So the biggest question we could possibly ask is, “How did an artist sell 53,000 albums in a week, and debut at No. 1 and no one in the mainstream saw it coming?” Not only that, but his previous album, Therapy Session, also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hip-Hop charts and 12 overall and mainstream hip-hop was mostly silent except for an article on Hip Hop DX that focused on NF being Christian rap's reluctant hero.
First, let’s clarify, NF is considered a Christian rapper, no matter what he, his fans, or his music says otherwise. Much like Lecrae, the label is sticking. Unlike Lecrae, who by this point, is pretty well known throughout all circles of hip-hop culture, NF is not even close to Lecrae’s outside engagement. The numbers don’t lie though, while Lecrae has the bigger reach, NF had more album sales this time around. This is not a competitive statement or a knock on either one, this is an observation and a fact, so let’s break it down.
We asked two outside sources in mainstream hip-hop to offer their thoughts on the subject. The first was Yoh, a writer for DJBooth.net and the second was Ural Garrett of Hip Hop DX, who wrote that article on NF.
Starting off with Garrett, he covered NF last year and as stated, focused on him being the reluctant hero of Christian rap.
“NF has a huge fanbase that stays so self-contained that it never really spills out to mainstream culture,” said the writer. “Outside of having a No. 1 album, he hasn’t really done anything to make himself a part of the mainstream pop conversation like a Lecrae or even to an Andy Mineo.”
Garrett explained that in this day of music, you didn’t need to have that huge radio single to be successful.
“We look at success differently now than how we considered it years ago. We look at him as someone who hasn’t really had his crossover moment yet,” he said.
Take that into context and it’s a scary thought. NF has the no. 1 album, and he didn’t even “crossover” yet. He hasn’t peaked and his ceiling is getting higher.
Garrett believes it’s this shying away from the culture that keeps NF off of publications and people’s radar. However, his numbers need no intro to the culture. He’s got people talking now whether he talks back or not.
“He’s doing his thing regardless of people not covering him.”
Switching over to the conversation with Yoh, to quote him quoting Kanye, “I don’t have the answers Sway.”
“Honestly, I didn't know of NF's feat last year,” he admitted. “That says a lot when you have the No. 1 rap album. I'm not sure when it started, but topping the rap chart doesn't have the same acclaim as topping Billboard 200. Again, I don't know why, but the accomplishment doesn't hold the same merit.”
He said that “mainstream media” doesn’t always catch every underdog that comes through the wire.
“A thousand things could've caused him to be overlooked, that doesn't diminish the accomplishment,” said Yoh.
HHDX's Garrett says Lecrae was able to move into the secular space and be relevant while keeping most of his initial fanbase which is impressive.
“I think it’s a lot harder for NF to do it because he’s not really working with a lot of established producers,” he said. “He doesn’t have the cosign of a Ty Dolla $ign or an E-40. Once you get to that level you can pretty much get coverage because of that cosign alone.”
The hip-hop writer sees beauty in that though. He thinks that’s a “good space” for NF to be in. In this way, NF can continue to be himself without having to change or compromise.
“If people aren’t covering him to that extent, it doesn’t matter, he’s going to be fine regardless,” said Garrett. “There’s a need for that type of coverage and in order to get it, he’s going to have to do things in the culture. At the moment, all we can really go by is his numbers. From that angle, he doesn’t fit in culturally.”
NF sort of fits into the category of people who blew up on YouTube and Soundcloud. They got millions of views and plays, developed an enormous and loyal fanbase, and then took off after. The only thing that makes this even crazier is, this isn’t just streaming on a content social network, this is him moving units and on a major label as a non-major artist. It’s quite remarkable.
As stated previously, NF can very well be the next big thing in music.
“He didn’t want to be labeled a Christian rapper. So then what group to do you want to be a part of and with that, can you rise to the occasion with those rappers that are in the mainstream?” said the HHDX writer. “I don’t think the music is there yet to get the attention like Lecrae’s, who is basically the Jay Z of Christian rap. Now he has to compete with other people, he was a big fish in a small pond, now can he compete as a small fish in the ocean?”
The answer seems to be trending toward yes.
NF has a lot in his favor. For one he’s on Capitol Records. Point number two is that his marketing and branding is already at a great level. His image, music, graphics, etc are so consistent through and through. Lastly, and not least important of these, he can rap and he sings pretty well too. He has the talent to back up the expectation.
One rapper who is a bit comparable in the way NF has risen the ranks and is now on everyone’s lips is – Logic. Garrett said much like NF, His dedicated fan base "propelled" him into the spotlight.
Now, if he never fully crosses into the mainstream, Garrett believes he can still enjoy a fruitful career like artists on Rhymesayers and Strange Music. Some names for you there: Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Mac Lethal (previously), and Tech9. All of these guys have been grinding the indie circuit for years, have enjoyed success, and for the most part, have supported themselves with nearly 20-year careers.
So what do you think? Which trajectory do you think NF will take? Do you think that now after two straight No. 1 albums that he’ll get the respect he deserves? How much more does he have to accomplish?
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