Rapper Nathan John Feuerstein, known by his initials NF, just released the album “The Search,” which quickly awarded him number one spot on Billboard’s Artist 100 Chart. The album is ultimately about his quest for happiness. Money and fame haven’t resolved the pain of NF’s past. He’s still searching for healing and for wholeness. It’s a search that he recognizes necessarily involves a spiritual dimension. Throughout the album, NF expresses his desire to reconnect with God. Perhaps surprisingly, this echoes strongly St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings on happiness in the beginning of the second part of his Summa Theologica.
NF achieved international recognition with his last album “Perception,” which was released in 2017 and contained “Let You Down” on its track list. “Let You Down” went triple platinum and reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 while the album was #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. NF seemed to achieve what every artist dreams, but the Michigan rapper reveals on his new album, “The Search,” that success only lead him into deeper despair. Much of “The Search,” his fourth studio album in five years, addresses the disillusionment that NF experienced in the midst of his newfound fame.
At the heart of NF’s new album is an interlude in which the artist describes how success and fame led him to the deepest depression he has ever experienced. He says in the interlude, “My most considered, like, ‘successful’ moment of my life was the worst. The most depressed I’ve ever been…I got a number one on Billboard, my song is massive right now. Like I may never have a song this big again… So I literally had everything that I had always dreamed of happening. And I felt, I didn’t feel happy at all.”
So how does Aquinas speak to the experience of NF?
Aquinas writes that the ultimate end of all human beings is happiness. This naturally leads to the question, “in what, or in whom, is that happiness found?” Some people search for that happiness in wealth. Others try to find it in glory and fame. Still others look for it in pleasure or power. Aquinas asserts that none of these things is that in which human happiness consists. NF’s new album provides a great confession to the truth of Aquinas’s observations.
The first and titular song of “The Search” opens with NF admitting that, like every human being, he is dealing with issues. He even says that last year he experienced a break down. This was in light of the success of his album “Perception.” He raps, “Got a taste of fame, had to pump my stomach / throw it back up like I don’t want it.” In light of NF’s interlude referenced above, it is clear that fame doesn’t make NF happy. If anything, it accentuates the frustrations he has experienced for so much of his life.
In another song titled “Nate,” NF gives advice and guidance to his younger self. He writes, “You start to write about your life and while they’re all relatin’ / You’ll make up a slogan, call it ‘Real,’ but feel like you’re the fakest.” Aquinas responds similarly as to why glory and fame cannot be the ultimate source of happiness, “Human knowledge is often mistaken, especially when it comes to particularly contingent matters such as human acts. For that reason, human glory is frequently mistaken.”1 In other words, human judgment is often faulty or off the mark. People may praise things that in the final analysis aren’t praiseworthy. Therefore, human happiness cannot rely on something that can be so easily mistaken.
NF’s example is helpful. He recognizes the adulation of his fans, but his pain-filled psyche wants tells him that he is a fraud and his fans are wrong for believing in him. If he bases his happiness on how popular he is among his fanbase, then the demons of self-doubt will always prevent him from experiencing lasting happiness.
In another part of the title song NF raps, “Yeah, the sales can rise. Doesn’t mean much though when your health declines.” Aquinas writes that there are two kinds of wealth. The first is natural wealth which consists in having what one needs to survive. It cannot be an end in itself, since it is sought for the sake of self-preservation. The second type of wealth is artificial wealth which includes money. Artificial wealth is pursued only for the sake of natural wealth, which means it’s even further removed from helping human beings find happiness. Wealth can never be an end in itself. NF’s lyric that money doesn’t mean much if he doesn’t even have health of mind and body act as an unintentional reference to exactly what Aquinas argues in the Summa.
NF tells the listener in the title track that he’s looking for the “map to hope,” a map that he’ll only find in making changes to his life. He advises his listeners to go to the song titled “Change.” The way in which NF points the listener to “Change” gives this song a pivotal role in the message of the whole album.
“Change,” the album’s third track, begins with NF stating that he is “addicted to the pain” of his past. Much of the artist’s music is a self-professed form of therapy (his second studio album is titled “Therapy Session”). Difficult memories and accompanying emotions have fueled much of his lyrics and subsequent success, but NF realizes that these things aren’t healthy for him to hold on to. He raps, “But lately, I been thinkin’ I’ma have to / Lettin’ go of things that I’m attached to / the world don’t stop just because I’m in a bad mood.”
NF is acknowledging that the way he is currently living is not sustainable. Feeding negative emotions is a destructive process. He relates near the end of the song, “all my emotions are liars, all my emotions are violent, they don’t want freedom to find me.”
So what is the ultimate change that NF knows he needs? He juxtaposes at the climax of the song, “Last year, I felt suicidal / This year, I might do somethin’ different like talkin’ to God more.” A relationship with God is the most important change NF needs to make in his life. Why? Because, as Aquinas says, that is where happiness is found.
Aquinas writes, “Ultimate and perfect happiness cannot consist in anything other than a vision of the divine essence.”2 The vision of the divine essence is the beatific vision—eternal life with God—promised to all children of God. That experience waits for us in eternity, but we can begin to live out of that relationship now. In fact, Aquinas writes that humans can only attain happiness, the fullness of which rests in eternity, through a firm resolve of the will and actions in accord with that same resolve. NF’s desire to talk to God more is a desire for prayer, a particular kind of action, that requires resolve and perseverance.
“Trauma,” the final song on NF’s album, is the sort of prayer he knows he needs to engage in more. It is a piano melody full of emotion and honesty, reminiscent of some of David’s Psalms of lament. NF begins the song, “Say you’re there when I feel helpless / if that’s true, why don’t you help me?” This is the prayer of an honest heart, and NF admits in the next lines, “It’s my fault, I know I’m selfish / Stand alone, my soul is jealous / It wants love, but I reject it / Trade my joy for my protection.”
NF has admitted that he has become so used to the pain of his past that it is hard for him to let it go, but the most important thing is that he desires to give that pain to God. Through his music, NF is doing exactly that, and God is transforming it into powerful songs that can help people seek healing for themselves.
The journey to God, in whom our perfect happiness is found, requires us to be honest—with ourselves, with others, and especially with God.
Image courtesy of flickr user Wendell.