Since its beginnings as an art form, hip-hop has served as the ultimate outlet for frustrated youth. While the South Bronx burned in the 1970s, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash threw block parties to preach positivity. As suburban sprawl in the 1980s turned California’s inner cities into gang-riddled war zones, MCs like Too Short, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre transformed the gangsta lifestyle into a booming brand. And in the early ’90s, fed up with the small-scale hustle of life in Staten Island housing projects, the RZA and eight of his closest friends built a road map to international success with the sprawling Wu-Tang Clan collective.
Now, hip-hop critics will turn blue in the face swearing it’s all a ruse — senseless violence, rampant misogyny and the glorification of drug culture can’t qualify as artistic excellence, right? But in today’s multifaceted rap world, a million different MCs exist on a million different points on the spectrum. And yet most of them are still doing the same thing: rapping about the shit they have to deal with on the regular just to get it off their chests. That’s Nathan Feuerstein’s MO — it’s just that the rapper known as NF is particularly adept at pouring his heart out.
His most recent album (and current tour) is called Therapy Session, and where previous full-length Mansion took a subtly veiled look at the inside of NF’s mind, Therapy Session is laser-focused in its slashing reflection on life’s miseries. “How Could You Leave Us” might be the most devastating song in the hip-hop canon. It will rip your heart out from its very first words, as Feuerstein reflects on his mother’s fatal overdose in 2009: “I don’t know what it’s like to be addicted to pills/But I do know what it’s like to be a witness to kills/Mama told me she loved me, I’m thinking this couldn’t be real/I think of you every time I get a whiff of that cigarette smell.” It takes only a minute for NF’s delivery to red line, his mix of despair, anger and strength impossible to turn away from.
Raised rough in rural Michigan and raging against his own personal machine, it’s easy to call NF — spitfire voice, hyper-detailed narrative, zeal for shit-talking — Eminem 2.0. (Yes, Feuerstein, like Marshall Mathers, is white. But in this diverse day and age of Internet-fueled intersectionality, does that even matter?) What makes NF the diametric opposite of Eminem is that the 25-year-old upstart, unlike the 44-year-old icon, is openly Christian. He’s signed to Capitol Records’ Christian imprint. His use of foul language is next to nil. And you won’t find many mentions of rap’s holy trinity of licentiousness (sex, drugs and money) in his songs.
Yet NF is most definitely not a Christian rapper. Every interview he’s granted eventually comes around to the C question, and every time, Feuerstein delivers a variation of the same answer: “If I build houses and I’m a builder, do I only build houses for those who only believe in God?” No matter the message (or its religious construct), NF’s skills are nevertheless indisputable. On “Grindin’,” he builds himself up to a primal roar, savaging the complacency of B-list rappers, while chest-rattling beats on “Real” only strengthen NF’s jaw-dropping breakneck rhymes. But it’s hard to imagine a 25-year-old revealing so many of his shortcomings — so many confrontations with doubt, sin, anger and fear — as NF does on “Therapy Session,” running through a laundry list of reasons why music is the only thing keeping him sane, successful and standing.
Maybe that’s why the wider hip-hop community isn’t sure what to do with him yet, even though his album Therapy Session topped the iTunes hip-hop chart and nearly cracked the Billboard Top 10 the same week that Prince died and Beyoncé released Lemonade. “It’s awesome,” he told Idolator.com in May. “What’s encouraging to me is I have a fan base that’s, like, ‘We want to support Nate. We want to support this music.’ I don’t think you can predict it, but I’m very happy to see it. It shows your fans really care about you.”
The established rap game’s notoriously parsimonious critics? Not so much — at least not yet. Yes, you can write NF off as a niche-driven Christian rapper. And it’s easy to laugh when he talks effusively about his love for Ed Sheeran and his desire to collaborate with Twenty One Pilots. But it’s hard to ignore a guy when his songs turn up in Empire trailers, ESPN highlight reels and the 2016 version of the most popular video-game franchise in the world, Madden NFL. You can’t dismiss a string of sold-out club and theater dates, along with the endless string of rave reviews accompanying them. And when do you witness his ferocious energy live, as I did when I randomly stumbled on his afternoon set at ACL Festival in Austin last month, you will no longer be able to resist the magnetic force field of his raw talent.
“I feel like it’s just starting,” NF told Idolator.com about the slow growth of the wider hip-hop community’s acceptance. “I feel like my name is being brought up in conversations, but hip-hop is a very respect-oriented thing. You earn respect or you get to a certain level and then people start respecting you, or an artist who’s already respected kind of puts their arm around you and [is] like, ‘Yo, you need to check out NF.’ I’m still on the grind.”