NF Vents and Soul-Searches With No Limits on ‘The Search’

Michigan rapper NF is an anomaly in hip-hop in numerous respects. For one, he began as a Christian rapper, and while he has since distanced himself from the reductive categorization, his music still bears many vestigial marks of that persuasion. It’s conspicuously devoid of profanity, and it includes occasional mentions of god, although only in measured, open-ended musings. The fact that NF’s 2016 sophomore album was titled “Therapy Session” is an apt indicator of what to expect from his latest release, “The Search,” which might be even more deserving of that name. NF made a major breakthrough with 2017’s “Perception,” at which point he suffered a mental breakdown, of sorts, plagued by existential questions about fame and identity. The new album, like “Perception,” is a work inspired by the shock of success. At twenty tracks crammed with quandaries of self-introspection and near tantrums, it’s a showcase of some truly exceptional rapping from an artist with no shortage of neurotic, creative energy.  

From the opening title track, it’s uncanny how much NF sounds like Eminem. While hordes of rappers are lazily given this comparison, this is a rare case in which it’s actually valid. NF has always been open about this, crediting Em as his primary influence, and you can hear it in his syllabic patterns, his inflections, and even in the very timbre of his voice. Lyrically, however, the similarities are scant. NF has the same pent-up aggression and unhinged spark, but not many particularly witty or provocative one-liners. Rather, he specializes in full, bare-faced, unpretentious honesty, and goes off with his ideas in a way that makes a compelling case for the album as a form of therapy. The music begins with full portentous, cinematic strings, and truly explodes midway into a raging onslaught, leaving a major first impression. “Leave Me Alone” begins with a crescendo, building to NF screaming “Hey!” at which point he continues the conversation with himself and the personifications of forces like fame that make up much of the running time. No major name has rapped with as much technical skill in a while as he shows at moments.

The cover art for “The Search” depicts NF pushing a shopping cart with a bunch of black balloons overhead. He has explained the image as representing the burdens hovering above him, free to fly away at any given moment, and the burdens that he lugs around, wandering in indecision with his cart. “Change” zeroes in on this idea with such shots in the dark as “Runnin’ from change / I’m lookin’ for change.” He dwells on the warring forces of complacency and trauma-fueled impetus, reflecting, “Positive thoughts are my rivals / I’m tryna be on their side though.” Elsewhere, he recounts life details, as on the anecdotal “Nate,” and looks to the future with “When I Grow Up,” a seemingly relevant title for a hip-hop song, although an outlier as one, with such modest lyrics as “I might not be the best in my field / But I guarantee that I’ma die real.” Such insecurities grow more pronounced on the Sasha Sloan-sampling “Only,” in which NF questions, “Am I motivated? Is my music dated? / Would I be the same if I was medicated?” He answers in the negative, in a triumph over the nefarious, predatorial pharmaceutical industry. 

The tracklist is sequenced with the centerpoint being “Interlude,” a recording of NF speaking about his professional apex coinciding with a mental abyss. This segues into “Hate Myself,” at which point, it’s becoming a bit of a pity party. Ironically, this turns out to be a more upbeat track, in terms of the faster-tempo, modified breakbeat. A few other songs veer stylistically. “Stress” finds NF singing, and sounding not quite in his element, cheapening the sound with a rather disposable hook. “Time” ventures beyond the individual concerns that make up most of the subject matter, exploring marriage struggles, This is ostensibly NF’s softer side, and seems a bit of an awkward stab at a radio hit with a sappy chorus, and a sudden devolution into a risible, head-nodding number. “I Miss the Days” is run-of-mill nostalgic fare with a crisp, jagged beat with suits NF’s free-flowing, contemplative, tortured expression. Here, the singalong comes as a natural aside, rather than a forced display, and it’s far more becoming. Gospel choirs near the end are a surprising addition, giving the music a vaguely evangelical spin. The most successful example of NF’s more melodic side comes on “Trauma,” an outlier piano and voice ballad with gorgeous strings, and simple, candid expression.

On the more rebellious side are songs like “Returns,” with darker, epic stylings and statements like “Normal to you is not to me, the outcast finally returns,” and “No Excuses,” on which NF admits, “I just like to break rules.” There’s a section with some of his most thrilling rapping, switching from rather deranged sing-song inflections to a frenetic, high-speed outburst. On “Like This,” he raps in a more laid back manner, and falls into a groove with a type of fluidity that few rappers pull off so naturally. “Options” shows him really raging and letting loose, repeating, “I gotta make it or make it,” perhaps the clearest expression of his crazy streak and obsessive drive. “Why” places him over dark cloudy piano and strident bursts of noise, returning to a common theme in his work, encapsulated by the phrase “too many faces.” Also mentioned in the title track, and featured on merchandise pieces, it refers to the alienation felt from staring into a crowd of adoring but distant fans, and trying to make sense of the whirlwind that comes with sudden success.

One of the advantages specific to hip-hop as an art form is how much space the format allows for free expression. Unrestricted by verse-chorus-verse confines, someone with a lot to say can really say it. Ironically, it’s turned out rappers, on the whole, have generally come to say less than any other type of artist. That’s certainly not the case with NF. The hour and sixteen-minute running time, almost exclusively dedicated to angsty ravings and cathartic expulsions, would likely exhaust a licensed therapist. That said, even if it can seem indefatigable, it’s an outstanding release from a rapper that stands out for both his technical prowess and fearless honesty.

The Search” is available July 26 on Apple Music.