Musicians like NF show us how to address mental health through art and world building
This week saw World Mental Health Day, encouraging people and brands to share their experiences. But only some will truly cut through. Amplify’s Alex Wilson argues that one musician shows the value of looking hard at the true complexities of their struggles.
What does artist NF tell us about authenticity and art in depictions of mental health? / A still from NF's music video, Let You Down
Musician NF, born Nathan Feuerstein in Michigan in the early 90s, is not a household name.
Yet he has sold millions of records, earned US Billboard No.1 albums, and racked up over 250m views of his chart-topping track Let You Down and over 30bn combined global streams worldwide. He has been compared to Kendrick Lemar and Eminem due to his lyrical prowess and masterful musicality.
Where NF sits apart is his raw, uniquely vulnerable approach to his mental health struggles and how he openly treats his music as personal therapy. “You call it music, I call it my therapist,” he says in Intro 2.
NF has the ability to convey intricate, personal, yet universal emotions through cinematic storytelling and interconnected themes in captivating style, presenting his trauma and past abuse in ways that hit hard. This unfiltered grit and openness has led to fan-fueled momentum that has grown his success and community, authentically.
As a Forbes write-up of NF’s number-one album Perception put it, “NF’s success speaks to what can be done these days outside of the traditional system of creating stars and smashes”.
Kid Cudi, Scarface, and Chance the Rapper have all played a part in addressing mental health issues in their music, but NF has normalized the conversation with his fans and audiences through tracks and groundbreaking videos that symbolize his struggles through dark, haunting imagery and cinematography usually reserved for the silver screen.
Throughout his studio albums, the artist has visually brought his mental health struggles to life through his aesthetic and wardrobe, alternating between light and dark outfits depending on where his mental state is in that moment. Capable of transitioning from heart-rending vocals to complex bars within a heartbeat, he has somewhat surprisingly identified Adele and Ed Sheeran as strong inspirations for his music and instrumental components as well as the more obvious Eminem lyrical parallels.
He has built an audio-visual of symbolism, from black balloons that physically represent his mental burdens, to a Mansion (also the title of his 2015 album) – also a construct of his various mental challenges and states. NF regularly features a prison cell, a smudged black smile across his face and documents his search for the map to ‘hope’.
Therapy Session (2016) borders on a concept album, a raw, unfiltered, brooding piece of work that has unflinchingly emotional tracks such as How Could You Leave Us, a track he performs to the memory of his deceased mother. The song culminates with NF crying into the microphone as he struggles to finish the track as he recounts her losing her battle with pill addiction.
2019’s The Search, his second Billboard number-one, is a raw roller coaster ride that addresses fame, OCD, and both hopelessness and the search for hope.
It was an album (and accompanying videos) that cemented his aesthetic, building on the foundations of his previous three albums to culminate in the artist we see today. Still the underdog, still not a household name, but speaking his truth and supporting his audiences to combat stigma. Just the way he likes it, according to NME.
Earlier this year, NF finally found Hope. Currently sitting at 33m views on YouTube, from the album of the same name, the stunning, layered world climaxes with NF on top of a mountain confronting the two sides of his personality, with the darkness striving to break out from his skin itself in an orchestral crescendo as they battle each other for supremacy.
Nate Feuerstein may always be in an internal battle between the light and dark sides of his psyche, but now married with a wife and young child, he has found enough peace to forgive his mother, something he openly says in that Hope video.
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The world we’re building
NF continues to make a profound impact on both the music industry and the lives of his fans.
Complex and delicate issues like mental health are (rightly) addressed by brands and businesses with sensitivity and empathy, but NF has shown unfiltered honesty through his audio-visual storytelling, documenting his own experience makes him a genuine voice in that space. NF does not align himself with issues; he is living them and sharing his experiences through his own artistry.
World building takes many forms, but for an artist to create their own world to face, address, forgive and heal as a form of public art therapy, but also to expand that compassion, empathy and vulnerability for his audiences to relate and go on their own journeys, is unique and inspiring.
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