As on his 2019 album, The Search, Michigan rapper NF maintains his somber and melancholic stylings on new mixtape CLOUDS, highlighted by simplistic string arrangements and classical music influences throughout.
While NF continues to prove his technical abilities as a lyricist, many of the songs ring with style over substance—such as how the rapper (Nathan Feuerstein) is drawing heavily from his contemporaries, particularly fellow Michigander Eminem.
That isn’t to say NF doesn’t offer anything fresh, interesting, thoughtful and emotionally provoking. Throughout the runtime, he taps into storytelling, self reflection and personalization. He makes a concerted effort to vary his delivery through experimental flow patterns while posturing with more maturity and sensitivity to his songs’ subject matter than Eminem.
But NF continues to struggle to break out of the mold of matching his stylings with an emphasis on staccato multisyllabic rhymes, speed and aggressive vocal delivery. Perhaps that’s nitpicking, considering how even Eminem himself pulled from Redman when finding his identity on The Slim Shady EP.
The self-titled opener evokes the uneasy and ominous thematic presence that have characterized much of NF’s recent work, as he begins his verse with an intentionally stilted—but nonetheless tactful—delivery. This choppy and somewhat awkward delivery plays on the lyrics that feel somewhat directionless. It’s as if he was struggling with writers block, only to use the subject of writers block to then inform the rest of the song. It’s bold insofar as concept goes, but it still rings a bit structurally unstable as the lyrics may come across as padding.
We also see a side of the rapper flashing a bit of arrogance on “THATS A JOKE,” where he insists that he shouldn’t be underestimated as a force in hip-hop. The contrast between this track and the later “PAID MY DUES,” on which he claps back at critics of his last album, highlights a semblance of insecurity about his perception and the sting of rejection—which he even acknowledges mid-verse.
CLOUDS really begins to pick up its steam with “STORY,” where NF guides listeners through the experience of surviving a botched gas station robbery. The intensity of the situation paired with his rapid-fire flow evoke the stylings of clipping. frontman Daveed Diggs, between the firsthand account and the detailed panicked thought process of the narrator. The emotional resonance of tracks such like “JUST LIKE YOU” and “PRIDEFUL” have NF emotionally pouring out to his listeners as he offers solidarity with people struggling with mental health issues and opens up on the emotional toll the music industry has had on him.
“LOST” features a guest appearance from Hopsin, who took a break from music deal with personal and family issues. Both artists bring their A-game, with Hopsin standing out with a sort of maturity many might not have come to expect from the divisive rapper. Fellow Midwest rapper Tech N9ne is featured on “TRUST,” which feels like a natural collaboration between the two as they deliver breakneck multis while never missing a beat.
While CLOUDS may not break new ground in the ways NF has strived for to meet critical demand, there are clear signs of growth and malleability. His strengths as a storyteller would be put to use well on a more conceptually and narratively driven outing, while his sullen stylings still solidify a unique image for himself and should lead to some morose machinations for close examination.
Follow editor Tim Hoffman at Twitter.com/hipsterp0tamus.