Nipsey Hussle wasn’t in his prime, but he was damn sure close. The 33-year-old rapper had just released his debut studio album Victory Lap in 2018, and it felt like a victory for hip-hop. He pushed a new kind of pricing model for rap music, one that sought to dismantle the music industry’s system of giving out scraps to artists. He came into 2019 off the spoils of this LP and was poised to take over rap music as we know it. But tragically, a gunman took his life on March 31, in front of a clothing store that he owned in Los Angeles. The rapper often talked about how music, and life itself, was a marathon. He’s bowed out of the race, but the lessons he’s imparted on the world will help countless others finish the race.
Hussle’s first body of work was Slauson Boy, which dropped in 2005. It was roguish and malevolent but it contained some of the earliest essence of the darkly charismatic figure who would later emerge. In 2008 he dropped two bodies of work, Bullets Ain’t Got No Name and its sequel, Vol. 2. The year after that, he released the third volume. He was quickly building a name for himself in the streets of Los Angeles because, aside from a passing resemblance to Snoop Dogg, the kid had bars. Not the Cassidy, flash over substance bars. Nipsey’s were straight-edged and cunning. He didn’t hide behind words or seek to get laughs. But it wasn’t so much as storytelling as it was giving out random vignettes of the past and present, sprinkled with violence and a fierce appreciation for the Californian atmosphere. There’s no wonder why he was inducted in to XXL’s Freshman Class of 2010 alongside other future rap stalwarts like J. Cole, Big Sean, and Jay Rock. Nipsey was on the fast track to meet destiny.
Around this time, Nipsey was signed to Epic Records – but things were going down fast. He left the label that same year and started his own, All Money In. It is here where we might surmise that Nipsey began to deeply conceptualize the idea of life as a race. That December, he released The Marathon. The following year, The Marathon Continues. On these projects, he talked about the hoops and hurdles he went through for independence, and it sounded like a rough journey. But he was cut out for it. In the midst of the independent grind, he would go on to work closely with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and was strongly hinting at possibly signing with them. This never came to fruition, presumably because he wouldn’t have the creative freedom that he wanted, so he remained on the market. It would prove to be a smart decision, because Nipsey’s empire was, slowly but surely, building. Aligning himself with anyone else could potentially blow it all down.
Nipsey had seen through the design of the matrix. His experiences dealing with the major label machine over the course of the next few years mixed with the resolve of a man who refused to bend. This brought along his 2013 mixtape Crenshaw, a body of work he released for free online accompanied by a physical run of 1,000 copies priced at $100, an attempt to create “a product made with no compromise or concession to the platforms,” i.e. those who wanted to be free of the record label bullshit cycle. It was liberation. Support the artist who will see 100% of the profits as opposed to the big wigs at labels who hand out the scraps. JAY-Z reportedly bought 100 copies himself. He loved the idea. Nipsey clearly had something going, so his next body of work, 2014’s Mailbox Money, upped the ante, with physical copies costing $1,000 per pop. In one month, the rapper made $175,000 from a project that was also available for free. It showed an engagement with his mission and an intense fascination with his music. He wasn’t a traditional, radio-dominating star. He was one of the people, a voice working around the industry who ultimately brings the trophy back home when everything is said and done.
Victory Lap arrived last year, and the record was everything that made Nipsey Hussle who he is – a bard’s tale of fidelity and inspiration. The rapper’s engaging flows on tracks like “Rap Niggas” and “Young Nigga” rattle confidence in the speakers through a strained voice that cuts with precision. It just sounds good; the fact that there’s powerful substance behind it strengthens its effect. He teaches and he preaches, but the threat of danger lurks beneath every syllable. As far as debuts go, it ranks up there as one of the best of the last decade. There was so much room to grow from there, especially when one factors in the philanthropy that he was involved in (he opened a STEM center for inner-city youths, a barbershop, and other locations for his community). He’d become a legend early because he’d been through the battlements and emerged as one of rap’s most genuine. Not because he caught the most bodies or caused the most trouble. Because he lived what he rapped and legitimately sought to better his community through education as well as opportunity. He brought a new meaning to rap’s constantly changing definition of authenticity.
Nipsey’s death cuts deep. Victory Lap is more than a celebration of his moment in retrospect; it’s a party for Nipsey’s life and achievements, a debut that serves as a final, victorious chapter in the rapper’s life. Let the fact that he’s been taken off this planet early only underscore the brilliance that he approached during his time here. Armed with only his mind as a weapon, he attacked the dragon of the music industry and came away unscathed. He cemented a place in rap’s pantheon of elite artists by virtue of his talent and community outreach. He may have had to bow out of the race early, but he won. And for that, he deserves all of the accolades that he shall receive. Rest in power, Nipsey Hussle.
Revisit our 2018 interview with Nipsey Hussle right here.