And pretty much got everything you could ever imagine.
But you feel like even though you got everything in the world, you got nothing.”
In the opening lines of “Wake Up,” track two off the self-titled 2014 EP that introduced him to a national audience, rising Christian rap star Nate “NF” Feuerstein used the luxurious, but lonely vastness of a massive home as a metaphor for the emptiness of a life without God. His bars echo a rhetorical question famously posed in the Gospel of Mark: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Fans who have been poring over the EP’s lyric sheet for the past six months and change won’t miss the callback to those lines in the title of NF’s soon-to-drop debut full-length, Mansion. That resonance could lead one to assume the set would find the 23-year-old rapper — the first hip-hop artist to find a home at Capitol CMG — focused on more worldly subject matter than on the previous project. Actually, the exact opposite is true; rather than contrasting things of the spirit with things of the flesh, he turns the dichotomy inside-out, exploring his mental world as if it were a house complete with a haunted basement and numerous skeleton-filled closets.
The title track, which comes on the heels of a technically dazzling “Intro,” makes that metaphor explicit. Over reverberate minor chords, hook-woman Fleurie sings, “My mind is a home I’m trapped in, and it’s lonely inside this mansion,” setting the stage for verses in which painful memories — childhood abuse, the death of a parent — figure as neglected rooms in a psychological dwelling. The artist’s willingness to depict himself at his most conflicted and his refusal of easy answers makes this one of the project’s most powerful cuts.
Vulnerability is a good look for NF. It’s hard not to be impressed when he buries his competition in an avalanche of aggressive triple-time rhymes (“Turn the Music Up”), but the emcee is most credible and compelling when he’s struggling to confront his fears (“Face It”) or grappling with his own hypocrisy (“I’ll Keep On”) and past mistakes (“Notepad”). Above all, the album’s more introspective tracks illustrate NF’s recent growth as an artist. No longer so quick to critique the spiritual vacuity of others (as he did in the quote that led off this review), he sets off down the much more difficult path of self-examination.
In addition to symbolizing the artist’s inner space, Mansion’s title can be read as a more straightforward metaphor for the album itself, in that what sets it apart from its EP-length predecessor is mainly its scale. Since dropping his eponymous debut, NF’s moved into a roomier crib, but he’s filled it with the same aural furniture. (In fact, two of the EP’s tracks, “All I Have” and the aforementioned “Wake Up,” reappear here.) His rapid-fire flows and earnest sung vocals, as well as the intense, moody beats that back them, feel like more polished variations on what we’ve heard before. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; listeners who fell in love with NF, and who are hoping for a bigger, better take on the same basic formula are unlikely to be disappointed by the rapper’s first full-length outing.
If there’s one thing Mansion feels like it’s missing, it’s a sense of humor. I know; that’s a strange thing to ask of a rapper who’s built his name on rawness and catharsis rather than verbal playfulness, let alone one who flat-out states, “I’m not a comedian.” But why choose between wit and emotional impact when you can have both? Like most melanin-challenged emcees, NF is annoyed by this comparison, but a certain rapper whose initials are “M.M.” has proven that brutally honest confessional bars and rewind-worthy wordplay can go together like peanut butter and chocolate. A little levity could add depth to the artist’s more personal cuts, bite to his harder material and texture to his projects as wholes.
NF’s passion for his craft is clear and, even if he doesn’t choose to hone his punchline game, I expect his overall rhyme style will only grow suppler and more sophisticated with the years. In the meantime, Mansion is exactly what it needs to be: a sturdy foundation that leaves him plenty of room to build.
Reviewer Rating: 3 out of 5
Rapzilla Staff Avg. Rating: 3 out of 5
Pre-order Mansion on iTunes or Amazon
2. Mansion ft. Fleurie
3. All I Have
5. Wake Up
6. Face It
9. Turn the Music Up
11. I'll Keep On ft. Jeremiah Carlson
12. Can You Hold Me ft. Britt Nicole
Follow @NFRealMusic on Twitter