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The Words, Sound & Legacy of Chester Bennington

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Chester Bennington of Linkin Park performs in Las Vegas on Feb. 2, 2001.

When considering Linkin Park’s overall legacy -- as, sadly, we are collectively compelled to do following news of Chester Bennington's death at age 41 on Thursday (July 20) -- it’s hard to know which approach to take: wide or narrow.

Let’s zoom out first. Linkin Park made a seismic impact on rock music in the new millennium and often does not get credited for doing so. Part of the reason? They often get miscategorized as part of the much-derided nu-metal movement that took hold of pop culture at the turn of the century.

When the group released debut album Hybrid Theory in October 2000, Bennington was 24 years old and quickly became lumped in with nu-metal frontmen like Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, Korn’s Jonathan Davis and P.O.D.’s Sonny Sandoval. Really, Bennington was nothing like these guys. While they each personally tried to balance screamed choruses with angst-ridden rhymes, Bennington and Mike Shinoda split rock and rap duties in the band, sharing the frontman role without cheapening either of their attributes. This ultimately made Linkin Park more ambidextrous than their contemporaries, as they were able to mix rock hooks with rap verses but also devote songs to either style. This allowed Bennington to soar on singles like “Breaking the Habit,” “Numb” and especially “Shadow of the Day” without having anyone wondering when he would drop the melody and spit some rhymes. He was in a band that also had a DJ and rapper, but his rock bonafides were never in question.

Hybrid Theory and 2003 follow-up Meteora were (and still are) explosive, expertly produced and expansive in their understanding of rock hooks. With songs like “In the End,” “Numb,” “Somewhere I Belong” and “Crawling” becoming crossover pop hits, Hybrid Theory went on to sell over 10 million copies -- one of only 22 albums to do so since Nielsen Music began electronically tracking sales in 1991. More importantly, they stayed that way long after that two-album commercial apex. After nu-metal plummeted in the first three years of the 21st century, Linkin Park still scored mainstream radio play, still sold millions of albums, still played to arenas, still had enough cultural cache to record a full-length collaboration with JAY-Z. They shape-shifted through various sounds -- metal, rap-rock, electronica, prog -- and were successful in nearly all of their iterations. “Heavy,” a pop song featuring Kiiara that led Bennington’s final studio album, One More Light, peaked at No. 2 on the Hot Rock Songs chart earlier this year and hit No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100. Nearly every rock act that was around when Linkin Park bowed in 2000 hasn’t sniffed such relevance in more than a decade.

When asked what style of rock music in the early 2000s would prove the most influential for the next 15 years, most music fans would cite the garage-rock revival, led by The Strokes and The White Stripes. And while that moment was distinct and massive, it would be the wrong answer. Linkin Park’s penchant for mashing up disparate musical styles with heavy-yet-vulnerable rock would prove prophetic of the genre’s future, where guitars and vocal hooks were placed alongside melodic rapping, rhythmic production and dubstep breakdowns. Critics and rock purists will scoff at the amorphous sounds of Twenty One PilotsImagine Dragons and Fall Out Boy, but each is using that sonic inventiveness to rule the charts and define modern rock. It’s nearly impossible to be a mega-successful rock band in 2017 without the ability to explore outside of rock music; from the beginning of their careers, Bennington and the rest of Linkin Park pioneered that instinct.

Zooming in, however, Linkin Park is clearly much more than a sales behemoth that knew how to write hooks for radio and compel other bands to dabble in different sounds. The reason they were able to achieve such longevity, to continue packing those stadiums, is the same reason Bennington’s death is so devastating.

The leader of a group widely considered to be nice guys, Bennington avoided rock-star drama throughout his career, was consistently steady in his creative output and never threatened to dissolve his stalwart group in order to find solo fame. But Bennington channeled the tension of his life so wholly within his music that he was able to gain millions of fans, many of whom felt an intrinsic connection with his words.

So much of Linkin Park’s music is about pain: “Numb” focuses on romantic betrayal, “Crawling” sheds light on Bennington’s fight against drug and alcohol addiction, and “Bleed It Out” is about how physical hurt can ease emotional scars. Many of these songs are difficult to listen to today, in light of Bennington’s death. But many of them have helped Linkin Park fans cope with their own issues for years -- and other songs serve as an outreached hand for those struggling. “I’m holding on/ Why is everything so heavy?” Bennington sings on the chorus of “Heavy.” It’s a simple couplet that offers a striking sense of empathy for those finding the day-to-day difficult. If it hints at the issues Bennington was facing in his final months, it also encourages others to try to hold on.

Bennington had always combined the fury of his voice with a sense of vulnerability -- he could shout his guts out with the world’s best thrashers, but fans knew he would always pull back and counterbalance with a quiet reveal. The rage would not have worked without the soulfulness. In that, many music fans connected with Bennington and built Linkin Park into a juggernaut. Bennington’s legacy is as part of a commercial force with a wide influence, but also as a frontman who formed endless connections with his listeners. His sound will be remembered, but so will his words.