A young white teenager from Michigan, using his initials as a stage name, emerges on the hip-hop scene; his rapid-fire lyrics reflect the wounds of a broken home; and his music quickly becomes a cultural phenomenon, earning a Billboard-topping album, triple-platinum single, and millions of fans around the world.
If you grew up in the nineties, you know this story well. It’s the story of Marshall Mathers, or Eminem (originally “M&M”), who captured the world’s attention with his Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers LPs.
But it’s also the story of Nathan Feuerstein, or NF, a 28-year-old rapper who just released his fourth studio album, The Search—which, like his last album Perception, has quickly topped the Billboard charts.
Like Eminem’s, NF’s story is far from idyllic. After his parents divorced, he was physically abused by his mother’s boyfriend. In 2009, his mother, who was addicted to prescription pills, died of an overdose. (His song about his mother, “How Could You Leave Us,” is a heartbreaking anthem for the children of the opioid epidemic.) NF was catapulted to fame a few years ago with the hit single “Let You Down Hoodie,” and the Michigan kid who listened to Eminem as a teenager—and still carries obvious signs of his influence, especially when he indulges in some old-fashioned rap braggadocio—is now drawing comparisons to him.
But NF’s music also represents a clear departure from Eminem’s. Slim Shady flourished over Dr. Dre’s bouncy, sometimes goofy beats of the early aughts; The Search is driven by the foreboding, dramatic trap beats popularized a decade later. Eminem often indulged in arrogant, comic takedowns of popular culture; NF tends to plunge inward—more in the manner of the Rhymesayers Entertainment roster—ruminating over his own insecurities.
And the biggest difference between NF Merch and Eminem is at once the least obvious and most surprising: NF is a Christian who was originally signed to a Christian music label. But as he explains in one interview, echoing Flannery O’Connor: “I’m a Christian, but I’m just an artist.
The video for the opening track introduces the existential imagery running through this unique album. Donning dark clothes and a trademark hat with the word “REAL,” the rapper pushes an empty shopping cart with a bunch of black balloons (which, at one point, he gestures to when referring to his “burdens”) through a desolate landscape peppered with figures in white jumpsuits. NF begins with a little pep talk with himself: “Hey Nate. How’s life? I don’t know. It’s alright. I’ve been dealing with some things like every human being and really didn’t sleep much last night.” As the song progresses, we journey deeper into NF’s struggles with mental health, which apparently reached a low point during his own recent rise to success:
The sales can rise
Doesn’t mean much though when your health declines
See we’ve all got something that we’ve trapped inside
That we try to suffocate you know hoping it dies
Try to hold it under water but it always survives
Then it comes up out of nowhere like an evil surprise
Then it hovers over you to tell you millions of lies
You don’t relate to that, must not be as crazy I am
The point I’m making is the mind is a powerful place
And what you feed it can affect you in a powerful way
It’s pretty cool right? Yeah, but it’s not always safe
Just hang with me, this will only take a moment, okay?
Just think about it for a second, if you look at your face
Every day when you get up and think you’ll never be great
You’ll never be great, not because you’re not, but the hate
Will always find a way to cut you up and murder your faith
The video for the next track, “Leave Me Alone,” ups the ante. With the opening word—“panic-stricken”—we follow the disheveled rapper as he pushes his cart into a nightmarish abandoned carnival where even more figures in jumpsuits wander in a lobotomized stupor. NF—anguished, animated, searching—appears like them in some respects, but is clearly a stranger in this strange land. He demands his own obsessive doubts and fears leave him be, apparently to no avail; and in a spiritually suggestive moment at the end of the video, he hands his balloons over to the hand of a figure hidden behind a curtain.
The pair of songs introduce us to NF’s relentless confrontation with his own mental and spiritual darkness and fallen self. Georges Bernanos wrote of “the bottommost foundation of man’s soul—the secret self-hatred that is probably the deepest part . . . of every life.” In most of the songs on The Search—from “Hate Myself” to the haunting, Psalm-like “Trauma,” which showcases NF’s singing talent—it’s an open secret.
But The Search is not all doom and gloom. Man, Pascal wrote, is both wretched and great—and he is great because he knows he is wretched. NF’s music isn’t just about the experience of suffering and sin; it’s also about the sheer grace of facing it and wanting to overcome it. Human nature resists grace, as O’Connor observed, “because grace changes us and the change is painful,” and The Search is as much about these painful changes as it about unchanging pains. In “My Stress,” he longs for humility and detachment: “I’m a hostage to my own pride; most important things in life to me are things I know I can’t buy”; in “Time,” a song for his new wife.
He admits his faults and asks for her patience; and in “Change,” he embraces the long, difficult, painful task of sloughing off the old self. “Last year, I felt suicidal,” he raps at the end of the last verse. “This year, I might do something different like talking to God more.” And this isn’t the only time on the album that NF’s Christian faith reveals itself as the cause for his hope. In “Only,” he admits: “Wishing that I’d pray a little more often and put more time into my faith.” In “Nate,” he raps to his younger self: “If you got questions or you need advice, then talk to God, cause he’s the only one that listens even when you think he isn’t.”
While the music world is busy comparing NF to Eminem, a better point of reference for NF’s deeply human—and ultimately, Christian—search for grace in and through life’s darkness is Johnny Cash. There is a memorable scene in Walk the Line where a young Cash auditions for a record executive by singing a bland, predictable gospel song. The executive balks at the performance and offers a thought experiment: If Cash was hit by a truck outside, and had time to sing just one song before he died, would he really sing this? “Or would you sing something different? Something real? Something you felt?” Cash proceeds to sing “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the Man in Black—whose gospel music led him down into the muck with the outcasts and outlaws—is born.
NF has followed in these footsteps, finding God in unexpected places and emerging as the Rapper in Black for today’s existential margins. But instead of outcasts and outlaws locked up in prison, he expresses solidarity with millennials and iGens locked away in their own heads. And instead of singing about murder, cocaine, and death row, he raps about abandonment, anxiety, and self-destruction. He identifies with them in their fragmentation, gives voice to their frustration, and points to higher ground without wagging his finger.
The Search Hoodies and its overwhelming success represent one of those rare moments when faith, art, and culture powerfully intersect. It’s an exciting thing to behold, and Christians, music lovers, and especially Christian music lovers should revel in it. God willing, it also signals a brighter future for other believers making music—and maybe even for those searching fans who figured a life of faith was out of the question.