NF ‘The Search’ – Addressing the Critics [Op-Ed]
Hip-hop fans were stunned when NF’s recent album, The Search, had reached number one on the Billboard charts, topping Chance the Rapper’s highly anticipated release, The Big Day. According to The Fader, the project sold 130,000 units, which was more than initially expected, and beat The Big Day by 22,000 units.
Since its release on July 26, 2019, The Search has had many critics oppose it publically, which NF references in “Paid My Dues.” In regards to music publication writers, he claims “these people get paid for trashing people” and “throw salt at all my burdens.” He believes that critics do not genuinely review from a place of objectivity, but rather are fueled by greed and personal vengeance. After careful consideration of The Search and criticisms brought forth by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and NY Times, I believe these were unjustified and unsupported by evidence. Through this article, I will address the critics of NF’s newest project, analyze their reasons for disliking it and give my rebuttal.
The first major criticism of The Search is in regard to the production of the album. Rolling Stone claims that “NF’s production palette offers little beyond melodramatic, heavy-handed orchestral flourishes and cavernous reverb.” They even went as far as to label the title of their album review “NF’s ‘The Search’ is a One-Note Depression Symphony” to get their point across.
While it is certainly true that NF primarily deals with gloomy, orchestral tones in his production, nowhere does this lead to a lack of variety. Historically, NF has always provided enough variation between the production of individual tracks so it does not become overused or boring. An example of this can be seen in tracks such as “Leave Me Alone” and “Nate,” where the kind of production used in both tracks are vastly different from each other. If anything, I would argue in contrast to Danny Schwartz that NF’s production in this album has increased in skill, especially with the addition of his new co-producer, Tommee Proffitt, who has worked on popular TV shows such as 24 and Quantico. Looking back at Mansion and Therapy Session, it becomes evident that production has improved tremendously, that Mr. Schwartz’s criticism is completely backward.
Similarly, in contrasting the production between YBN Cordae and NF, the NY Times explains that NF “leans heavily on bruising, thudding production and choral singing so forceful it sounds like it’s barking in your ear.” After listening to each song of the album carefully with the utmost scrutiny, I would heartily disagree with their statement. The only three songs on the entire project that fit their description of “thudding production” and “choral singing” are “The Search,” “Leave Me Alone,” and “Returns,” and never once do these tracks overdo these elements.
“The Search” leans more toward amplified production and the presence of a choir than the others, but that is because it has been NF’s particular style for the opening songs of his projects. “Intro,” “Intro 2,” and “Intro III” are clear examples of this repeating pattern and this choice a stylistic one, setting the mood for the rest of the album. “Leave Me Alone” and “Returns subtly include these two elements, but by no means cause “barking in your ear.” In terms of “thudding production” and “choral singing,” I believe that NF has been much tamer in The Search than any other past project.
Secondly, the effect The Search has on the listener is claimed to “suffocate” them through rapping about his own issues with mental health and fame. As Danny Schwartz writes from the Rolling Stone, “Making your way through The Search can feel like getting fitted for a straitjacket.” Personally, I believe this criticism attests to the fact that Mr. Schwartz does not understand the purpose of albums such as this one. It is certainly true that this album is tremendously heavy, but this fact attests more to the authenticity of the project rather than knocking it down. NF accurately and skillfully puts pen to paper with his problems and describes them in such a real way that people can relate to him. They can feel what he feels and emotionally experience part of the weight that he carries.
It’s no wonder NF claims that he creates “real music.” If The Search did not have this kind of constricting effect on the listener, I would argue that there would be a huge disconnect between NF’s personal experience and the lyrics, that he did not express what he meant to express. When I listen to The Search, I walk into it fully expecting to be “fitted for a straitjacket” and believe it to be a crucial part of NF’s artistry.
Also, what surprised me the most in regards to criticism of this album was a knock on this Michigan native’s rapping style. According to Pitchfork, “[NF] spends much of The Search darting in and out of an overbearing rappity-rap snarl-yell that can cut right through you if you don’t relate to his roiling anger.” I believe that the way in which an artist raps is not an objective measure for the quality of an album, so naturally, I disagree with this criticism. Evan Rytlewski has every right to dislike swift, raging, angry rapping, but to use it as a vendetta against The Search is uncalled for. It makes me proud as a fan of NF for him to receive these comments from critics because it makes him kin to another famous Michigan rapper who has also received similar feedback from music publications.
Eminem has always rapped with passion and intensity, yet received high marks for albums, which leads me to believe that the same treatment need be applied to The Search. Appealing to his “real music” mantra, NF raps in the style in which he does. When he is angry, he will rap angrily. When he is passionate, he will rap with passion. Again, this is another testament to NF aiming to authentically, genuinely be himself inside his music, which, in my opinion, makes The Search even better.
The absence of negative space is the next criticism toward the project, which was offered by the NY Times in their recent article “NF Has the No. 1 Article in the Country, and He Sounds Miserable.” Jon Caramanica writes that listening to The Search “is a lot like living inside a snare drum during a marching band’s halftime performance,” calling it “a sometimes vigorous, sometimes exhausting album.” To this, I strongly disagree with his criticism, although I do appreciate him mentioning the need for negative space in such an intense project.
Tracks such as “Time,” “Hate Myself,” “Thinking,” “Trauma,” and even “-Interlude-” act as pauses between the fast-paced, raging songs of the album and allow the listener a chance to mentally breathe. They take a more reflective approach toward music rather than aggressive, including sections of singing and gentle instrumentals. Although the content of these songs is still extremely heavy, I don’t believe they cause the same kind of exhilarating exhaustion that Mr. Caramanica claims, like the adrenaline rush at the end of a roller coaster. The Search has many more tracks than previous albums of a slower pace, so the necessity for extra negative space is not needed, contrary to the criticism of the NY Times.
Finally, the last major criticism of NF’s Billboard-topping album is more of a knock on NF rather than the project itself: “Where NF falls short is that he mostly works in one gear.” This comment is splashed in the final paragraph of the review with no immediate context or support, which proves that it is unjustified. Giving Mr. Caramanica the benefit of the doubt, I traced a few paragraphs up and believe his criticism is in reference to the topics NF writes about, where he explains that “self-lacerating misery is his sole subject.”
While it is true that NF tends to rap about his own life and his own misery, I believe his multi-dimensional personhood keeps his content fresh, never boring nor overdone. Even though he continues to write about his past, anxiety, trauma, and pain, his content changes as he changes. For example, in terms of the subject there is a major jump from Therapy Session to The Search, where his focus shifted from his mother and the therapy of writing “real music” to his search for hope in a dark world and the oppressive power fame has over his mental and emotional health.
I believe that NF continues to write in “one gear” because that has been his genuine human experience. In other words, he has never “changed gears” outside of his music, so why would he do it inside his music? He has not necessarily healed fully from his past nor found the hope he has been searching for, so rapping as though he has would be ridiculous.
Again, NF appeals to his mantra of “real music,” which further fleshes him out as an honest, sincere human. Because of these points, it does not bother me as a listener that NF continues to rap about “self-lacerating misery as his sole subject.”
Overall, in addressing the critics of The Search such as Rolling Stone, NY Times and Pitchfork, I believe that this album has been unnecessarily attacked with criticisms that are unjustified and unsupported with evidence. It makes sense, in light of high rapping skill and personal authenticity, that NF’s newest project has received the fame and Billboard status it had received from its release in July. Although Chance the Rapper’s The Big Day had a lot of anticipation, The Search was objectively an incredible album that deserved the number one spot. After analyzing the negative feedback toward the album, it becomes clear that NF was correct when he wrote that music publication writers “get paid for trashing people” and “throw salt at all my burdens.”