When you look at Linkin Park’s whirlwind of an evolution — from the forefront of early 2000s rap/nu-metal to chart-topping pop music in 2017, bending and breaking genre barriers while still somehow filling stadiums — it’s important to look at Mike Shinoda’s evolution, too.
He’s been the token rapper, the MC, the occasional vocalist, the “hey-this-guy’s-got-a-pretty-good-voice,” the more-than-occasional vocalist, the producer, and — in the past decade or so, Linkin Park’s undisputed CEO and musical mastermind.
But for how heavy his production thumbprint felt in the studio — running band conversations like boardroom meetings, guiding his bandmates from the control room — Shinoda never seized the spotlight on stage. After all, Chester Bennington was the voice of Linkin Park; Shinoda just ran the show behind the scenes.
This couldn’t have been more apparent during the band’s most recent run of tour dates, with the six members arranged like a volleyball team: three up front, three in back. Bennington stood front and center, with Shinoda anchoring the back row on a platform stacked with keyboards and synth pads. This was what Linkin Park had become: Bennington close enough to shake hands with fans, Shinoda overseeing it all, leaving his perch throughout the set to rap and sing alongside his co-lead. It felt perfect, a pair of frontmen with complementary roles, each equally critical to the band.
Bennington’s death in July forced Shinoda to pivot once again, thrusting him into a spotlight he never wanted for himself. Shinoda became Linkin Park’s spokesman, left to grapple with his the loss of his best friend and simultaneously face questions of the band’s fate, all in the public eye.
Today, Shinoda gives us some answers with Post Traumatic EP, three remarkably frank tracks about the grieving process following Bennington’s death, branded simply as Mike Shinoda. Also releasing a trio of music videos (all shot mostly on what looks like an iPhone) for the EP, he made it clear in a social media post Thursday morning, “It is not Linkin Park, nor Fort Minor, it is just me.” Appropriately so, because this is Mike Shinoda at his most vulnerable, intimate and authentic.
It borrows elements from Fort Minor’s alt-hip-hop and Linkin Park’s sugary electro-pop, but this doesn’t feel like Fort Minor, and it definitely doesn’t feel like an extension of 2017’s One More Light — it’s less polished, stripped of the commercial gloss drowning Linkin Park’s critically panned latest record.
And that’s the point.
That’s why Post Traumatic EP feels so honest. The sound isn’t cloaked in Linkin Park’s larger-than-life shadow, its album contracts, expectations and bombastic production. This is one man channeling his sadness into nine minutes of music — art and self-expression in their truest form.
Linkin Park’s ability to tackle universal themes like metal health is what made them so appealing. Their lyrics were always vaguely personal but delightfully resonant, generic enough for stadiums to sing along to, but human enough for listeners to connect with. Shinoda ditches all of that on Post Traumatic EP. Rightfully so. These aren’t songs meant for fans. He’s not concerned with tight turns of phrase or tidy rhyme schemes. These are one man’s thoughts, his attempt to understand something as elusive as grief, to capture it long enough to materialize something raw.
The EP kicks off with “Place to Start,” its electronic ambience intricate but pleasantly restrained, providing a steady pulse for Shinoda’s voice to ride on. His vocals feel minimally produced, like you’re right there in the room, hanging on his every word.
I’m tired of being scared what I build might break apart
I don’t want to know the end, all I want is a place to start
He tosses in some voicemails at the end of the two-minute track, missed calls from friends checking in the wake of Bennington’s death. The “voicemail sound bite” is starting to feel trite, an attempt to arbitrarily inject some pseudo-personal narrative and mimic the technique used in some pretty groundbreaking albums (Frank Ocean, SZA, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar). Here, it feels completely at home, and hits harder than any voicemail sample I’ve heard yet.
Track No. 2 — “Over Again” — focuses on Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington memorial concert in October, where Shinoda once again played spokesperson, staying composed during what had to be a grueling three-hour emotional marathon, taking the stage for the first time since his co-fronman passed. Linkin Park branded the concert as a celebration, so Shinoda put on his everything’s-going-to-be-OK hat that night.
Now, he begins to let the guard down, as questions of “what’s next?” run rampant.
How do you feel, how you doing, how’d the show go?
Am I insane to say the truth is that I don’t know
My body aches heads spinning this is all wrong
I almost lost it in middle of a couple songs
And everybody that I talk to is like, “wow
Must be really hard to figure out what to do now”
Well thank you genius, you think it’ll be a challenge
Only my life’s work hanging in the fucking balance
On “Watching As I Fall,” Shinoda again copes with how to grieve in the public eye, now as the de facto mouthpiece for Linkin Park. Shinoda’s lyrics on the closing track are less explicit, but the references to “shit that’s 15 years old” are clearly specific and surely evocative.
They’re watching as I fall, to somewhere down below
But maybe I’m just falling, to get somewhere they won’t
Even if Shinoda won’t step into the spotlight, he’s letting listeners finally step into his own head, after months of boilerplate band statements and years of lyrics like “Y’all all get that same flow, I got that insane flow” and “I’ve been here killing it longer than you’ve been alive, you idiot.”
Bravado never suited Shinoda. Storytelling — personal, specific storytelling like we see here — feels much more on-brand.
Vulnerable and healing, Shinoda is at his best on Post Traumatic EP, the truest evolution of everything he’s produced thus far. Though each song’s sonic landscape grows progressively more nuanced and lush, the EP never explodes into a magniloquent One More Light-esque bridge or breakdown. Shinoda’s shrewd self-control in the studio lets his voice — paired with organic and poignant lyrics — take center stage, even if he’s still rejecting that role for himself.
With Bennington gone, it’s just Shinoda up there now, wondering what comes next, just like the rest of us.