After years of delays, the rapper's proper debut album was a confluence of everything he had been through upon its 2018 release.
There’s a three-song run towards the beginning of Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap that explains how Neighborhood Nip’s official debut -- and also, his curtain call -- embodies its title. Track three features YG, track four Diddy, and five Kendrick Lamar. In these three tracks you hear everything Nipsey Hussle (born Ermias Asghedom) aspired to be, and eventually became, in his all too brief 33 years.
There’s YG, the L.A. mainstay who gained national attention with his acclaimed 2014 album My Krazy Life, but it was his collaboration with Nipsey, the Blood meeting halfway with the Crip to collectively tell Donald Trump to fuck right off in 2016, that ascended YG to rap radio -- a space he still dominates today. In Diddy, Nipsey found a rapper-turned-mogul he could model himself after, spending as much time over the last few years investing in education and real estate as he did making music. Then there’s Kendrick, the hometown hero turned globetrotting superstar, the kid from section 80 showing up on rap radio every four songs.
On these three tracks, everything Nipsey worked to become is reflected in the peers he features. The album is more than these choices, but they are representative of the moves Nipsey made to eventually become a surprising nominee for rap album of the year at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
Because of Nipsey’s local popularity, Victory Lap wasn’t an introduction, or a coronation, when it was finally released in February 2018 after years of delays. Nipsey had been at the top of L.A. rap for years, before regionality re-emerged as a likely indicator of one's commercial chances. Before 03 Greedo and Drakeo would blast from cars and high school parking lots, there was Neighborhood Nip, still in Crenshaw, a neighborhood organizer, investor, and living totem for its youth to aspire to. He reached across the Blood-Crip divide, supporting Jay Rock of the Bounty Hunter Bloods early on and eventually finding a mutual adversary with another Blood, YG, in order to record “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” in 2016.
Nipsey’s ascent began in 2008, when he released the first two volumes of the Bullets Ain’t Got No Name mixtape series. His music began to flood the streets, but it wasn't until 2010 where the proper arc of his career emerged. After repeated trouble with Epic Records at the beginning of this decade, Nipsey broke away from the label, investing in himself as an independent entity and a self-sufficient artist. Mixtapes like 2010’s The Marathon and its sequel introduced the rapper to an area outside of Crenshaw, and by 2013, Nipsey decided to charge $100 for physical copies of Crenshaw, limiting the release to 1,000 copies. The digital version was free online, but physicals were released at pop-up shops around L.A. and featured bonuses like concert tickets to future Nipsey shows. This was a model that inspired artists like Mach-Hommy to put a price tag on their art that they believed accurately represented the value of the work.
He understood his worth as an artist and a person. He knew the worth of his community and the centers his people congregated around. Nipsey used his talent and savvy to begin to reimagine his Crenshaw neighborhood in his image.
The time between Crenshaw and Victory Lap found Nipsey relentlessly tinkering with the latter while investing more time in community improvements, like purchasing the strip mall where his Marathon clothing brand set up shop, with a plan to build a housing complex atop it. Victory Lap became the celebration of this plan. It was a beginning and an end, but above all, it was a reward for 10 years of hustle.
Victory Lap was a confluence of everything Nipsey had been through. One didn’t need to listen to hours of his mixtapes to get a picture of the man -- although his early work is far from a slog. Yet Victory Lap stands apart as a thesis for a life, its history, philosophy, and narrative wrapped into 16 tight tracks.
The album's emotional center is “Hustle and Motivate,” a slow, piano slap of a beat re-purposed from “Hard Knock Life” below Nipsey’s straightforward flow. “It’s all I’m tryna do / Hustle and motivate / Choppers a throwaway / Hustle the Hova way / That’s why they follow me, huh? / They think I know the way,” he raps. This is as clear of a mission statement as Nipsey puts forth on the album. It’s sneering and cocky but never unearned.
The rapper was rewarded for this steady, unflinching effort like he’d never been before. He was always a staple and a revered figure within L.A., but with Victory Lap, it felt like the rest of the country was catching up to Nipsey’s particular method, as the album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart upon release. This method consisted of an optimism that had been beaten down by a grizzled determinism, essentially making sure that neither he nor his people would ever have to cling to optimism in the face of despair again.
Victory Lap is a balm for anyone trying to be better, in any way imaginable. But Nipsey never came across as saccharine or corny; this is a textbook for independence by any means necessary. With Victory Lap, this idea come across with clarity and resolve. Fans and critics alike recognized the unique voice of Nipsey -- perhaps the first time they coalesced so strongly towards a definitive opinion of his work. His timbre, too, reached a new height on Victory Lap.
On the album, Nipsey often raps with a half-yelp; his voice quivers but never breaks. He sounds like he’s seen the worst but can’t quite shake those visions from interrupting this new, better life. “Sacrifice / Hustle, paid the price,” he raps on “Grinding All My Life.” The next line, in the aftermath of his death, is absolutely crushing: “I’m married to this game / That’s who I made my wife / She said I’d die alone / I told that bitch she probably right.” But with a Grammy nomination, a transforming Crenshaw that his friends have vowed to continue developing, and a world recognizing the talent that was just taken away, Hussle’s vision isn’t gone. Anyone that believed in him was an ally. That’s just how he worked.
Victory Lap ends with “Right Hand 2 God,” another day in the life stroll through Nipsey’s world. It’s approachable, even if you’ve never cruised through Crenshaw on a summer day. Horns emerge triumphantly after Nipsey’s first verse, coronating a king who waited too long to be crowned but always knew he’d be next. “Fight with these demons / Shine light on my people / This life is a free throw,” he raps.
It’s easy to add extra weight to these lines in the wake of his death, but Nipsey was always about doing everything for everybody while he was still around, because too many around him had disappeared before him. Now that he’s gone, and more people discover the immense power of Victory Lap, the radically positive vision must continue to be developed. It simply must, because no one deserved to cross the finish line like Nipsey Hussle did.