NF Has the No. 1 Album in the Country, and He Sounds Miserable

The rapper emerged from the Christian rap scene with Eminem-esque pop hits. Both he and YBN Cordae emphasize old-fashioned hip-hop values.

If the top of the Billboard Hot 100 this year has been deadeningly constant — Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” has been No. 1 for 18 weeks — the rapid churn at the top of the album chart has told a rowdier and truer tale about what’s happening in contemporary pop music.

So far, 24 different albums have been No. 1, none for more than two consecutive weeks. A No. 1 album these days indicates popularity, but also the power of release-week shenanigans: As major stars move toward short-notice album-drop strategies rather than extended rollout periods, they look for open windows that will all but ensure they’ll debut at No. 1. (Merchandise and ticket bundles frequently figure into the equation.)

Undoubtedly, then, Chance the Rapper was surprised to learn that his new album, “The Big Day,” was bested by “The Search” by NF, a white rapper from Michigan who got his start in the world of Christian rap.

As a stand-alone event, it’s not particularly meaningful: Chance is, broadly speaking, far more popular than NF. And yet an NF Merch victory demonstrated roughly the same thing as a hypothetical Chance victory would have — a triumph for a certain style of intricate rapping, intermittently popular over the years but not particularly in vogue right now, and a certain moral value set that’s also not terribly in style.

Both are artists at the margins of the dominant hip-hop discourses (online, the radio, and so on). They’re extremely popular cult figures with passionate but somewhat narrow fan bases.

“The Search” is NF’s second No. 1 LP.
“The Search” is NF’s second No. 1 LP.Credit…Universal Music

In 2017, NF’s third album, “Perception,” went to No. 1, and its single “Let You Down” reached No. 12 and became a pop radio staple. Almost every song on “The Search” is about how the success he has experienced in the last few years has been disorienting and fraught.

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It is alternately thrilling and draining, like trying to track individual bees in a swarm. As a rapper, NF is indefatigable, tongue-twisty and relentless — a clear inheritor of that other white rapper from Michigan, Eminem. NF’s rhyme schemes are tightly clustered, he raps fast, and he is constantly vibrating between exasperated and agonized.

“Leave Me Alone” feels like a real-time reckoning with success that arrives too quickly: “Hide my plaques inside a 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 them on the ground right next to my self-hatred.” On “My Stress” he confesses, “I don’t love my work the way I did” — who can relate?

There’s precious little negative space on this sometimes vigorous, sometimes exhausting album; listening to it is a lot like living inside a snare drum during a marching band’s halftime performance.

This is the Eminem in him. He has the polysyllabic rhymes down, and the self-laceration, too. But Eminem was a wild fantasist before he became a full-time solipsist; NF is seemingly only concerned with his own interior life.

When Eminem faded from ubiquity, the space he left in pop — where he gave high-level hip-hop technique its biggest platform — was far bigger than the hole he left in hip-hop, where even at his most famous, he was always a special-case oddity with few clear inheritors. Eminem remains a parent to the slapstick gore of early Odd Future, and his hyperdense rhyming is foundational to Logic and NF.

Back in the 1990s, this kind of rapping — the type that calls attention to its own flamboyance — used to be prized and rewarded. But in this era, it’s more a curiosity, even if proponents like Chance and Kendrick Lamar excel at it. To rap with such force and gymnastic verve in this climate of psychedelia and melody feels like an ethical choice as much as an artistic one.

You hear it as well in YBN Cordae’s debut album, “The Lost Boy,” which debuted at No. 11 on the album chart, a little below the Chance/NF fray. Cordae, too, is a dexterous lyricist, an adherent to old-style values in the spirit of mid-to-late-1990s rappers from New York (and nearby) who were comfortable in the pocket and always eager to cram verses with different patterns of rhyme — the stuff of impressive radio freestyles.

But his musical palette is far vaster than that of NF, who leans heavily on bruising, thudding production and choral singing so forceful it sounds like it’s barking in your ear. Cordae prefers soul-drenched production, and on his interludes, he directly engages with gospel music. For him, too, being principled is both an aesthetic concern and a philosophical one.
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In his limited interviews, NF has blanched at being called a Christian rapper, even though he emerged from that scene. And in a way, his protest is fair: He doesn’t rap about God or salvation any more than most mainstream rappers. In NF’s case, the classification is a kind of shorthand to exclude him from broader conversations about hip-hop, which he most assuredly belongs in. He’s an objectively strong rapper who makes work with a moral valence — just like Cordae, just like Chance, just like Lamar or Logic or J. Cole.

Where NF falls short is that he mostly works in one gear. Part of the agonizing he does on “The Search” is about not being taken seriously enough — “Why the game looking at me like I’m just a tourist?” he raps on “No Excuses” — and emerging into the spotlight only to find that the value system you hold so dear is not in fact that widely admired. It explains how NF is both very popular and yet not that popular at all, and how both of those things are getting under his skin.

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