Jay-Z and Linkin Park‘s collaborative EP Collision Course was both an experiment in cross-genre pollination and the commercial equivalent of an uncontested dunk: two wildly popular acts joining forces. The project was initiated by MTV, who asked the rapper to pick a partner to kick off a new series dubbed MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups. Jay-Z chose Linkin Park, who hit Number One on the Billboard Albums Chart for the first time in 2003 with Meteora.
Collision Course‘s mash-up-style single “Numb/Encore,” which went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, also turned out to be a savvy union from an artistic perspective. Black Album track “Encore,” produced by a young Kanye West, is full of roof-raising lines from Jay-Z – “If you want this encore/I need you to scream ’til your lungs get sore.” That’s more or less an exact prescription for “Numb,” a scratchy, gale-force number that finds Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington expelling everything his lungs can hold. It’s Meteora‘s final track, and it slams the door on the record with a rugged flourish.
“Numb/Encore” is actually less of a mash-up than a relay race. Jay-Z is responsible for legs one and two, rapping in his usual nimble, cooler-than-thou style, then Bennington sweeps in to run away with the thing: singing first in a clear but quavery voice, then switching into a roaring and assertive register in the song’s final section.
You can see the transition in real-time in the 2004 performance from MTV Ultimate Mash-Ups. In the song’s first half, Jay-Z controls the audience with conversational nonchalance. He raps to specific crowd members, jiggles his shoulders and points fingers.
Then Bennington steps to center stage, and the energy changes. His baseball hat is pulled low, face taut, microphone arm at a rigid 90 degree article, neck veins bulging. The hand-waving in the crowd becomes more focused, more intense, but Bennington doesn’t appear to register the fans. He’s focused on the release that comes when he strains for the raspiest part of his voice and sings, “I’ve become so numb.”
This is the track’s crucial element – and a crucial part of Linkin Park’s success: Bennington screaming about emotional paralysis with more feeling than most singers can muster.
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