It can’t be overstated just how badly most rap metal has aged. Since its heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s, the likes of Limp Bizkit and P.O.D. all very much sound like relics of their time, better left behind in the age of JNCO jeans and ball-chain necklaces. Perhaps they are dragged out now and again for a kick of nostalgia in a crowded bar, between bands at a basement show, or in the privacy of one’s own headphones during a bad commute. But for the most part these acts have little-to-no lasting value.
The thing about rap metal is that, unlike virtually every other genre, there is no standard par excellence. If punk has Iggy Pop, rap has Biggie Smalls, folk has Bob Dylan, and rock n’ roll has Elvis Presley, who was rap metal’s innovator? Who was at least the genre’s greatest popularizer?
A convincing case could be made that the distinction belongs to no one, that the genre is not significant enough to warrant a figurehead equal to those names. The historical relevancy of rap metal—which entertained massive mainstream success for a few years, at most—is questionable.
At any rate, the case could be made for Linkin Park. Specifically, the band’s debut album Hybrid Theory, which is one of the most memorable and well-crafted rock albums of the past two decades. It is, in a way, a point of culmination for, and even rejection of, said boom. Linkin Park stood out from their contemporaries in rap-metal (also known as “nü metal”) by embracing their pop sensibilities, rejecting the overt machismo and violence that had become synonymous with the genre, and crafting simple, unabashedly sad songs.
Whereas Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit lauded the act of destroying property and breaking faces, lead singer Chester Bennington channeled his violent energy into pleas for attention and acceptance. “One Step Closer” implores the target of Bennington’s rage to shut up and listen. He sings of self-harm and depression in “Crawling,” a track which earned the group a Grammy, and the haunting specter of a bad relationship in “With You.” Much of the anger and violence on Hybrid Theory is self-targeted, rather than lyrics that could be perceived as advocation of destruction, which stigmatized the genre during its heyday.
While they were not the first band to incorporate raps into their vocal offerings, Linkin Park took the unique step of having two vocalists. To supplement Bennington’s alternating crooning and screaming is Mike Shinoda, the heart and soul of this album. More of the limelight belongs to Bennington—there are songs, like “One Step Closer” and “Crawling,” where Shinoda has few or no lines—but the rapper has several spotlight moments. His is the first voice heard on opening track “Papercut,” setting the stage for the sea of angst and anxiety to come. He steers the ship with great verses on two late-album tracks, “A Place for My Head” and “Forgotten,” and bookends the underrated “Points of Authority” with what are probably his strongest verses on the album.
Shinoda’s influence is evident in Hybrid Theory‘s production too. Although he was not credited as a producer, the same pop sensibilities that highlight later Linkin Park releases—on which the band served as producers, as early as 2004’s Meteora—are present here on their debut. As the group’s resident multi-instrumentalist, Shinoda contributed guitar, keys, and piano, including the iconic piano refrain from “In the End.”
If Shinoda is the heart and soul of Hybrid Theory, and Bennington the voice, then the backbone belongs to Joe Hahn, whose samples are the centerpieces around which many of the songs build, like the wobbly sound that opens “Runaway.” Hahn’s instrumental “Cure for the Itch” serves as a fun bridge to the last track and shows traces of some of the more diverse moods and ambient textures that the band would explore on later albums.
The remaining members—Brad Delson, who played both guitar and bass on this album, and Rob Bourdon, on drums—provide simple, reliable riffs and rhythms to add the extra bite needed to accentuate the other elements. Nothing either plays is lavish. There are no guitar solos or insane drum fills, but without the big chords and driving percussion, these songs would feel significantly emptier.
Hybrid Theory was a smash hit, and there has been virtually nothing in rock music to rival its omnipresence in the 17 years since its release. Any of its twelve tracks could have been singles, many of which remain popular today.
The most remarkable thing about this album is that the band managed to retain a certain veneer of sincerity despite the major label production and marketing. Linkin Park used uncomplicated words to describe complex issues. Although one could criticize how rudimentary or hokey some lines are, the whole package of Hybrid Theory presents a much more constructive way to handle the negative aspects of adolescence than its nü-metal contemporaries. There’s a reason this band has outlasted pretty much all their counterparts. As angry as their music is, one gets the impression that, instead of destroying the world to rid themselves of their problems, Linkin Park wants to improve it.