Bar Exam: NF – Clouds Mixtape (First Listen Review)
If you follow me on Twitter you will have noticed that I’ve been an NF fan for a long time, and that comes with some interesting reactions. I probably deserved some of it, (like the time that I put him as the #1 overall CHH artist) but I digress…
I’ve appreciated his intentionality when it comes to diving into emotion and processing how his life has been, and honestly, I appreciate his ability to rap and showcase his God-given talent. There are times when I have wished that he’d point to light at the end of the tunnel more, or maybe just stray away a little from the cinematic music. But, nonetheless, Nate stays striking the same chord over and over again because… it works!
Now we have a “mixtape” release from NF, his first project release in over two years. Is this a chance for him to explore new sounds and concepts? Or is this just a chance for him to offload some b-sides before we get to the true next project from him? I am hoping for the former, but I am expecting the latter. Let’s dive in.
For those of you unfamiliar with my bar exams, I am sharing all of my notes from my true first listen to the project. I provide in-depth thoughts and commentary on anything from flows, rhymes, beats, creative direction, track placement, and concepts.
After taking these things into consideration, I rate the project on a three-point scale. “Below the Bar” is something that needs help and doesn’t keep my attention throughout. “At the Bar” is the middle of the line and just okay, not really moving the needle any certain way. “Above the Bar” is something that sets a new precedent for the artist and is a tremendous accomplishment altogether.
Clouds – Ominous swell… something said in reverse at the top? Plucking strings, token NF musical theme. I dig the rhyme scheme, and how his emotion goes from a pondering/thoughtful Jekyll to a maniacal Hyde in a split second then right back. The music is building and picking up pace and so is his flow. The vocals are pretty raw, with layers added to reinforce punchlines, and any ad-libs are wetted down and distant. This is a strong start, but a predictable one.
That’s A Joke – Plucking strings at the top again. These instrumentals feel like the soundtrack to The Dark Knight. He has a different approach to his voice in these first two tracks. He sounds more laid back and nonchalant. When he digs in and goes double-time he’s great at the enunciation there, each word is distinct as it should be. The topic here is just meh. He’s bragging, he’s hinting at an album dropping, going on tour again, comparing himself to Mt. Everest.
Just Like You – Piano laying chords slowly here, beat layers in underneath. His tone is laid back again, there’s some heart behind his words though. Nate’s got empathy for people who feel alone. The beat picks up a bit, so do his words.
Take a walk with me, take a risk with me/I’m scared too and it gets so tempting/When you’re so empty to disown everything/You hold dearly when you know clearly/You been so buried in your own fairytale…
His hooks are melodic but he’s not really singing. The verses are predictable to where he starts chilled out and pensive, then digs in and lights it up. As much as he won’t change the music he performs on, he’s comfortable with changing up his approach throughout a song.
Story – He’s narrating a story. The instrumental has a little synth loop that’s an earworm, with the same orchestra building underneath once again. NF is in a gas station that’s being robbed. He threw away his clever rhyming ability to push this story forward. That works if you’re Ghostface Killah, but Nate really needs some rhymes that stick here. As impressed as I have been with his flow in the past, this one is not it. This song is water torture. He’s yelling now. Now there’s a twist to this story we don’t care about. Next.
Prideful – There’s a vocal sample at the top here. Some gospel runs. Back to another carbon-copied beat. Nate is comfortable here though. This is his most versatile track yet. He’s not showing off, he’s just flowing and going with what the music is giving him. The melody on verse two is dope. Ok this is good.
“How’d you go from bein’ that somebody I believed/Into bein’ someone doubtin’ me behind the scenes?/Can’t forgive a sorry that I ain’t ever received/I mean least you coulda done was gave me an apology/
But you’re so prideful…”
Lost – I’m not going to even comment on the beat anymore. Tell you what, I’ll let you know if anything changes. Token slow to fast build in the performance. The beat is a little more chaotic at the end of verse one. Hopsin works well with this sound. Yeah, he really adds guts to this track. I can dig this song.
Layers – The top of this verse has him talking about prayer and God more than I’ve heard him in a while. The performance here is terrific. He adds a rasp to his voice, and the ad-libs propel the verse forward emotionally in a way we haven’t heard an NF verse move yet on this project. WHOA, THE BEAT SWITCHED?!?!?!? Seriously, yep, in this back part of this song, the beat moved away from being cinematic. Nate didn’t try and do too much with it though, definitely ends this song on a great note.
Drifting – Instrumental here is different. Interesting loops and samples being used together. There’s an impetus to the performance as the beat adds layers. The second verse gets more musical as a piano lays in. Where some of the vocals throughout this project are pretty naked, he’s got a lot going on here.
This is chaotic but in a good way. It’s a step outside of the box for him. It fits in his realm quite well, but I appreciate that he tried here. There’s some heart added to this too where you feel like you’re inside of these thoughts with him. Nate really seems on edge throughout this tape.
“Ignorant to my ignorance/Tell me I’m worth it/God give me the faith to rise and help me diversify/To take a step forward immersed in my belligerence amplified/The feelings and words collide/
Intensified by living a life deprived/I’d rather be burned alive than go back to thinking I’m insignificant…”
Trust – Back to the sounds we’re used to. He really rips up a mic though. His schemes here are impressive to me. He goes backward performance-wise here – starts off intense then lays off as the song progresses. Tech N9ne lit the booth on fire though. There’s been a few times where I’m thinking to myself “there are some Bible bars here” and then I realize it’s the featured artist dropping those.
Paid My Dues – Isn’t this an old song? Ok, so…yeah, my feedback here is what you’d expect. He really stays in this lane and does it very well. Like extremely well. NF changes his cadences so much it keeps you engaged as long as you are okay with hearing that over the same instrumental on repeat.
To conclude, if the purpose of this “mixtape” was to whet the listener’s appetite for more of the same, I’m gonna slowly be helping myself off of the NF bandwagon. My hope is that his future sound moves towards something in the neighborhood of Layers and Drifting, knowing that he can’t lose the cinematic sound altogether.
Regardless of how he moves towards the future, there is no doubt that people will listen, and I’ll be here trying to digest and communicate how it all made me feel. I do know he’s got a kid on the way, and there’s nothing that will make a person question life and its fragility more than having children. Stay tuned for father Nate, or… FNF?
Overall Rating: At The Bar
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