Therapeutic Rap-Rock: Tech N9ne’s Nu-Metal Mystery

Aaron Dontez Yates, best known for his work as rapper Tech N9ne, has always had a habit of sneaking his way outside of the hip-hop genre and mixing in with rock and metal genres; it’s become one of his most appealing features. He’s a verbose and skilled rapper, but it’s his desire to experiment that has earned him so much attention from so many different genres. Therapy is Tech N9ne’s latest adventure, a return to the ancient art of nu-metal. The fact that Yates is moving into this territory is something that simply must be noted. Despite continued support from genre mainstays like Korn and Limp Bizkit, the nu-metal genre is practically abandoned. Deftones departed back in 2000 with the spacey White Pony, while Linkin Park discarded their nu-metal influences after 2003’s Meteora. So why in the world would Tech N9ne dive into a genre that’s barely alive? His logic behind the decision is still fuzzy, but what’s even more notable is how Yates is able to inject a shot of adrenaline to this otherwise drained subgenre.

With nu-metal producer Ross Robinson on board, Tech N9ne’s newest EP is bursting with heaviness and weighted groove. It’s a clear throwback to the late 90’s-early 2000’s era of metal, and as an effort to breathe new life into that struggling subgenre, Therapy is actually a remarkable success. “Hiccup” is a record-scratching blitz that takes hardcore rap and mixes it with clamoring beats and chugging riffs: it’s a track that’s chock full with intensity and it’s a highlight on the album. However, other songs on the EP don’t work out as well. “Public School” sounds like something ripped right from a mid-era Korn album (with a guttural yell sounding eerily similar to the start of Korn’s single, “Blind”). The first few songs on the album tend to pride themselves on nu-metal tropes like beefed-up rhythms, but without much refinement. But overall, despite some very impressive performances, Therapy still has a persistently dated vibe. If you don’t have a history listening to early nu-metal like self-titled-era Korn or Adrenaline-era Deftones, it’ll be very hard to see what the big deal is. Still, for an album rooted in a near-obsolete subgenre, Therapy is still an admirable work.

The songs that move away from the nu-metal trappings are also very well done. “I.L.L.” is a smashing hitter with a club-metal vibe over Tech N9ne’s rapping, while the heavy, but gloomy “Stop the Sailor” closes out the album with panache. Vocalist Caroline Dupuy Heerwagen’s performance on the hypnotic “Shame on Me” is stellar (though it’s the only guest appearance that really stands out). Therapy’s best feature is still Tech N9ne’s rapping, which hasn’t lost its luster. You won’t hear as much rapid-fire chopper rapping like in All 6’s and 7’s, but his rhymes are still intelligently constructed and poetically lyricized. His creative use of rhythms has earned him critical acclaim over the years and his rhythmic prowess is still very prevalent on Therapy. It’s just in a more subdued form.

Tech N9ne’s courage to break out of the rap genre is admirable, though his decision to revitalize nu-metal with Ross Robinson on board isn’t without its issues. The less-than-stellar songs feel overworked and claustrophobic; the beats are too heavy and a bit too cacophonous to bring out that perverse magic of nu-metal. But even during the weakened moments, Therapy has a good amount of things to love. It’s still a fine example of Tech N9ne’s versatile skill as a musician with a lot of cleverly implemented and substantial hooks. While the album will more than likely be appreciated by classic nu-metal fans the most, anyone who has followed Tech N9ne’s rap discography from the start will still find his skill to be as razor-sharp as ever. It’s not Yates’ best work, but considering his more-than-impressive track record, Therapy is still an interesting listen.

Retro Rewind: Deftones Signify the Death of Nu-Metal with White Pony

Deftones jumped off the nu-metal train right before it crashed. Limp Bizkit was just starting to get obnoxiously popular, while Korn was continuing their run through grindy, drop-D tuned metal. Deftones, unsatisfied by relying on the growingly stale nu-metal conventions, wowed everyone with their third LP, White Pony, which had all the heaviness of their previous two albums combined with spacey and textured compositions sounding more like The Smiths or The Cure. White Pony is a finely crafted mix of rhythmic heaviness and dreamy synth experimentation that shows what Deftones would become later in their lifecycle. It’s a fantastic album that defines the band’s unorthodox influences and puts the waning nu-metal fad in its place.

The brief traces of melodic creativity seen on the band’s second album Around the Fur in songs like “Be  Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” and “MX” are no longer just traces. White Pony is a very multi-layered journey in surreal metal/alternative bliss. Singer Chino Moreno flaunts his love for My Bloody Valentine and The Cure with serene and breathy vocals in the gorgeously atmospheric “Digital Bath.” The less aggressive songs like “Teenager” also let newly inaugurated DJ/keyboardist Frank Delgado show his chops in creating beautiful and airy soundscapes, something that felt limited during his guest performances on the past Deftones albums. On the album’s crowning achievement, the Maynard James Keenan-guested “Passenger”, the chorus restlessly bursts from a subconscious steadiness, one that stands as one of the best songs ever composed by the band. These lengthy moments of sensory fluidity are ambitious moves that turn out to not only make a great album, but also define the band’s sound entirely going forward.

But don’t think that the focus on dreamy trip hop influences means that Deftones have gone soft. These Sacramento metalheads are still masters of the rhythmic grind. Guitarist Stephen Carpenter still has a very distinctive playing style compared to the metal guitarists of thrash metal and when combined with bassist Chi Cheng’s thick and weighted beats and drummer Abe Cunningham’s steady drum pacing, White Pony is a monster of gravitational heaviness. “Elite” is a thunderous and ravenous metal track, where Chino Moreno belts out with “when you’re ripe, you’ll bleed out of control.” The band never goes overly intricate with their sound; there still aren’t any expansive solos, no polyrhythmic drum fills, nothing impossible to speak of. It just fits together so incredibly cohesively. The songwriting of White Pony demonstrates not minimalism, but fundamentalism, where the ideas of both nu-metal and alternative trip hop are stripped down and mixed together perfectly.

By stepping away from the genre they helped create, Deftones signified the looming death of nu-metal with White Pony. The fundamentals of rhythmic metal are still there, but Deftones defy the other musicians in the genre by never keeping themselves in one position. Alongside the dreaminess of “Digital Bath” and “Teenager” stand ferocious metal tracks like “Elite” and “Feiticeira.” This contrast is a bit sudden throughout the album, but you can see brilliant traces of cohesion in “Knife Prty” and “Change (In the House of Flies).” Though nu-metal may have been continuing further in bands like Linkin Park for years onward, Deftones showed that the fad had been drained of creativity and that more needed to be brought to the table. Deftones signified the beginning of the end of nu-metal, but with White Pony, they opened a brand new side of the brain for metal to explore.

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Retro Rewind is a retrospective column by Pittsburgh Music Magazine contributor Alex Carlson.