Had you asked me about NF before July 26 of 2019, I would have told you that he was a decent artist, but ultimately too repetitive for my tastes. To be transparent, I have also steered clear of the Capitol star’s music for some time, only taking a passing interest in hit songs like “Let You Down” and spiritually rich melodies such as “I’ll Keep On.” I did not, and I still have not given NF the opportunity he deserved, an opportunity I have afforded a number of other artists, to grow on me.

Then, NF released The Search, a 20 (well, really 19) track album wherein he expressed an array of emotions he has felt as a result of his meteoric rise to popularity. I was and continue to be impressed by the depth of this project. While NF is not my personal favorite artist within the mainstream and Christian hip-hop markets, the hard-hitting lyricists’ vulnerability, willingness to innovate, and distinct voice has piqued my interest.

The Search is, in many ways, the sort of sequel that changes the worldview of a protagonist while maintaining a similar tone for the franchise. The album is familiar, both in its star’s flow, and content, but also the expression of these concepts has changed as the artist has matured. Whereas breaking into mainstream markets would have been a reason to celebrate for the artist before, now that this goal has been achieved, he can speak on the truth of what success means for one’s mental health.

Fame brought NF to the very edge of his will to live, often causing the artist to dwell in a state of self-doubt, loneliness, and painful nostalgia. Delivering lines such as “[w]hat was the moment I caved and/[g]ave away all of my faith and made a replacement” and “I don’t do drugs, I’m addicted to the pain though,” it is obvious that NF’s struggles have caused a mental strain on the Billboard-topping creative. Such raw emotion whether expressed with explosive rage or introspective sorrow has been a long-time hallmark of NF’s musical catalog. This time he speaks from the top of the mountain rather than one looking up.

One of the concerns that fans must have whenever their favorite Christian artist gains mainstream appeal is that of a watered-down gospel. While plenty of big-name artists, both classic and modern, have presented faith-based lyrics in their songs, the general public does not typically associate musical achievement with belief. Nonetheless, NF has not ignored this component of his music with The Search. NF’s cries to God in the midst of his suffering evokes the book of Psalms as the artist struggles with recognizing his blessings while begging God for aid. Feeling broken down by his own self-doubt, NF states, “[m]y inner critic talks, I’m just hopin’ that God helps me to stop stressin’.”

One of the most impressive aspects of The Search is the diverse nature of the content throughout this album. Handled by NF and producer Tommee Profitt, the album ranges from hard-hitting anthems to somber poetry, each demonstrating NF’s range as a recording artist. The Search has been crafted to impose the emotions that NF himself feels upon the listener, working in conjunction with his lyrics to create a gallery of emotion. On “Time” listeners hear of NF’s commitment to making his marriage work, no matter the cost. Meanwhile on “No Excuses” NF pumps out a more traditional hip-hop sound with lyrics to match the aggression of the track. Then on “Nate,” the Capitol star attempts to send a message to his younger self, warning the young prospect of both the success and danger to come.

The Search has a wealth of substance for NF’s audience to ingest, yet each of these tracks came at a personal cost to NF. Indeed, he can lay claim to being amongst an elite class of artists that others only dream of, but as he has made clear, the pressures of fame have left NF feeling broken. There is something to be said and admired about a recording artist who is finally able to break into the mainstream, even topping the Billboard charts without losing an ounce of authenticity. NF is the same character he has always been but has undergone a transformative process that will continue to lead him on the hunt for greater hope. The question of whether or not NF will find what he is looking for will have to wait for another day, another project, and another story.

Listen to The Search by NF here