Michigan rapper NF might have one of the most ride-or-die fanbases in the music industry at the moment, and it’s a huge reason why quite a few listeners (admittedly, this one included) have approached his music without the most open of minds over the years. With his popularity continuing to grow and his third straight incredibly successful project, CLOUDS, being released, NF continues to move father away from his early-career Christian rap label and become, in his words, more of a Christian who makes rap music. Over the course of the project, NF sprinkles in a couple references to his faith here and there that broaden the understanding of his personality, approach and point of view. The aspect of CLOUDS that really jumps out to someone who might not be as familiar with NF’s work, however, is just how incredibly technically skilled he is as a rapper. Although his flows might not be the most original – Eminem, for one, being an influence that he wears proudly on his sleeve – NF’s dizzying lyrical approach and cartoonish yet intense and aggressive vocal delivery is constantly a spellbinding feast for the ears. Unlike many of his “lyrical miracle” speed-rap contemporaries, NF brings the storytelling to back it up more often than not as well. Despite a couple clunky hooks and awkward bars, CLOUDS might be a pleasant surprise to any rap fan.
The project opens with its title track, an extremely cinematic overture of sorts as NF lays out his modus operandi for the project with increasingly emphatic delivery. As he lyrically builds himself up and describes his skills with a series of outlandish metaphors and punchlines, the track itself essentially serves as a constantly shifting smorgasbord of all of NF’s skills as an artist. Over a beat that switches from pizzicato horror-movie strings to a trap section to choral vocal samples and finally to some of the most earth-shattering bass hits I’ve heard on a song in a while, NF adapts accordingly with a melodic flow, speedy syllables and even a frantically screamed section that verges on rap-metal. It’s abundantly clear just how much NF derives this zany persona from Eminem down to his inflections, but “CLOUDS” is a shocking, heart-racing opening statement that would wake even his biggest doubters up to just how talented and ambitious he is at his core. It’s a lot better than most of Eminem’s recent output, that’s for sure. The track “THAT’S A JOKE” just keeps things going, featuring some of NF’s quickest flows on the entire project. The instrumental maintaining its grandiose, orchestral feel that keeps up throughout the whole project, NF addresses those who might see him as a pop-culture punchline and prepares to blow their minds. NF is somewhat of a master at building up the tension with his voice, using it almost like an EDM drop by steadily gaining intensity until he reaches a final fever pitch, at which point an avalanche of syllables spill over the top and the beat reaches its dramatic peak. His most impressive section once again brings to mind the unique flow of one of the most noted technical wizards in Tech N9ne, who does appear on the project, but you have to respect that he can replicate it at all.
Of course, there’s a little more variation on the project than an endless barrage of words from NF, and it ultimately has mixed results. The weakest aspect of the project is NF’s sung hooks, often because he tends to get somewhat preachy in his attempts to make more thought-provoking or relatable content rather than his singing voice itself. The track “JUST LIKE YOU” is likely one of the most well-executed and memorable hooks on the project, but even a rapper with so much lyrical potential like NF still can’t quite manage to make a mental health-forward hip-hop song that ends up diving below the surface. Instead, he settles for the played-out message that those feeling down should remember how many others there are going through the same thing to connect with. Still, in the moments where the beat builds up and NF unleashes his higher gear, he continues to be an engaging force with the sheer strength of his technical ability. “PRIDEFUL” sees NF bring a slower, melodic flow for the entire duration of the track, clearly with the aim to tell a sad personal story about a relationship that didn’t work out but exposing his thinner singing voice and some of his lyrical shortcomings when they’re not flying by at the speed of light. NF’s voice is endlessly malleable, and he essentially nails the Drake cadence here as well – once again losing his own personality in the process. “DRIFTING” is another one on the spacier side of things, the low-tempo instrumental not reaching the energetic heights he shows us he’s capable of elsewhere.
The track “LOST” brings aboard Hopsin, who is likely the next artist to point to when you’re looking for Eminem’s most obvious disciples. Both rappers bring their animated vocal stylings to the table here, and it’s a lot of fun to hear them playing off of each other, as if NF is testing his skills against the most successful artists in his own lane. With such a clearly combative angle to his work, the guest appearances almost feel like the rap battles he was certainly inspired by. The track feels like it hits similar instrumental and vocal beats to tracks that came before it without reaching the same energy, but that’s made up by a pretty great Hopsin verse and some more of the kind of internal rhyme schemes and speedy syllables that it’s hard to get tired of from NF. Tech N9ne himself appears on the track “TRUST,” NF essentially heeding to the master by giving him a very extended verse. Honestly, it ends up not being some of his best work, with a couple instances where his more complex flow doesn’t quite catch the instrumental’s most crucial beats, but hearing NF keep pace with him is another truly enjoyable moment.
The instrumentals across the board on the project are clearly meant to be as cinematic as possible, and the track “STORY” certainly makes the best use of this quality. As advertised, NF jumps into a character and tells a nearly 5-minute story of a woman who finds herself caught up in a violent robbery over an anxiety-inducing string section. NF really turns on his acting skills here, his expressive voice capturing the tense and terrifying mood of the situation and reaching a frantic breaking point during the climactic moments. The track is so compellingly told, right down to the sound effects interspersed in the background painting an even more vivid picture for the listener, that I sincerely don’t want to spoil the big twists here – I feel as though I were writing a movie review here instead. “LAYERS” is another truly incredible showcase of flow switch-ups that contains some of the album’s most clever wordplay, while “PAID MY DUES” closes the album with a final testament to NF’s work ethic. Of course, NF wouldn’t be a true Eminem fan if he didn’t spend an extended period of time complaining about music critics, but he once again comes with some outstanding flows to leave a final mark.
With more and more success coming his way, it’s hard not to envision a future where NF’s detractors finally give him a shot and realize he’s a lot more than the perceptions about him floating around. The stereotypically corny and overly theatrical elements certainly exist, but there’s a goldmine of raw talent under the surface that rises triumphantly to the forefront here.
Favourite Tracks: THAT’S A JOKE, CLOUDS, LAYERS, STORY, PAID MY DUES
Least Favourite Track: PRIDEFUL