Pop music has a new overlord, and pop culture has a new Person You Need to Know About Now, and hip-hop has a new Greatest Rapper Alive. I don’t make the rules. Say hello to Nathan Feuerstein, the Michigan rapper known professionally as NF, whose fourth major-label album, The Search, topped Monday’s Billboard album chart, edging out, yes, Chance the Rapper’s The Big Day, a shocking upset that maybe shouldn’t be so shocking. You have flippant questions. We have flippant answers. Just be aware going in that this dude is not flippant in the slightest.
Don’t be flippant. NF has in fact already gone through his “Who?” phase—The Search isn’t even his first bow at no. 1. His 2017 album Perception, a.k.a. the one with the cage on the cover, likewise topped the charts, beating out the first Lil Pump record, so, you’re welcome, America.
2. Should I have known who he was back then?
Central to NF’s perma-underdog appeal is that you probably didn’t, unless you happened to be big into Christian rap. The most thoughtful reviews of his first two proper albums, 2015’s Mansion and 2016’s aptly named Therapy Session, tended to come from sites like Cross Rhythms and jesusfreakhideout.com.
3. Does NF have complicated feelings about being labeled as a Christian rapper?
Indeed. “To me,” he told Idolator in 2016, “it’s like, if you’re a Christian and you’re a plumber, are you a Christian plumber?”
4. Is that a rhetorical question?
Don’t be flippant.
5. Are you sure this isn’t G-Eazy doing a bit?
He wishes. I would say NF is a better rapper than G-Eazy, but I’m not listening to the amount of G-Eazy raps it would require to back that up.
6. Wait, is NF the Extremely Eminem guy?
NF’s big breakout was the multiplatinum Perception single “Let You Down,” which was very much a Recovery-era “moody sung hook and even moodier raps” proposition (and a top-20 pop hit). “I’d listen to Eminem nonstop,” NF told Numéro magazine in 2017, recounting his early years. “I’d write out his texts in my school books, I’d watch his videos over and over … he’s the one who gave me the courage to think that I could do hip-hop as well.”
6. Should Eminem be, uh, worried?
Not about this guy specifically, no. The Christian way to put it would be that NF’s Eminem influence is more emotional than technical; as the “Let You Down” video indicates, we’re dealing with a supremely intense person exorcising, at great and in fact ongoing length, some supremely intense personal demons.
7. Is this the right article format/tone to get into any of that?
8. Does this guy have … happier tunes?
Not really. “When I hear my songs on the radio,” he added to Numéro, “I sometimes find them really depressing!” The NF aesthetic, from the album covers on down, is dolorous and austere in the extreme, all black balloons and gorgeously apocalyptic landscapes. That’s “songs on the radio,” plural, though. The Search has yet to yield a “Let You Down”-sized pop hit, but he delivered the aggro “When I Grow Up” to a rapt crowd at Lollapalooza on Friday, with the cage from the Perception cover sitting onstage and everything. Rap- and even pop-wise, the kids haven’t exactly been into happiness for awhile now, after all.
Speaking of which!
9. So this guy beat Chance the Rapper, huh?
Yeah. Tough beat for Chance. The biggest recent chart upsets and fracases—think Travis Scott over Nicki Minaj back in 2018 or Tyler, the Creator over DJ Khaled back in May—tend to be overanalyzed as societal indicators or single-artist referendums. The pop charts these days are somehow both more accurate and way messier than ever before, what with all the album-equivalent streams and merch bundles and whatnot; it’s all simultaneously bottomless and not that deep. But given Chance’s slightly more complicated public image nowadays, it’s certainly notable that a record as grim and self-lacerating as The Search ground out a victory over a much higher-profile record as “relentlessly optimistic,” in Ringer rap guru Micah Peters’s words, as The Big Day. Score another one for the mopers.
10. How’s Chance taking it?
I just want to reiterate that I don’t want to kill myself, nor am I ashamed of loving my wife. I think I just wanted to say out loud that I see the vibes— The Big Day out now (@chancetherapper) August 5, 2019
11. How’s NF taking it?
Per Twitter, he is eternally grateful to all his fans, but The Search is a very long (20 tracks and 76 minutes) and very glum (those tracks include “Hate Myself,” “Trauma,” and “I Miss the Days”) account of all the ways that fame and fortune have already failed to make NF happy. On “Leave Me Alone,” he ruminates on his curiously low profile for a chart-topping rapper: “I went from nobody to kinda famous / Hide my plaques inside the closet, I just can’t explain it / My wife, she tells me that she’s proud and thinks that I should hang ‘em / But I just leave ‘em on the ground right next to my self-hatred.”
NF is not not a Christian rapper; God still comes up quite often. (“I’m just hoping that God helps me to stop stressing,” he raps on a song called “My Stress.”) But his artistic journey, thus far, is about trying and failing to fill a void, not filling it.
12. How tall is Royce da 5’9?
Sorry, this was from another thing I was working on. NF is 6 feet even, BTW.
13. Is The Search a “good” album?
Put it this way: It’s a little too true to the emotional spirit and sonic palette of latter-day Eminem. NF is a guy who knows his own limitations, and The Search certainly sets and maintains a melancholy and monochromatic mood; things get gnarly only when he roams too far afield or gets even slightly cocky. From a horrorcore-adjacent jam called “Returns”:
I’m an amateur’s, what you think
So you stand there in disbelief
Till I dislocate both your feet
That’s what happens, you step to me
Not too graphic, but not PG
Lots of action in every scene
I’m kidnapping all of your dreams
Hold ‘em hostage and watch ‘em scream
NF is better off staying in his lane and driving exactly 55.
14. What do some of The Ringer’s other rap enthusiasts think of NF?
15. Excellent reference. Can I get a second second opinion?
16. Is anyone over there even remotely open-minded?
17. Are flippant articles like this one a boon to NF in the long run?
Absolutely. Jovial mass-media disrespect only strengthens him, and proves that he’s struck a nerve, and allows him—and, crucially, his fans—to revel in the fact that he’s a chart-topper with virtually no help from your typical chart-topping gatekeepers, snooty critics included. It perfectly suits NF’s purposes that The Search hitting no. 1 is largely being reported as the story of Chance the Rapper not going no. 1; he’s the underdog even in victory. But revel, again, is very much the wrong word: Further success is bound to only result in further apprehension. “Nate,” the fraught centerpiece of an album that’s basically all fraught centerpieces, comes off like Eminem’s Stan writing a furious letter to his doomed future self:
Yeah, Perception’s coming next, we ‘bout to reach the masses
It sounds awesome, at the same time, it doesn’t matter
At 27, we’ll make millions, but it’s really sad ‘cause
You’ll learn to realize that none of this will make you happy
Congratulations are in order, then, to absolutely nobody.