Boroughs had always been on my radar as a Beastie fan, but I truly lost myself in the album while walking around Boston, on the coattails of winter, with a deadening head cold. Between the cold and the cold, too many memories were lost in the flurry of New England’s winter. Somehow the seemingly most banal moments endure: an overpriced corner coffee shop, the look a waiter gave me at a hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant, and the grating sound of a too-puffy coat straining over sweater layers.
I remember posting up in the coffee shop every morning, people watching while the rattle of “Ch-Check It Out” kept me buzzing along with the coffee. This was during the brief period of my life where I still shuffled albums, and “The Brouhaha” came on right when my lox bagel with cream cheese hit the counter. Skittering synths and lox, Ad-Rock stunting while I suppress a sneeze and take a bite of God’s gift to deli menus—there was nothing better.
Of course, the Beastie Boys take the fetishization of geography and turn it into high art with their music. Boston is no New York City, but a skinny alley is a skinny alley, and the soft orange glow of a streetlight is romantic and vintage no matter the zip code. Plodding through Boston and popping Tylenols as if my best life was just through that thin foil lining, I was swept away by To The 5 Boroughs’ weather-worn cadences and enduring spunk. Licensed to Ill may have been two decades in the rearview mirror, but the trio still came to life on the album, just as I managed to haul around Boston.
The mythos of that trip and the fog of the head cold combined to entrap me in the music, but several years removed, Boroughs struggles to stand out in the Beastie Boys discography. Too many verses played off as pedestrian for the trio, and not even their chemistry could save them from the Law of Charismatic Diminishing Returns. The Beastie Boys had done it before, and done it so well, to the point of their camaraderie sounding ever-so played by the time To The Five Boroughs drops. At present, every mention of the album is founded on the magic of retelling the story of the Boston fog, but it’s a fantastic album all the same—just a victim of time and place.
A few years after my Boston trip, I found myself in a fruitless relationship with a woman who also happened to be engaged to someone else. In a desperate attempt to connect with her and perhaps sway her to end the engagement, I wanted to open her eyes to the wonderful world of hip-hop. Her taste for music was questionable at best, but she was willing to give a select few artists a try, mostly artists rising from the ire of frat rap. In an effort to satisfy her tastes and broaden her hip-hop horizons, I introduced her to Asher Roth’s opus, Pabst and Jazz.
Blended Babies production consumed our lives on Monday night, and as Roth sauntered over jazzy piano lines, we found ourselves in a field of buttercup flowers. She held one up to her chin, dying her skin a pale yellow while Roth wound flows around a rusty cowbell. Her engagement ring caught some sun here and there, but she always sat with her hands pointing behind her.
She told me Pabst and Jazz would be a great album to get high to, remember, this was her first in-depth hip-hop listening session. I didn’t smoke, and she knew that, but right around “Common Knowledge,” while Asher Roth was busy bemoaning fell on deaf ears, she told me all about her cocaine addiction, how it started at a party where a track like “I Love College” would have been in heavy rotation. That was the night she met her fiance.
Suddenly, we weren’t just two people in a field playing Pabst and Jazz through a shitty phone speaker, we were anxiously wading our way through group therapy. She ran back the hook on “Get By,” (“I’ve been drinking a lot / I’ve been smoking a lot / I know I will get by / I’m gonna make it this time”) without saying a word. She ended up marrying the other guy.
Pabst and Jazz is still a great album, but nothing outweighs watching a person you loved dearly unravel and uncover a part of themselves, right before your eyes. I love the music, and I cherish the memories, but there’s an insurmountable dissonance between the two.
That’s not to say either one of these records are bad by traditional means, but simply that nostalgia skews our expectations of music. If anything, the looming threat of nostalgia should remind us to live in the moment with our music. It should remind us to love an album and be present with it before we’re listening back and shrugging our shoulders, wondering why it just doesn’t sound like it used to.
There’s no time like the first time, and no time like the best time, but that doesn’t mean your next spin of a record can’t be the most special. For every album lost to the rose-tinted gaze, there’s bound to be another that brightens your reality. Keep listening, good music always endures.
Donna-Claire Chesman is an East Coast-based music writer, who loves Big L and The Fugees as much as jazz and her pet parrot. Her work appears on DJBooth, Okayplayer, Vinyl Me, Please, Pigeons and Planes, Mass Appeal, XXL, and others. Find her on Twitter @DonnaCWrites, if you’re so inclined.