They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That's why we bring you "Popology," the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and the Spice Girls here.
In this week's installment — a slight departure from the norm — Limp Bizkit puts the "nu" in nu-metal.
If there's one thing that stood out about the sad passing of Slipknot bassist Paul Gray, it's the fact that there was a time in this country when metal was totally accepted in the mainstream. And we're not talking about the type of metal that Guns N' Roses or Mötley Crüe dropped onto the radio in the 1980s. This was savage, brutal music. Consider this: Slipknot's 2001 album Iowa debuted at number three on the Billboard chart and sold a million copies in a months, and that album is brutal. Despite the snatches of melody in the singles "Left Behind" and "My Plague," most of it is an absolutely savage combination of technical skill and raw sonic purging.
But it had to come from somewhere, and the trend that lead Iowa to the upper echelons of the charts began in 1999 with the release of Limp Bizkit's Significant Other. Fronted by rapper/singer/hype man Fred Durst and powered by the funky, guttural riffs of guitarist Wes Borland, the Bizkit turned the proto-rapcore of their debut album Three Dollar Bill, Yall$ into a radio-friendly mix of arena riffs, hip-hop swagger and just the right amount of melody.
The release of Significant Other was a massive cultural event, fueled by the ubiquity of the smash single "Nookie" and the iconic video that found a permanent home on MTV's "Total Request Live." Durst was rapping alongside clips by Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera, which made for a striking departure in the streamlined end-of-the-century pop menu. But you can't associate with those acts without sort of becoming one of them, which put the Bizkit in a weird place: A (theoretically) hard band with radio leanings and videos on MTV. They ended up picking up a ton of cultural baggage following the initial fervor over the release of Significant Other (including an ill-fated performance at Woodstock '99), but before that, there was only an album.
Significant Other opens with a super-freaky intro the features some bass-heavy narration announcing "You wanted the worst? You got the worst. Limp Bizkit!" You have to admit one thing: *NSYNC never opened an album like that. It quickly moves into "Just Like This," a sort of State of the Limp Union for newcomers to the group. It surfs an incredible thematic edge, as the verses contain the typical hip-hop "let me explain how great we are" boasts, while the chorus is essentially about how awesome making music is (which appeared to have been a requisite tune on every pop album made during that era; that's essentially all Spice World is). "Just Like This" isn't a bad introduction into the world of Limp Bizkit, as it features a huge guitar riff in the chorus, some wacky electronic noises for atmosphere and Durst's rap/croon/shout vocals stylings.
But "Nookie" is the definitive Limp Bizkit tune. Fueled by a deceptively funky groove in the verse (props to bass player Sam Rivers on that one), "Nookie" tells the story of the girl you just can't quit (and may or may not be about the insertion of baked goods into certain bodily orifices). There's a schizophrenic nature to the song, as part of it is about being taken advantage of ("like a chump") and the other part is about exploiting for your own gain. Like a college lacrosse player, it's simultaneously sensitive and sort of brutal (which matches the dichotomy of the easy-going funk of the verses and the shout-along savagery of the chorus). For a song called "Nookie," it's surprisingly complicated.
Things stay complicated into "Break Stuff." If aliens land on Earth and ever demand to know what nu-metal sounds like, this would be the song we would play for them. It opens with a recording of the band literally breaking stuff and laughing maniacally about it. Then the thudding riff kicks in and the song hits the ground running. Much of Significant Other sounds like slick arena rock, but "Break Stuff" is pretty raw. And beneath the surface, the source of Durst's rage apparently comes from complications with relationships (or, in his parlance, "the he said, she said bulls---"). Durst was emo before emo was, you know, popular.
The string of hits continues with "Re-Arranged" (like many pop albums of that era, Significant Other is totally top-loaded). It sort of splits the difference between a ballad and a rager, though it's saved by the slow-rolling bassline in the chorus (another win for Rivers, clearly the band's secret weapon). From there, things devolve a bit, as "I'm Broke," "Nobody Like You," "Don't Go Off Wandering" and "9 Teen 90 Nine" are pretty generic nu-metal jams that vacillate between thuggery and sensitive whining (especially "Nobody Like You," which features a guest spot from Korn's Jonathan Davis).
But "N 2 Gether Now" throws a curveball, jettisoning the band in favor of a killer DJ Premier beat and a rap duet between Durst and Method Man. It represents Durst's finest performance as a rapper, and his turn on "N 2 Gether Now" even inspired talk of an all hip-hop Durst solo album that never materialized. Now, it's possible that Method Man is like the WWE's Shawn Michaels and it's impossible to have a bad match with him, but Durst is really on his game with Mr. Meth (who also sounds tight and vital). Everybody had to admit that maybe Durst's hip-hop musings were for real, at least for five minutes on this record.
Despite the greatness of "N 2 Gether Now," Significant Other gets back to business as usual in its final third. "Trust?" is a paranoid thrash jam that disarms its killer groove with the album's silliest lyrics. "No Sex" is a bit of a departure, as it's a power ballad about post-coital tristesse (not exactly a common theme for either metalheads or rappers). Plus, the chorus (featuring a guest vocal by Scott Weiland) is an effective shout-along. "Show Me What You Got" is little more than a list of cities that probably should have been left on the studio floor, and "A Lesson Learned" is an atmospheric experiment that doesn't really work (though it does satisfy the apparent pop album mandate that requires you end your album with a weird one). And of course, after "Outro," there's a rant by Matt Pinfield about how horrible music is (taking specific shots at people who don't write their own music), and then that is followed by a weird spoken word thing by Primus frontman Les Claypool. Now that is what I call ending on a weird one.
Significant Other remains Limp Bizkit's biggest hit and their greatest cultural moment (the scene of Durst walking through Times Square accompanied by "Bizkettes" is as permanent a part of pop history as the image of him surfing across a most pit on a piece of plywood at Woodstock), and the band will drop their first album in seven years when they drop Gold Cobra this summer. The entire Bizkit catalog is maligned because of the sour taste that nu-metal left in everybody's mouth, but Significant Other is weirder, more varied and better than anybody remembers (or than anybody is willing to admit). As somebody who always dismissed them as poseurs, it's now time to bust out a copy of Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water.