“The Search” is NF’s second No. 1 LP.

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 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.

Image
CreditUniversal Music

Judging by the tenor of the lyrics on “The Search,” NF might prefer that things stay that way. Self-lacerating misery is his sole subject. His internal well-being is a bonfire, and fame seems only to be an accelerant.

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.

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.

Source link