It’s been a little over a decade since Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water became the fastest-selling rock album of all time, a record that’s at this point unlikely to be broken. Generally speaking, being a cultural phenomenon on that scale for even a fleeting moment can pretty much guarantee a band a sizable fanbase for life—see the previous holders of that record, Pearl Jam, who’ve spent the ensuing years seemingly doing everything not to sustain their peak level of popularity, yet still play arenas. But Gold Cobra, the first album with Limp Bizkit’s original lineup since Starfish came out in 2000, will almost certainly sell a tiny fraction of the million units Limp Bizkit were once able to move in the space of a week. Even the active rock stations that still play the band’s early hits haven’t touched the lead single “Shotgun,” which was sent out for radio adds over a month ago; it hasn’t appeared on a single Billboard chart, though it did peak at No. 28 on RPM‘s Canadian Rock chart. Last year, they canceled a U.S. tour amid rumors of low ticket sales. This is a band that has experienced the backlash to end all backlashes.
Guitarist Wes Borland, long considered Limp Bizkit’s musical guiding light, left and rejoined the group twice over the past ten years, during which they released only two records: 2003’s underperforming (but still platinum) Results May Vary and the 2005 EP The Unquestionable Truth (Part 1), which sold little with no advance promotion or singles. But the drop in Limp Bizkit’s profile has less to do with their absence or disappointment in those projects, and more to do with how utterly divisive the band was at their peak of ubiquity.
Frontman Fred Durst comes out swinging on Gold Cobra, eager to remind listeners why they loved—or, more likely, hated—him in the first place. His verses on “Bring It Back” showcase his squeaky, animated flow over a thumping drum machine beat that occasionally breaks for a spastic rock chorus. By the end of the song, he’s dredging up the past and defiantly linking it to the present, and even the future: “Remember all the ’90s things and ’90s hits we laced like this/ Comin’ to you live 2012 and hell, there’s still no shit like this.” And soon, inevitably, comes the barely coherent hostility, with updated cultural references: “Tie you up to electric chairs and toast them guts like nuts on Christmas/ Never worry if anybody gonna like me, don’t give a damn if anybody give a fuck/ I’ma say what I want, you can look it up/ Wikipedia probably gonna fuck it up.”
On “Douche Bag”—which the band wanted as Cobra‘s lead single, a plan that was nixed by Interscope—Durst doesn’t seem aware of how often the title phrase has been directed at him. Like Kanye West on “Runaway,” he instead hurls the insult outward; the chorus simply consists of the refrain “Douchebag, I’ma fuck you up.” And then the song ends with a surprisingly nimble swing jazz breakdown and cackling laughter, an unexpectedly whimsical moment that has Borland’s name written all over it.
While Borland does bring a bit of his ingenuity to the proceedings, with odd squeals of texture amid the heavy riffing, his weirdness and creativity has always been a bit overstated in contrast to Durst’s raging id. Truth is, even if Borland ever took the reigns, Limp Bizkit probably wouldn’t suddenly turn into Mr. Bungle, or even Primus. But in a twisted, sacrilegious way, he is the Keith to Fred’s Mick, and that odd-couple partnership does drive the band’s best moments.
Durst has generally spent a lot of the last decade revealing a softer side few believed he had: briefly trading his signature red baseball cap for a black one after 9/11, wearing Smiths shirts, making his feature film debut as a director with a coming-of-age indie drama starring Jesse Eisenberg, lip syncing to “Melt With You” in a hilarious YouTube video. Limp Bizkit released a medley of Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” as a single from its 2005 comp Greatest Hitz, and covered Coldplay’s “Yellow” on tour in 2010.
The kinder, gentler Durst is not on display on Gold Cobra, which mainly focuses on turning the clock back to the Chocolate Starfish days and emphasizing the hip-hop component of their rap/rock sound. Most of the other big acts from that genre’s that explosion around the turn of the millennium (Linkin Park, Kid Rock) have enjoyed continued success largely by dialing down the hip-hop and singing more. By comparison, Limp Bizkit, who always had a healthy amount of brooding, melodic songs, defiantly stick to rap-rock with the exception of one song, “Walking Away.”
At one point, Durst offers a belated nod to recent hip-hop trends with a song called “AutoTunage” in which he sings through AutoTune. The a capella interlude through the vocal software, however, is far more amusing than the song that follows; he sings the chorus of “Nookie,” then bemusedly declares, “We gotta try this shit over some heavy metal, I don’t give a fuck, man, this shit’ll sound crazy. I’ma do it, I’ma lay it down Bizkit style with the AutoTune.”
At the peak of their popularity, Limp Bizkit frequently courted hip-hop street cred, or at least flaunted their starpower, by collaborating and touring with some of rap’s biggest stars. Earlier this year, news arose that Gold Cobra would feature Lil Wayne and Raekwon, and that Gene Simmons would appear on a spoken-word intro. None of those guests showed up, though, which leaves more room for the frontman’s divisive flow. Toward the end of “Shark Attack,” Durst suddenly takes on a slow, blocky cadence reminiscent of “It’s Like That” by Run DMC: “Swimmin’ with/ Sharks ain’t easy/ They just want/ To kill and eat me.” Later, after promising to turn said sharks’ great white ass to sushi, he clarifies his intent for anyone who might be confused: “This is my/ Old school technique.”
I certainly understand the backlash—I hated Limp Bizkit before it was cool. The girl I took to the homecoming dance was an earlier adopter in the surprisingly female-heavy fanbase that eventually helped the band’s 1997 debut Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$ go double-platinum. I rolled my eyes at early singles like “Counterfeit” and watched them break into the big time with a goofy cover of George Michael’s “Faith,” at a time when ’80s covers were the kind of thing that ska bands did to go gold. But the Bizkit just kept getting biggier and goofier—and, oddly enough, better. I grudgingly enjoyed the hits from 1999’s blockbuster Significant Other, and by Chocolate Starfish I was pretty much a fan.
If Gold Cobra crashes and burns as spectacularly as it seems like it will, it won’t be a huge tragedy; the album plays to the band’s strengths, but there’s simply nothing here as catchy as “My Way” or as infectiously fun as “Break Stuff.” Part of me can’t help but root for them, if only because they still exist in a world that wants so badly to forget it ever embraced them. Ten years ago, Creed were the earnest Christian-grunge yin to Bizkit’s cartoonish rap-rock yang, the only other blockbuster rock band as hated as they were loved. Their own reunion album, 2010’s Full Circle, was hardly a return to their peak popularity, but did respectable numbers, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and yielding three charting singles. Right now, a comeback on even that modest scale would look pretty good to Limp Bizkit.