Review Summary: The Outcast Returns: NF's fourth LP is a satisfying return to form and an introspective meditation on the fleetingness of life, fame, and ambition.
“If this is it… it’s not gonna work.” - NF confesses on the track "Interlude."
2017 was a huge year for NF. Finally, he achieved his dreams. His shows were sold out. His single “Let You Down” was a smash hit, soaring to the tops of Itunes and Billboard charts. The no name had made good on his braggadocious claims and lofty ambitions and risen to the top in just a couple short years since his debut album with Capital, “Mansion.” It was like a dream come true.
So why did he feel so hollow? So empty? Just when he had everything he wanted, he spiraled to some of his lowest depths yet, which is saying a lot for a guy who lost his mom as a kid to a drug overdose, suffered physical abuse, developed abandonment issues, depression, and a whole truck load of dirty baggage. In the last verse of the haunting third track on The Search, Nate comes out and says it: “Last year, I felt suicidal.”
But that was last year. This year, Nate is newly married and has a brand new, massively long (76 minutes) album. “Last year I felt suicidal/ But this year I might do somethin’ different like talkin’ to God more/ I’m lookin’ for Change.”
Earlier in the track, Nate confesses “I don’t like change but I’ll try it.” In probably the most introspective and interesting track on the previous album, Perception, “Intro 3”, Fear is personified and reminds Nate that he is what made NF a successful act. Fear, anger, and struggle are a key selling point to the whole NF Real Music brand. Is Nate really ready to let fear go? To change? To make progress and find peace?
In Perception, it seemed that Nate was set on proving that he was beating his fears and pulling himself up by his bootstraps, but in The Search, he takes a step back and admits that he was wrong.
As someone who has closely followed and written about NF since his initial EP dropped with Capitol in 2014, the Perception era was a trainwreck. Musically, he went stagnant. Lyrically, he went bankrupt. Ironically, commercially, he made bank and achieved stardom. And that was a big problem. While Mansion and Therapy Session really made sense as a progression of his inner development and growth as a person and musician, Perception was just disappointing. Such a large portion of the lyrics were devoted to bragging and it got super repetitive. What drew me and so many others to NF initially was his willingness to be brutally honest while writing thoughtful, introspective lyrics that were not only relatable, but sounded great. Not that Perception didn’t sound good and didn’t have strong lyrical moments, but it was just stained with a whole lot of weak spots that left a bad taste in my mouth, and I know I was not alone.
Then NF dropped “The Search.” It’s a huge album for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it just is a lot of music. It takes a long time to get through, but remarkably, it does not feel like a chore. Soundwise, I don’t think it would be fair to say that NF has really broken any new ground. If you liked the way he sounded before, well, then you’re in luck, because he sounds pretty much the same. He just does what he does with a little more precision and intricacy. If you weren’t digging his sound before, then there’s really no reason to think that this album will win you over, though, he does have a few tracks that stood out as particularly catchy to me on this record, such as “Only”, “Leave Me Alone”, “Change”, and most impressive of all, the wistful and hard-hitting, choir-infused “Miss the Days.”
What really kept me engaged from start to finish on this record are the lyrics. Nate is being as real as he has ever been on this album, and the power of his personal narrative is enough to draw anyone interested in his story through the album. Tracks like “Nate,” “Hate Myself,” the previously praised “Change,” “My Stress,” and “Returns” all cover some substantial ground and he absolutely torches his bars along the way.
The Search sort of feels like NF’s Hamlet. He meditates on his mortality, the fleetingness of his fame and success in tracks like “Returns”: “Pastor show up to my funeral wearin’ all black/ and what’s happenin’?/ I look around and wonder, ‘Where my fans at?’/ Oh Lord, they know me so well/ They know I’m not in that casket? Trash bag is prolly buried somewhere full of my ashes.” And few lines later, “Stare at the Earth like, "This is not the place I was birthed.” Throughout the album, you get the sense that Nate is feeling his mortality more than ever. Though he desired to erect himself as an up and coming god of rap, he has realized that his throne will quickly dissipate beneath him, just as he swiftly ascended it.
Recurring over and over is the theme of how futile ambitions often prove to be. You achieve your goals, find that they are not fulfilling, and proceed to chase after the next green light. The Great Gatsby imagery is all too easily noticed here. On Perception, NF actually had a track titled “Green Lights,” where he literally states that, “All I see are Green Lights.” He sees the opportunity, the alluring glint of fame and fortune. But, as the green light of ambition does time and time again, it disappoints. It leaves you empty and frustrated. Now, I feel confident assuming Nate didn’t intentionally make this reference, as he released “Green Lights” during the peak of his pursuit of success, but in retrospect, the irony is astounding. All he saw were green lights, and just like Gatsby, those green lights only lead to disillusionment, frustration, and thankfully not death, as it did for Fitzgerald’s romantic hero.
Nate’s journey thus far has been entertaining to say the least. It never ceases to amaze me how many hurt and outcast fans have flocked to him over the years. He gives a voice to many, and it is a huge relief to see him getting back to his roots and doing what he does at a high level again. Is “The Search” a perfect album? Of course not. Not every hook hits home and not every lyric is brilliant.
But “The Search” is honest and sounds incredible. There isn’t a track I would tell you to skip, which is actually a first with him. Every past album had several I would advise skipping over, even for the most passionate of fans. This album hits hard and cuts deep. It shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that he is willing to let go of the fear that made him famous and to let his life change for the better. Many have been right there with him on this journey, and hopefully, this album is a comfort to them. On Perception, NF dwelled on the fact that he didn’t care about other people’s opinions, which he outs as a lie on this album. On Perception, he branded himself as the “Outcast.” Now, as he says at the close of the bars-heavy “Returns”:"The outcast returns".