Since giving up smoking weed five months ago, the rapper has turned over a new leaf — literally. While seated comfortably in a black director’s chair as the surrounding video production team teeters with light temperatures, zooms and the behind-the-scenes aesthetic for his video interview, Nipsey motions to his publicist for another sip. The sight, a hardcore street rapper sipping tea on purpose, jogs the question of whether or not he has a cold. New York City weather has fluctuated from 40 degrees to an unseasonable 70 degrees on this Wednesday afternoon; perhaps the East Coast has the Los Angeles star under the weather. The assumption is incorrect.
“I like tea,” he says to an inquiry about possibly having a sore throat. He even has a favorite flavor: apple cider. An accurate description of his aesthetic today would be “well-groomed gangsta lumberjack.” His four cornrows are stitched to perfection and his trusty black durag fulfilled its duty, assuring that not a single hair was out of place before it was removed. The blue and red plaid and beige sherpa on his unbuttoned shirt is accented by a white t-shirt and a crowd of shiny, thick Cuban link chains. Face tattoos accent the tawny brown skin on his face, one of which reads “PROLIFIC.” His blue suede Puma sneakers are planted and his even countenance doesn’t exactly read “relieved,” but he is.
I had to be proven in the field before I could walk into the building and ask for the splits that we asked for, the structure that we asked for.
“It feels like a weight is off my chest, my back, everything,” he says. The release of his debut album, Victory Lap, is the “weight” Nipsey Hussle is referring to at the moment. The word “debut” feels out of place, considering the South Central spitter dropped his first mixtape 13 years ago in 2005. By 2008, the rapper would become a player on Epic Records’ roster and release his Bullets Ain’t Got No Name mixtape trilogy. Two years later, his ties to Epic would be severed and replaced with his own label, All Money In, the imprint that would birth his Marathon mixtape series. Starting his own venture aside, his ballsiest move came on October 8, 2013, when Nipsey put 1,000 first-edition copies of his mixtape Crenshaw on sale for $100 each. His audacity caught the attention of a fellow groundbreaking rap entrepreneur, Jay-Z, who purchased 100 copies before Crenshaw sold out and earned the West Coast rapper $100,000 in less than 24 hours.
Fast forward past more critically acclaimed tapes — including Mailbox Money, The Marathon Continues and Slauson Boy 2 — and Nipsey Hussle has inked a joint venture deal with Atlantic Records, in which his company and the label split profits. His business accumen has also extended to include a clothing line, Marathon Clothing. One look at the storied journey and the phrase “a long time coming” does its best to suffice. But was the scenic route worth it? “To me, it was,” he replies, confidently. “I think that that all leveraged the partnership. I had to be proven in the field before I could walk into the building and ask for the splits that we asked for, the structure that we asked for. Also, just to demonstrate that our point-of-view is valuable. So when we in these meetings, our opinion and our vision gets respected and gets mobilized.” The irony is impressive, beautiful even. By his first commercial release, Nipsey has already won a marathon and is taking his very own Victory Lap. The poetry can almost write itself, but luckily Nipsey Hussle’s pen is capable of crafting the story.
speaks with measured conviction, almost as though he is considering the weight of each phrase that leaves his mouth. Words with long “i’s” and prominent “r’s” display the thickness of his L.A. accent. The tension and twang combined make him sound wiser, a step ahead. Through his maneuvers, it becomes clear that what seems to be his calculated nature may have more to do with surviving the Crenshaw District as a member of the Rollin’ Sixties Crips than any other doctrine. He nods slowly in between listing the lessons from the streets that have translated to his business. “Not expectin’ no handouts,” he begins. “Understandin’ you gotta work with what you got and flip whatever you workin’ with and continue to flip what you workin’ with. Being somebody whose reputation precedes them, it could work for you or work against you. And just bein’ solid and bein’ stand up will get you a long way.” Simple enough. But the path to this level of understanding was complex and oftentimes bleak.
Stories, for Nipsey, are paramount, regardless of whether or not one is familiar with its setting. “I’m sure that the white kid from a suburb or any other environment goes through his own struggle and has his own dream and deals with his own surroundings,” he says. “So I think that the underlyin’ thing, is to be consistent and be persistent with pursuin’ your dream, dealing with whatever turbulence your environment presents to you, your family structure. That’s universal; I don’t think that excludes any race or any demographic.” He offers examples of stories outside of his own radius that he relates to. Brazilian crime drama City of God and its main character Lil' Ze. LeBron James’ single-mother home in Akron, Ohio. Michael Jordan’s rejection from his high school varsity basketball team. When it came time to construct his album, the rapper arrived at a fitting focal point: his own life.
The truth is in you. Your life, it might not be on the top of your consciousness, but everything is there. So when you zero in, all the details will come back to you.
With the 32-year-old’s harrowing history — from street violence, to betrayal, to run-ins with the law, to financial loss — Victory Lap zeroed in on its target through moments of reflection. Whether on a flight or zoned out listening to music, Nipsey found his way back to his own narrative and it triggered emotional responses that translated into potent prose when he got back to the booth. “The truth is in you,” he insists. “Your life, it might not be on the top of your consciousness, but everything is there. So when you zero in, all the details will come back to you.”
And come back to him they did. Offering a sequel to a fan favorite, “Blue Laces 2” becomes its predecessor’s darker counterpart, as the rapper recalls a shootout during which his partner is shot several times and Nipsey must drive him to safety. “Young N***a” recalls the time his brother attempted to stow away $250,000 of his hustling profits in his mother’s yard only to dig it up and find that nearly $100,000 was molded. On “Hussle & Motivate,” the rapper details how his gang groomed its soldiers through fistfights and gunshots. And “Loaded Bases” finds him at a crossroads, making a life-defining choice between ending up dead or building an empire (spoiler alert: he chose the latter). The rich anecdotes are also decorated with game, as Nipsey also uses his soapbox to remind his peers — in rap or otherwise — that he is a revolutionary (“Royalties, publishing, plus I own masters / I'll be damned if I slave for some white crackers”).
I’m sure that the white kid from a suburb or any other environment goes through his own struggle and has his own dream, and deals with his own surroundings.
But truth be told, the rapper’s penchant for storytelling, cadence, delivery and flow are not the cutting edge of Victory Lap. Instead, Nipsey Hussle has delivered what is easily his best work to date by developing his ear as a musician. Relying on the stylings of homegrown affiliates 1500 Or Nothin’ and Mike & Keys, the signature bass-thumping West Coast sound is preserved and properly exploited for standouts such as “Last Time That I Checc’d” and “Young N***a.” Assists were put on the board from production legends such as B!nk and Battlecat. Sample selections include the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Willie Hutch and a wildly successful flip of Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.” Soul was sprinkled onto the project by Stacy Barthe, Cee-Lo Green, Marsha Ambrosius and The-Dream.
“I think that I haven’t been able to fully express my capacity as a musician and a music maker,” he admits. “As a rap artist, people know I can rap. People know that I’m authentic, but just as far as the type of music I can make, the level of creativity we’re capable of in the music space, I wanted Victory Lap to be a step in that direction.” One music maven in particular, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, helped take Victory Lap further after encouraging Nipsey to revisit sessions from what he believed was a finished project. For one particular track, Puff sent the Los Angeles rapper back in time for a quick lesson. “He told me to pull up ‘Natural Born Killaz’ by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and listen to that. And it was louder. We had mastered and mixed the song already, I didn’t understand how that record was louder. He was like, ‘Yeah, it sounds more violent, it sounds more L.A. That’s what you aimin’ for. I see what y’all tryin’ to do.’ So we went back and I told them, ‘F**k the meter, f**k the s**t hittin’ the red, make it loud. Make it to where you feel it in your chest. And make it more violent-soundin’, more aggressive.’” Puff’s last-minute genius – the same genius responsible for sounds on The Notorious B.I.G's Life After Death and his own solo album No Way Out – was responsible for the impact of “Rap N***s,” Victory Lap’s early statement that Nipsey Hussle is not to be grouped in with any of his peers.
I think that I haven’t been able to fully express my capacity as a musician and a music maker.
“It ain't that weirdo rap ya'll motherf**kers used to,” he spits on Victory Lap’s title track. But when the discussion of today’s rap game comes up, Nipsey is less abrasive. Opting against naming any specific new artists, Nipsey instead chooses to set his own standard. He believes good rap artists are the ones who contribute to the culture. He interjects the next question to make himself clear. “I wouldn’t say if they not lyrical, they not contributin’ to the culture,” he says quickly, as though to get ahead of any controversy. “When I said that, I mean a form of innovation; you’re not a new version of this or you’re not copyin’ that, you’re addin’ something to the game. So a lot of these young dudes, they’re bringin’ new flavor and new cadences and approaches to the game. Not all of them, but it’s a lot of dope shit goin’ on.”
This modest response may be the result of the last time Nipsey Hussle’s views were taken offensively. Back in January, the rapper came under fire for criticizing what he believes to be a negative representation of Black men by the media. The Instagram photo in question was a nod to his friend Eugene “Big U” Henely Jr., who threw a black-tie banquet for young inner-city athletes. The caption read: “Demonstration speaks louder than Conversation. They gone feed us every image of our men and boys but this one. No hyper violent...No homo sexual...No abandoners....JUS STRONG BLAC MEN AND YOUNG Men.” The post sparked considerable outrage and Nipsey was labeled “homophobic” by naysayers. Even so, over one month later, he stands by his point. “No disrespect to no media outlet, but you see a lot of negative representation,” he still says today. “And I went into detail about what I consider to be negative representation, and that’s where the disconnect took place. But what I meant was that, ‘I bet [the banquet] won’t end up on the front page or no trendin’ topic. I bet you this won’t go viral.’ And it didn’t.”
Nipsey’s tenacity is always in attendance. On and off wax.
on the set now as Nipsey Hussle’s time is moving faster than the conversation. But he is still cool as a cucumber; no sweat on his brow near the small “S” on his left temple. He isn’t shortening his replies, nor does he seem to be in a rush. Elbows still settled in the director’s chair. Pumas still planted. The interview has turned into a Black Panther retrospective — obviously. Nipsey shares that he went to see the film on the date of his album’s release, right in the middle of promo. He compares the film’s depth to that of another Black film frontrunner, Get Out.
Would you rather be at conflict with yourself and at war with the world or at war with yourself and at conflict with the world?
In discussing Michael B. Jordan’s character, Erik Killmonger, the rapper — who is of Eritrean descent — draws a parallel that hits close to home. “What that represents to me is us as Black men in America and bein’ disconnected from Africa — and the culture and the embrace and the love — and bein’ kind of brought up in a situation out here where it makes young men cold, dealin’ with the environment.” The wheels are really always turning for the rapper. A nuance here, a theme there, a lesson over there. For lack of a better term, the question becomes whether being “woke” is tiring. He answers the question with a question.
“This is how I’ll answer that: Would you rather be at conflict with yourself and at war with the world or at war with yourself and at conflict with the world? Which would you rather?” War with the world seems more plausible. “Right. So, a lot of us are at conflict with ourselves ‘cause it ain’t cool or it’s uncomfortable to speak what you know is true. You brought up what happened on Instagram. I’m cool with that, though. I think you’re a coward to some degree if you’re afraid to express what’s real to you or represent your ideas with confidence. So I don’t even call it “woke.” I think everybody in America is aware of the reality and you got some people that’s standin’ on it and other people that’s not.”
Who you with?