Graduating to stadium status with the latest tour behind his fifth studio album, Michigan rapper NF has certainly come a long way from his beginnings as an explicitly Christian rapper and attracted a dedicated fanbase that’s now sent his last three projects to the top of the charts. 2021’s Clouds (The Mixtape) might have been the best showcase yet of his impressive technical skills and dramatic flair of a natural storyteller, but for the most part – a lot of the perception of NF as a rapper for people who don’t like rap has stuck around. Listening to HOPE once again reveals that while NF certainly has a solid toolkit of skills, the primary thing holding him back from crossing over to wider demographics might be his lack of, for lack of a better word, a cringe filter. Clearly inspired heavily by Eminem as he stretches his voice to its most emphatic limits over orchestral beats (though not so inspired when it comes to the language and messages on display), when the beats aren’t up to par NF comes across like a preacher yelling inspirational cliches you’ve already heard as earnestly as possible.
The titular opening track “HOPE” kicks off with NF giving us a taste of a surprisingly soulful singing voice, which crops up a couple more times throughout the album and often proves a lot more pleasant to listen to than his rap flows when they’re at their most melodramatic and shouty. Singing about his lost soul and revelations upon turning 30 as the strings warm up in a distorted swirl, it builds up to a rap verse over musical theatre-esque bouncy piano about dreaming big and never giving up. He actually interrupts an extended verse about all the times he went wrong and didn’t believe in himself with a “they get it,” which then sets up one of the more engaging beats with more of a trap flavour and some more impressive flows. I wish he was this self-aware elsewhere on the album, because for the most part what NF is actually saying doesn’t feel like it’s groundbreaking or interesting enough to deserve all of the instrumental fanfare. The next track “MOTTO,” which persists with more abrasive, shouted flows in NF’s nasal tone even finds him undercutting his uplifting energy with an oddly mean-spirited jab, choosing “unemployed” as his go-to insult for his detractors before wishing physical harm upon them. The track is supposed to be a DIY anthem as NF celebrates building an empire from his bedroom and not asking for anyone’s advice – some of it might have been needed on this one.
“CAREFUL” invites Cordae onto the track, and even a middling rapper with more of a rapper’s fanbase sounds cool and charismatic in comparison when placed on NF’s epic soundscapes. Still, NF shows off some nice triplet flows over an engaging beat of chopped-up vocals and continues to prove that he’s got the instincts to make something feel grandiose and important – he just needs to back that up by saying more of consequence. It’s something that he does a lot more when he’s touching on a more personal and specific issue to him on a track like “MAMA.” Despite one of the messier choruses, NF delivers a touching performance over sparse piano as he forgives his late mother and acknowledges the problems and abuse that she faced. “HAPPY,” on the other hand, reverts back to the classic millennial pop surface-level song about depression that you’ve heard a million times before. It kind of sounds like a Twenty One Pilots song on one of their weaker writing days set to an Ed Sheeran guitar loop. And though NF brings his singing back on the track, he saves his best rapping performance for the next one, “PANDEMONIUM.” If there’s one thing you can say about NF, it’s that he’s certainly not one of those rappers that you just zone out listening to. Throwing himself into the performance with some pretty impressive extended rhyme schemes, yes, he’s a little extra – but for an overzealous Eminem fan, you could do a lot worse.
A lot of the more standard-issue trap bangers and flex tracks are thrown into the album’s back half. Both “TURN MY BACK” and “SUFFICE” don’t have much going for them that you can’t find on another rapper’s album – especially when NF’s boasts somewhat incorrectly boil down to being the “real one” and not the “fake knockoff” – but “SUFFICE” actually does contain a brief beat switch at the end that makes for the album’s most exciting minute. With some fun voice pitching and some of the album’s most dexterous flows, NF speaks about knowing he’s found his purpose. The beat switch on “GONE” doesn’t go over quite as well – in fact, I legitimately had to check my phone because I thought I had accidentally skipped to the next song. Alternating laughably between massive percussion explosions and the most graceful piano notes, NF details a sappy breakup song and offers nothing past what anybody in the world would say – though Julia Michaels sounds lovely as always during her feature verse. “BULLET,” in true NF fashion, finds him taking something with potential a little too far as he describes dying for his wife in oddly violent and detailed fashion in the midst of a heartfelt dedication.
There’s not much more of note near the project’s conclusion – for example, why does it seem like every artist who has ever made an inspirational or uplifting song that didn’t feel like it came from a genuine place has recently made a song where they ask not to be called a mistake? It feels like there’s been one per month lately. NF’s, titled, of course, “MISTAKE,” adds to the trend over highly sparse piano and strings. A final trap cut in “PRAY FOR ME” continues to test the patience in NF’s messaging, before “RUNNING” closes things out as NF belts some notes about leaving his dark side in the past.
Judging based on everything he says on this album, it doesn’t seem like NF is too open to receiving any kind of feedback or constructive criticism – after all, he’s been doing what he’s been doing for a while and only continues to get bigger. While it makes for less hope that he’ll put out something that makes better use of his talents, it’s likely that he’s going to be sticking around.
Favourite Tracks: PANDEMONIUM, SUFFICE, CAREFUL
Least Favourite Track: MISTAKE