This is the way that I cope with all my emotion
I’m taking pictures with thousands of people
But honestly, I feel like nobody knows me
I’m trying to deal with depression
I’m trying to deal with the pressure
How you gon’ tell me my music does not have a message
“Therapy Session” by NF
The raw emotion captured in every one of NF’s songs has garnered attention from critics and hip-hop lovers alike. NF (real name Nate Feuerstein) performed alongside artists like The Weeknd, Bob Dylan, and Chance the Rapper at this year’s Firefly Music Festival, which ran from June 15 to June 18. Just 25 years old, NF creates soul-baring music that has struck a nerve with a generation of Millennials seeking hope; but some worry the rapper emphasizes depravity over redemption in ways that stifle hope more so than encourage it.The phenomenon of NF’s painful but real music can’t be ignored.
He is often called a Christian rapper, but most of NF’s songs are not overtly Christian. NF’s first studio album, Mansion, came out in March 2015. Critics compared him to chart-topper Eminem. He dropped his second album, Therapy Session, in April with similar success. The album makes it clear that NF writes music with the aim of healing himself. Every track is like listening to him spill his innermost thoughts, like reading someone’s private diary. In “Oh Lord,” NF raps:
Everybody’s gon’ die/ Don’t everybody live though/ Sometimes I look up to the sky/ And wonder do You see us down here?
“I appreciate that he’s an artist that talks about real things and makes good music too,” 20-year-old Keith Zimmerman said. He discovered NF’s music in 2014, when the rapper only had an EP on the market. “He never really portrayed himself as an artist like Lecrae or Andy Mineo,” Zimmerman said. “He started out cussing, but then he saw it was unnecessary for a Christian. It’s important to him that he makes music for everyone and not specifically for Christians.”
NF’s music is trademarked by his candid expression of rage, frustration, and disappointment. His mother’s death by drug overdose in 2009 and his fans’ stories of abuse, self-harm, and mental illness influence his lyrics. One word to describe his music is heavy.
Some critics wonder if the darkness that seems to drive his music is healthy for him or his concertgoers.
Music writer Egypt Ali of blog NEO Music Scene attended an October 2016 NF show in Cleveland:
“From the first drop, all I could see was a hurt kid’s rage put to a beat performing in front of other hurting people,” she said. “I have to wonder if this whole room of kids feels this way. Maybe a review of his music might not be the only thing we have to consider.”
Ali is right to consider his music’s effects, but she may be underestimating the widespread hopelessness of today’s teens and young adults. TIME magazine’s Nov. 7 cover story “Anxiety, Depression, and the American Adolescent” by Susanna Schrobsdorff brought attention to the plight of 2 million American teenagers experiencing “depression that impairs their daily function.” They represent a spectrum of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. They include the weird kid in the corner of the lunchroom and the captain of the cheerleading squad. Distracted parents and a performance culture that pressures kids to have perfect grades, bodies, and relationships is to blame, wrote Schrobsdorff, who detailed the stories of teens who seem happy to others but once alone resort to cutting, starving themselves, and unhealthy relationships to escape their despair.
What Schrobsfdorff fails to realize is that teenage depression, and depression in general, are nothing new. This side of heaven, all people fight with feelings of worthlessness. Sometimes a hurting kid does not need a counselor to make him count his blessings or a friend to distract him from the pain. He needs someone who has felt what he is feeling to tell him that his pain is real, but there is a God on his side who is more real. That is NF’s overarching message, loud and clear on his track “All I Have.” He raps, “Don’t tell me that this isn’t real/ Don’t tell me this ain’t how I feel/ This is all I have.”
“He’s the realest rapper I’ve ever heard,” said 20-year-old Jared Midwood, a self-described “avid hip-hop fan.” Midwood continues:
“He doesn’t shirk the fact that if things in his life had gone just a little bit differently, he would probably be a pill junkie battle rapping in a strip club basement somewhere,” Midwood said. “But along with that realism is his deep sense of gratitude to God for saving him from the lifestyle he deserves.… He has a clear sense of morality in his music, but it’s not forced, [and] that’s a far more effective witness in my opinion.”
The rapper’s universal themes and subtle theology have attracted a diverse fan base. That’s something Zimmerman noticed at the two NF concerts he has attended, including a sold-out one in October at the Baltimore Soundstage.
“There are people there who are Christians and some who are not,” he said. “That’s something you don’t see at other Christian concerts, and I think it’s cool because his music reaches a wider audience.”
Zimmerman hopes that wider audience will come to faith through NF’s music. NF’s focus on the dark and dirty parts of life can make God feel distant, but his testimony and more God-centered songs show listeners a clear path to healing. His album sales shot past other Christian artists when his latest album Therapy Session secured number one on Billboard’s top Christian albums in its first week.
That’s why the phenomenon of his painful but real music can’t be ignored. His music is the opposite of the vapid, lustful pop often found on the radio, but despite the difference, NF is finding an audience.
Like the playwright John Patrick said, “Pain makes man think. Thought makes man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable.” Is dwelling on what’s unendurable the thing that helps NF and his listeners accept their sin and the sin of the world?
His themes of human depravity and the ubiquity of despair tie back into the grunge of the 1990s, which was “rooted in the feeling of damage,” as Sarah Ferguson wrote in the anthology The Rock History Reader. NF makes his damage clear—his parents’ divorce and his mom’s death from drug overdose—but the fact that he’s living, breathing, and reaching out to fans is his response to the ugliness. He’s been chosen for such a time as this to use his awful experiences to reach other young people going through pain. That’s a heavy task, but it seems to be one he’s ready to take on.