How Nu-Metal Crept Back Into Popular Consciouness

The genre has become a key aspect of 2020 music...

When you think of nu-metal, your mind might go to 2001 and conjure up images of angsty teens wearing baggy clothes and silver chains while listening to Linkin Park, and for good reason. However, despite being something we think of as being as distinctly ‘turn-of-the-Millennium’ as New Labour or Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, nu-metal has seen an unlikely resurgence of sorts over the last couple of years, creeping up in the output of some of our most creative contemporary artists.

A combination of metal, alternative rock, hip-hop and pop sensibilities, nu-metal divided consumers and critics alike but saw a whole load of commercial success in the late nineties and early noughties with bands like Linkin Park, Korn, Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach at the forefront of the movement.

By the mid-noughties, the genre’s popularity was in sharp decline as rival genres like metalcore, emo and pop-punk became more prominent, but albums like Linkin Park’s 'Hybrid Theory' and Korn’s 'Follow The Leader' remain an important part of the modern rock canon, the former in particular being a generation-defining record and one that still holds up today, as anyone who’s ever belted out ‘One Step Closer’ or ‘Crawling’ at a rock night will testify.

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Despite being fairly short-lived, the influence of the movement runs deep. Drifting into the background over the last fifteen years, nu-metal has since popped up where we might not expect it.

“i super love nu metal haha, poss my fave genre tbh” tweeted Grimes in May 2018, three years after releasing her poppiest collection of tracks to date in the form of her 2015 album 'Art Angels'. By the end of November that year, the Canadian indie icon released the song ‘We Appreciate Power’ with frequent collaborator Hana. Darker than anything from her previous record, there was a clear nu-metal influence in the track that was well-received by critics.

It was one of two tracks that Grimes wrote with YouTube sensation and fellow artist Poppy. Intended for Poppy’s 2018 album 'Am I A Girl?', Grimes kept the song for herself following a reported feud between them. The other track they wrote together, ‘Play Destroy’, did feature on Poppy’s album, however, and showcased a similar nu-metal influence.

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In retrospect, the partnership between the two, feud notwithstanding, was an indicator of what was to come. Grimes released her most recent album 'Miss Anthropocene' in February, and it was indeed a lot darker in tone than her previous output – even if ultimately ‘We Appreciate Power’ only appeared as a bonus track on the Japanese CD release. Full of nu-metal and industrial influences, it's a concept album based around an “anthropomorphic goddess of climate change”, and the dystopian feel of the record is just right for 2020.

As for Poppy, the YouTube sensation swapped the mellow reggae-pop of her early material for nu-metal-tinged pop on 'Am I A Girl?'. An admirer of industrial metal behemoth Marilyn Manson, she combines electropop with nu-metal and industrial rock in much the same way as Grimes – her 2020 album 'I Disagree' sees Poppy delve into these genres further, to the point where it could be considered a nu-metal album with pop influences rather than a pop album influenced by nu-metal.

The mixing of pop with metal is not new, of course. From the glam metal of the ‘80s to Japanese phenomenon Babymetal, the intensity of metal has long been merged with the melodies and structures of pop music for a more commercial sound, but rarely has it been so experimental as during this current wave – particularly in the recent output of Rina Sawayama.

While Grimes and Poppy were flying the flag for nu-metal in the States, it was Japanese-British singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama who was doing likewise across the Atlantic. With her previous material having more of a pop-R&B vibe, her new direction might have come as a surprise but was very much well-received by critics. Her debut album 'SAWAYAMA' had everything from nu-metal to R&B to rock contained within its forty-three minutes, and it’s no surprise to see it place highly on several end-of-year rankings.

The way Sawayama blends genres so effortlessly sets her apart from everybody else out there at the moment and complements the subject matter of her music. The album touches on everything from masculinity to climate change, to Sawayama’s own Japanese heritage, and the intensity brought by nu-metal makes her lyrics feel all the more impactful.

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With nu-metal being so divisive, it feels fitting that it’s reared its head in modern hip-hop too. Emo rap; trap metal; SoundCloud rap – these loosely-defined subgenres of hip-hop are influenced by the genre amongst other styles of rock. From the late XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD to Ski Mask the Slump God and Scarlxrd, nu-metal is an influence on both music and style.

In many ways, nu-metal perfectly captures the zeitgeist of 2020, one of the most uncertain and unsettling years in living memory. When it’s combined with pop and electronic genres, we get a dystopian-like sound that’s still accessible enough for mainstream consumption.

For many young adults, nu-metal’s heyday is before their time. While the biggest songs and artists haven’t faded into obscurity, people who don’t remember – or weren’t born for – the original wave of nu-metal won’t be as aware of the genre’s negative connotations, meaning that contemporary artists have more freedom to play around it now.

Even back in 2015 there was Bring Me the Horizon with 'That’s The Spirit', an album that saw them move even further away from their deathcore origins to a more radio-friendly rock sound that incorporated nu-metal. Of course, we then saw innovative artists like Grimes, Poppy and Sawayama follow, along with the birth of nu-metal-influenced hip-hop subgenres.

Where will it all lead? Will we see Billie Eilish drop a nu-metal album? Probably not; the genre was very much a product of its time, and we’re as unlikely to see a full-blown nu-metal revival as we are to see Nickelback dropping the hottest album of 2021. However, as pop music continues to evolve and morph into new shapes and sounds, we could do a lot worse than to embrace this nod towards the late ‘90s genre.

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Words: Adam England

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