This article was written by Evie Fordham, a journalism student at Patrick Henry College and a follower of Christ. It is the result of interest in why NF’s music has resonated with the millennial audience.
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 for the 25-year-old rapper. NF (real name Nate Feuerstein) wrapped his 27-show Therapy Session Tour on Nov. 2. His soul-baring music has struck a nerve with a generation of millennials seeking hope, but some worry the rapper emphasizes depravity over redemption.
NF is often called a Christian rapper, but most of his songs are not overtly Christian. His 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 to heal himself. Every track is like listening to him spill his innermost thoughts. 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 NF’s Oct. 19 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.”
“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,” he said. “But along with that realism is his deep sense of gratitude to God for saving him from the lifestyle he deserves… He doesn’t cram religion down peoples’ throats. 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, 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. His 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 last two albums have been a compelling but painful pill to swallow for rap fans, and here’s to hoping NF’s next album is just as relevant but with a larger dose of hope as he continues to mature in his style and his faith.