The last week of July produced an inadvertent first-week sales clash between Chance the Rapper and NF, a Michigan rapper with a significant cult following. NF is orders of magnitude less famous than Chance, but that didn’t stop his album The Search from outselling Chance’s wife-a-palooza The Big Day by 22 thousand units. It was Christian rap’s version of Kanye West’s Graduation beating out 50 Cent’s Curtis back in 2007.
In characterizing NF and The Search, Chance offers a useful point of comparison. Like Chance, NF frequently raps often about looking to God for strength and salvation. Like The Big Day, The Search harps on a single theme for 75 minutes. But the parallels end there. While Chance is an avatar of human joy, NF is an avatar of suffering. While Chance’s music eagerly hops between genres, NF’s production palette offers little beyond melodramatic, heavy-handed orchestral flourishes and cavernous reverb. His co-producer Tommee Proffitt has made music for TV shows like 24 and Quantico, and it shows. No matter how much The Big Day shrunk Chance’s expansive worldview down to repetitive spousal kowtowing, the album isn’t nearly as claustrophobic as The Search, a dark echo chamber in which NF raps passionately and loudly in attempt to process the realization that fame and success have only exacerbated by his already-suffocating depression. In turn, he suffocates the listener; making your way through The Search can feel like getting fitted for a straitjacket.
Stylistically, NF bears an uncanny resemblance to Eminem: the undulating cadences prone to blow like a volcano at any given syllable, the impulse to put pedal to metal and rap at top speed, the audacity to raid the thesaurus for words like “compliancy” in order to satisfy a rhyme scheme. They even wear the same hat. Yet, where Eminem’s tendency towards the profane gives him dimension, NF’s PG, swear-free raps flatten him. He is either a worse writer than he thinks he is, a bad editor, or both, because he dwells on his own misery so persistently and in such recursive language that his verbosity verges on word vomit. On “Leave Me Alone,” he admits that his severe OCD prevents him from parsing insights from mundane observations: “I might take a normal thought and think it’s so profound/ Ruminating, fill balloons up full of doubt/Do the same things, if I don’t, I’m overwhelmed/Thoughts are pacing, they go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round.”
Despite all this, NF is increasingly difficult to ignore, and not just because of his chart success. He is a genuinely engaging artist who raps with impressive intensity and clarity, if not nuance. He confronts his incurable sadness head-on, and it’s easy to identify with his mental health struggles. But for an album about depression, The Search contains a noticeable lack of tension and interior texture. NF raps like Mike Shinoda and carries the burden of Chester Bennington. But where Linkin Park made depression feel impassably real and viscerally threatening, like a giant, jagged shard of ice, NF renders his demons as formless blobs (his go-to metaphor for depression is a bouquet of black balloons). Still, there are moments on The Search that achieve the catharsis he seeks, soaring choruses like the ones on “Change” and “Time,” where his mighty, swelling production washes over him and he gives himself enough space between syllables to breathe.