It must seem crazy now, as Paul’s Boutique sits comfortably near the top of so many best-albums-of-all-time lists, but when the Beastie Boys’ second album was originally released in 1989, the initial reaction it saw was confusion and indifference. The audience the Beastie Boys had built for themselves, and hip-hop music in general, with their brash, broad debut Licensed To Ill didn’t know what to make of this second album with its dense instrumentation and rapidly paced lyrics filled with obscure references and strange jokes.
Critics reluctantly admitted it was good and other musicians picked up on it (Miles Davis was a fan), but in commercial terms the album was a flop, selling a fraction of what its predecessor had. Speaking to Spin magazine 16 years after Paul’s Boutique’s release, the late MCA blamed lack of support from the record company, reporting that Capitol had suddenly gone through massive restructuring and the label’s new president told them, “Look, I don’t have time for this. The new Donny Osmond album is coming out.”
Paul’s Boutique was both ahead of its time and very much of its time. Its layers upon layers of samples may have been too complex for a commercial audience in the late ‘80s, but it was also an achievement that could never happen today, as hip-hop artists now get sued left and right for copyright infringement over use of samples, no matter how obscure they are. But rap’s first decade was like the Wild West in this respect; Paul’s Boutique even dared the Beatles to sue. The Beasties got away with it.