Michigan rapper NF made headlines this weekend when he beat Chance the Rapper’s long-awaited proper debut album, The Big Day, with his own fourth studio album, The Search. The release moved 130,000 equivalent units to Chance’s 108,000, propelling it to the No. 1 spot on Billboard 200 and marking NF’s second No. 1 album (2017’s Perception also topped the chart).

The win came on the heels of an extensive press campaign from Chance, which included stops at Beats 1 and The Tonight Show (not to mention three years of suspense following 2016’s Coloring Book). Heightening the anticipation was the fact that The Big Day included features from DaBaby, John Legend, Megan Thee Stallion and Gucci Mane, among other industry heavyweights. Meanwhile NF stood mostly in the shadows of his own release, skipping a traditional press run (he generally avoids interviews) in favor of a few carefully selected posts to his social media. He also skimped on star power, with The Search’s bloated 20 tracks including just one feature, from singer-songwriter Sasha Sloan.

It’s possible that you’ve never even heard of the 28 year-old NF until recently. Where NF’s most popular singles have racked up hundreds of millions of streams, his presence is mostly absent from mainstream hip-hop media, radio and the culture at large. Even after usurping Chance for the title of No. 1 album in the country, there’s still no trace of him on Spotify’s RapCaviar, Apple Music’s Rap Life and other hubs for popular new hip-hop releases. So what gives?

NF first grew his fan base as a Christian rapper after signing to Capitol Christian Music Group in 2014. His debut album with Capitol, Mansion, landed the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Top Christian albums in its first week and was largely well-received by critics. One reviewer even noted: “The only downfall here will be that some people aren't impressed by such raw, personal, and emotionally-driven rap, but that's exactly what makes this stand out among so many rap albums out today.”

His next album, Therapy Session, once again topped Billboard’s Top Christian albums chart before reaching the No. 12 spot on the Billboard 200. But while NF’s faith has guided his lyrics, he’s denied the label of Christian rap throughout his career.

“I’m a Christian, but I’m just an artist," he said in a 2016 interview. "If you’re a Christian and you’re a plumber, are you a Christian plumber? That’s the easiest way for me to explain it. I just make music.”

Chance has similarly tightroped the line between spiritual and secular rap. Some moments on The Search feel decidedly Chance-esque. On “I Miss The Days,” NF delivers heartfelt bars about searching for himself alongside a gospel choir rendition that sounds like it came straight out of Chance's Coloring Book.

But labels aside, there’s more to NF’s come up than Christianity. His success caught the attention of Logic, with whom he toured alongside Kyle in 2018. His music has also grown increasingly secular since the start of his career, helping open him up to a fanbase of non-religious listeners. The Search finds him swapping mentions of God for rumination on disillusionment and mental health. When he does broach the subject of Christianity, he speaks with the vagueness of someone who’s still finding his faith: “Last year, I felt suicidal/This year, I might do somethin' different like talkin' to God more,” he spits on “Change.”

All of this has made NF and Chance The Rapper's release week face-off the showdown that fans never anticipated. But anyone who was paying attention shouldn't be too stunned by NF's upset. —Claudia McNeilly

See Hip-Hop Albums That Topped the Billboard 200 in 2019 (So Far)

See Hip-Hop Albums That Topped the Billboard 200 in 2019 (So Far)

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