“This is so fun! This whole project is, like, fun!”
That’s Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park in the accompanying DVD to Collision Course, a six-track, fan-service mashup mini-album between them and JAY-Z, two artists with enough collective fans to service for the set to debut atop the Billboard 200. The set has since come to be viewed as something of a rap-rock punch line, a memory of the mashup’s moment of over-commercialization and a generally WTF? result of forced monoculturalism. And it’s all of those things, at least a little bit. But more than any of ’em, the whole thing is, like, fun.
Let’s take it back to 2004 for a minute. Most of the LOL’ing over Collision Course in the years to come has come as a byproduct of its general thesis that Linkin Park and JAY-Z were equivalent titans in their respective fields, worthy adversaries on either side of the “Vs.” in the project’s title. And it’s true, of course, that Linkin Park never had the across-the-board respect that the Jiggaman did, in 2004 or any other year — while Jay had already entered the conversation of the greatest to ever do it by the time of Collision Course (a year after his first “retirement”), critics and classic rock heads were still split on whether or not Linkin Park deserved more than outright dismissal as leaders of a consensus low point in mainstream rock history.
But commercially, the scales were tipped in the other direction. While JAY-Z always sold well — eight No. 1 albums by 2004 don’t lie — he never had a hit album on the level of Linkin Park’s diamond-certified Hybrid Theory, which sold about as much as Hov’s first four albums combined. And despite rap being much more top 40-friendly in the early ’00s than nu-metal, “In the End” had hit a higher peak on the Hot 100 (No. 2) than any JAY-Z single as a lead artist to that point — not to mention that LP had five alternative chart-toppers to Jay’s single rap No. 1. While tastemakers would scoff at the idea of Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington in a match of heavyweights with Shawn Carter, for the kids listening at home, it was at worst a draw.
In any event, it wasn’t about chest-puffing: What made Collision Course work as a project is the humility that both artists brought to the collaboration. On the bonus DVD, both Jay and LP are seen going out of their way to accommodate the other, Jigga happily re-recording vocals while Shinoda takes his notes on song-structuring to heart. Both just seem excited to be working with one another — Shinoda practically dies of happiness watching Jay flawlessly spit “N—a What” over LP’s “Faint” production, barely getting out the words when it’s over: “Jay, I just wanna say ‘Thank you…'”
And when the music actually hits, it lands with authority. Not every mashup is spotless — sometimes the thematic contrast between Jay’s braggadocio and LP’s self-pity is too much to overcome, as on “Izzo” / “In the End” and (to a lesser extent) “Big Pimpin'” / “Papercut.” But at the set’s best, you mostly ignore the juxtaposition and just feel how satisfying it is to hear Jigga declare “If you feelin’ like a pimp, n—a, go an’ brush your shoulders off” over the crunching guitars of “Lying From You,” or for the skittering beat of “N—a What” to unexpectedly segue into the Eastern strings of the “Faint” riff, or for Chester and Jay to trade off “Numb” and “Encore” chorus bars like they’d never existed independently.
The high points of Collision Course simplify the equation past the reputations and messaging of the artists involved: JAY-Z had bars, and Linkin Park had beats. Shinoda & Co. retinkered their productions a little to make them fit better for Jay, but not a lot — it’s more or less Linkin Park’s straight tracks he’s rapping over, and he sounds fantastic: Like the best productions Timbaland did for him around the turn of the century, they’re muscular, hypnotic and just the slightest bit unsettling, and Hov rides ’em like he’s cruising on the “Big Pimpin'” yacht. The best track is the final one, Jay’s masterful story song “99 Problems” mashed with the guitar bombs and aqueous synths of Linkin Park’s “Points of Authority” — unsurprising, since “99 Problems” was already basically a rap-rock track. But if anything, it demonstrates how the artists’ strengths weren’t exactly worlds apart to begin with.
The Linkin vocalists can hold their own, too. As awkward a fit as “Izzo” and “In the End” make alongside one another, it is fascinating to watch JAY-Z and Mike Shinoda take the mic back to back. Not that anyone is gonna be mentioning the latter in GOAT debates anytime soon, but particularly live, the performance does illuminate just how good he is at what he does — captivating the audience with every syllable, half charismatic cult leader and half do-it-yourself motivational speaker. And at the end of the “Points”/”Problems” mashup, the song can’t help but give fans a taste of original LP breakout hit “One Step Closer,” clearing the runway for Bennington to deliver his most singular shriek: “SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!” The moment’s always electric, but after several verses of Jay’s vented frustration leading up to it, it’s more stunning than ever.
Most importantly, the thinkpieciness and cultural implications of JAY-Z and Linkin Park’s rap vs. rock posturing never overwhelmed the sense of joy surrounding the music — heard in the goofy studio in-jokes and ad libs the artists left scattered throughout the mini-album. And on a day where it’s hard not to look back at Chester Bennington’s career and major works as a series of foreboding forecasts, it’s a particular delight to see him all smiles in the Collision Course mini-doc — waving his hands to the “Big Pimpin'” chorus, making dumb inside jokes about his “f–king Frappuccino” and laughing about his lack of soul as an angry white kid. Just watch the giddiness with which he and Shinoda lay their dolorous “In the End” vocals against the buoyant strings and pianos of “Izzo,” unable to control their excitement at their misery masterpiece being turned ecstatic. It’s infectious.
Don’t forget, by the way, that Collision Course was a huge hit in real time. Not only did the album debut at No. 1, it eventually went platinum, and spawned a top 20 Hot 100 hit in “Numb” / “Encore” — which also took home best rap/sung collaboration at the 2006 Grammys. It’s only in retrospect that the set is remembered as anything like a disaster, a failed exercise in hubris between two artists from different worlds. They were only in different worlds when we took the time and energy to separate them. Otherwise, it was all love, it was all pop music, and it was all fun as hell.