Nipsey Hussle’s independence has earned him legitimacy and respect. No one is scoffing at the idea that the Grammy-nominated project Victory Lap is the album of the year.
Nipsey Hussle is a Los Angeles Lakers fan. When we speak, back in August, he’s hopeful that the Lakers will emerge anew following LeBron James’ arrival. By early December, he’s watching the newly formed Lakers sputter to an 18-13 record.
Success ebbs and flows.
After what has felt like a marathon of a year –– especially when keeping tabs on the newest rap releases –– Nipsey Hussle, real name Ermias Asghedom, asserts that his official debut studio album, Victory Lap, has stood out as the year’s most definitive rap record. In an op-ed written for Billboard, Nipsey made his argument:
…the album was just everything hip-hop represents. Even the title, Victory Lap — with the music and how it sounded under that title — I think it was just really concise, and really consistent with everything that I represent as an artist, and also what I’ve been saying since I came in the game.
While Victory Lap is joined by some esteemed company in that conversation, Nipsey’s independence over the years has earned him legitimacy and respect that doesn’t have people scoffing at the idea that he made the rap project of the year; last month it was announced that Victory Lap received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album.
Nipsey, whose father is Eritrean, prides his independence on the principles of his country. He’s deeply patriotic, as one would expect from a second-generation son of an immigrant. “We never took aid or food programmes from foreign entities, even through all the troubles,” he said. “I saw those values and wanted them for myself.” (Earlier this summer, Eritrea made peace with neighboring Ethiopia, in a landmark moment for both nations whose ties had been severed completely until now.)
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No one really ever stops working, but success is fleeting especially in a time where wins and losses are measured by relevancy and numbers. Nipsey says he’s far gone from his past gang life but even he’s aware of how close failure is. Every now and again, he still thinks about friends that have passed — Nipsey believes his successes are also for the people who can’t be here to celebrate.
“It’s a representation of LA culture and rap,” Nipsey said. “My album allowed for street narratives to be heard, which I haven’t heard in a while, especially at this level where we’re at. The production was cinematic, but the storytelling, for me, was close to my heart.”
When you factor in the material that never made it online or existed on MySpace, Nipsey has remained one of the most prolific rappers from LA. The posse cut“We Gangbangin,” taken from his third mixtape Bullets Aint Got No Name Vol. 3, saw both a young Nipsey and Jay Rock trade bars. Back then when he was just a Slauson Boy, and unashamed with his affiliations to the streets, reppin’ blue flags, while showing love for the red, also.
In 2010, shortly after being released by Epic, Nipsey made the XXL Freshman Cover, arguably one of its strongest, with Freddie Gibbs, J. Cole, Rock, Wiz Khalifa, and Big Sean. A couple of years later, rumors began emerging of a potential partnership with MMG, but he decided against it, so he could have full control over what would become Victory Lap.
Sonically, Victory Lap is far removed from Nipsey’s early mixtapes. While earlier on, he was still clearly adjusting to post-gang and jail life, unsure of the future. Victory Lap, and its anthemic intro, show a self-assured Nipsey, with his own empire that no longer exists in nefariousness. “It’s the album for storytellers, and those who appreciate the narration and sequencing,” Nipsey said.
With his All Money In label, Nipsey has been able to craft his own narrative regarding his career. He’s always been the maker of his own destiny, much of the tone on Victory Lap reflects that, nor does he gripe about the perils of independent life. It’s a life he chose.
“I haven’t had a deep moment to myself to really take in what Victory Lap means to me,” Nipsey said. “I’ve been in myself, working, but when I’ve been out in the world, folks tell me.” I guess, when you’re used to churning out material, it’s easy to remain on autopilot, even when it’s a landmark moment in your career.
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In recent years, LA’s rap dominance was, in part, due to Kendrick Lamar’s reign and TDE’s subsequent rise, with artists such as Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q. The success of rappers is often indirectly mentioned in relation to Kendrick, which narrows perspectives more than widens. But semantics are important here, Nipsey sits in the pocket of West Coast gangsta rap that still sounds local, while the Kendricks have gone global.
“Part of me staying grounded is about the music itself too,” Nipsey said. “So much of the game is smoke and mirrors, that’s why the stories I’m always telling reflect that and where I come from.”
Nipsey may not be spitting about gangbanging as much these days but the “Hussle and Motivate” philosophy the streets have historically, due to circumstance, had to buy in. Poverty is bad enough, without being reminded about it in music, and for all Kendrick’s illuminating qualities, it’s difficult to escape that. However, Victory Lap inspires, not just in its tone and themes with songs such “Status Symbol 3” with Buddy and “Keys 2 The City 2,” but the production as well. And for most of us trying to get somewhere in life, every bit of motivation helps — even if Victory Lap ends up being your workout tape (like it was for me.)
“Before music, I was hustling, so for me, everything in this was about respecting the game. I remember growing up seeing people rob banks and liquor stores, then come back with cars, jewelry and shit, but still ending up in jail,” Nipsey said. “I learned that you’ve got to zero in on the music.”
A decade since Nipsey’s debut, and a relatively slow burning career, Nipsey Hussle believes that Victory Lap is the hard-nosed rap that this level has needed. “This represents completion and this was a goal I made before I had a career, back when I was doing my shit. I was just a young dude in the streets, trying to figure out life and I made this album for him.”
Jesse Bernard is a London and Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared on The Guardian, Dazed, FACT, Noisey, Crack Magazine, BRICK Magazine and more. His work can be found at @marvinscorridor.