The album cover for NF’s third studio album, Perception, shows the Christian rapper locked in a prison cell. It’s an image that effectively—and jarringly—expresses NF’s dual message here: the desire to free oneself from self-constructed mental and emotional prisons, contrasted with the admission that freedom can sometimes be difficult to secure.
As has been true on NF’s previous efforts, Perception is laced with brutal honesty, depth of emotion, graphic metaphors and copious introspection—all of which move in an ultimately redemptive direction.
“Intro III” showcases the struggles between two sides of the rapper’s personality: Old NF and New NF, as the latter strives to silence the former, which is haunted by past pains. New NF eventually declares to his darker side, “You had me in prison this whole time, but I’m the one holdin’ the keys.”
“10 Feet Down” also explores the conflict between the old and the new. We hear this redemptive encouragement: “I know the feeling of feeling like everything you deal with will never change/ … Ain’t about what you did, it’s what you became from it.” Self-awareness shows up in “My Life,” where NF admits he unhealthily channeled his alienation at times in the past: “I feel like no one ever really got me, eventually/I took that out on relationships.” But he also recognizes that our choices now are what matter most, not hurtful decisions that might have been made previously: “Not about what you did, it’s what you do.”
In “Remember This,” NF says, “I know I could die any moment,” so this is some of the advice he’d like to leave: “Perfect people don’t exist, so don’t pretend to be one/ … Anyone can take your life, but not what you believe in/ … Don’t take opinions from people that won’t listen to yours/The real you is who you are when ain’t nobody watchin’.” Later, he adds, “People change, even Satan used to be an angel/Think twice before you bitin’ on the hand that made you.” Meanwhile, on “Destiny,” we hear NF talking about seeking God’s guidance: “I talk to God like, ‘What’s next for me?'”
“Outcast” describes NF’s sense of being different from those in his chosen genre: “I don’t wanna fit in/… I got my own shoes, I ain’t tryna fit in yours…/ Yeah, I guess I don’t fit the mold of rap/ ‘Cause I’m respectin’ women.” On “Green Lights,” NF discusses the power of authenticity and staying focused on your purpose: “All I spit is real life/ … I know where I’m goin’, I don’t let no one distract me.”
Honest discussions of depression and loneliness can be heard on “Dreams,” where NF confesses, “All I know is I get lower on the weekends/They tell me I should make friends, I just sit at home/My confidence as low as the gas is.” That said, he also talks about letting go of the past and embracing a better future: “Threw away the deck and got my own cards.” We hear similarly vulnerable confessions in “Know,” as NF raps that he wants to know what it’s like to “be happy/ … Wake up in the morning and feel like it’s real when I’m laughin’.”
“Let You Down” deals with not living up to parental expectations, and includes the apology, “I’m sorry that I let you down.”
“You’re Special” is about a long-distance relationship that’s developing into something serious: “She got me thinkin’ maybe I’ma have to put a ring on this girl.” “If You Want Love” advises, “If you want love, you gon’ have to go through the pain/If you want love, you gon’ have to learn how to change/If you want trust, you gon’ have to give some away.” In contrast, “3 A.M.” articulates NF’s struggle to tell a young woman, “I got a lot of love for you/ … I got trust for you,” words he can’t quite say.
A few lyrics include allusions to alcohol and drugs. And while most of these references don’t directly condone the use of either, they do give us a sense of the issues NF has grappled with in life.
“Let You Down” is probably the most problematic example, as we hear, “Feels like we’re on the edge right now/ … Go ahead, just drink it off/Both know you’re gonna call tomorrow like nothing’s wrong.” “My Life” mentions how NF wants to talk to someone who is “probably already wasted.”
“Outcast” compares an alcohol buzz to excitement about his new album: “Ain’t no drink in my hand, but you know the buzz is comin’.” That song also metaphorically mentions “cookin’ in a meth lab,” with NF saying, “I don’t blow it up in front of my own eyes.” We hear this gruesome metaphor about introspection as well: “Take a knife to my head, then I cut it open/Take my brain, put it on the floor tryna figure out my motives.” More violent imagery turns up in “Destiny”: “Ya’ll put his hands around my throat, so I cut ’em off/That’s what you get for stepping on my toes.” (That song also includes the lines, “you witnessin’ the finest/ … Somebody get out the sedatives.”) And in “Remember This,” we hear about critical “people that cut you open just to watch you bleed.”
“You’re Special” references taking “all night car rides” with a special girl. And in “Lie,” we hear about a woman who wanted to “chill and get some drinks.”
As Christians, we’re sometimes tempted to cover up our self-doubt, failures, misgivings and deepest struggles. NF (short for Nate Feuerstein) doesn’t do that. Instead, this 26-year-old Michigan rapper speaks hard truths about himself and his struggles, honestly admitting problems that many believers might naturally try instead to hide.
The result is indisputably raw, unapologetic and confessional. At times, wincingly so. But NF has said time and again in various interviews that writing music has been a therapeutic release for him. He says that through his lyrics, he’s had the privilege of changing lives by writing for “the kids feeling like they live at the bottom.”
Accordingly, NF’s raps may not resonate equally with all listeners (or all parents, for that matter). But amid those raw confessions, he’s also clearly seeking to mine his own brokenness for hope—hope he unabashedly seeks to share with others who may have struggled with the same kinds of issues he unpacks on Perception.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).