The Search continues, as album four finds US rapper, singer, and songwriter NF hit his stride with an effort as lyrically powerful and honest as ever – showing that the hard work on both himself and his craft is paying dividends.
People often say the third time is a charm. For NF, his fourth full-length is suitable cause for that old adage to be questioned. 2017’s Perception was great, debuting at the top of the Billboard 200; with songs I still spin regularly now. The Search, however, sees NF (real name Nathan Feuerstein) kick his game up a notch or three across the board, having again debuted at the Billboard 200’s top spot at the time of writing this. Unfortunately, the uninitiated immediately label NF an Eminem knock-off. I say unfortunately not to debase Eminem‘s talent – obviously – but because such lazy pigeonholing sells NF incredibly short.
Those familiar with past records know there is nothing shallow or copycat here. The lyrics aren’t superficial, nor do they parade the dream lifestyle touted by so many in the genre, desperate for dominance. You’ll find no trace of NF talking about a day of getting high, side chicks, attacking strangers, and rolling up to the club in a matte black Bugatti before bedtime. This may be in part due to his personal beliefs, but I think it runs rather deeper than that. NF‘s music doesn’t exist simply to one day afford him a private island – maybe just a ‘house in the hills’ (“When I Grow Up”), with the remaining amassed wealth left to family if lyrics are to be believed.
He bleeds, breathes, and believes the transformative and therapeutic power of music. Long-term fans know the intense challenges he’s faced; the walls he’s broken down. With an ongoing history of OCD and depression (as discussed on The Search at length such as on “Leave Me Alone”), what you hear across these 20 tracks is a man battling demons and defying critics – the biggest one being himself. There are moments where NF openly pokes fun at himself, his clothing choices, and other aspects of his world. It disarms the venom of others with a commendable self-awareness that is expected from someone whose music has run parallel to their personal struggles and experiences over the years.
The rapping is only one-half of the story on The Search. ‘Real music’, as Nate and his fans call his sound, is accurate in multiple senses, with instrumentation relying primarily on piano to flesh out the various samples, basslines, and beats employed. NF also sings sporadically throughout. It’s melodic and tasteful, not heavily autotuned (thank heavens). Tracks such as “My Stress”, “Thinking”, and probable long-term radio hit “Time” showcase how his melodies are often employed as a chorus or means to transition from one section to another. Elsewhere, personal highlights are “The Search”; “Hate Myself” with its drum-and-bass dynamics, “Returns”, and surprisingly soothing “Thinking”.
Whatever your opinion on NF’s form of hip-hop, or even the wider scene in general, a 20-track album is not to be scoffed at. Especially at a time when other artists settle for less. Additionally, only one track is an interlude – an excerpt of NF sharing how his most successful moment in life also happened to be his lowest. It lasts just 49 seconds before we return to familiar, beat-laden territory for the second half of the album.
At this stage, a feeling of similarity creeps into some of the musical composition, predominantly in chord progressions and tempo. However, variety of time signature, beat, and backing dynamic still give each one its own flavour: topped off nicely with the eloquence and energy of NF‘s delivery. His flow is copious and clear; never mumbling. He plays around the instrumentation, experimenting confidently with the tempo and ferocity of his rhymes for a compelling and wholehearted performance that is not as formulaic as some of the music hints.
Even accounting for an occasional lack of musical variety, The Search is an impressive next step in NF’s musical and personal journey. He genuinely seems to lament much of the fame he’s garnered (and its effects), reaching for a renown he can live on, rather than world domination. “Options” sees NF face the frank reality of his career choice – ‘I’ve gotta make it or make it/These are the options, these are the options’. Limited options indeed, but continued work on himself and his sound make his humble ambitions more likely with each album.