Nipsey Hussle Embodied the Best of Hip-Hop
The rapper Nipsey Hussle played the long game, and he played in South Central Los Angeles, a place where it is far from guaranteed that such efforts will be rewarded. On Sunday afternoon, all of his potential futures came crashing down on the corner of Slauson and Crenshaw, in the neighborhood where he was raised, when unknown assailants shot him down. He was just thirty-three. His belief that life is not a sprint was apparent in his work, from his mixtape “The Marathon,” from 2010, up through his début studio album and final project, “Victory Lap,” which came out last year. Throughout, he distilled the lessons that he’d learned on the front lines, deploying a distinctly West Coast rap style against his truth-stained lyrics.
There’s an understated artfulness to Nipsey’s matter-of-fact flows, as cool as they are precise. His best tracks are infused with the self-starting motivation of a corner hustler turned C.E.O., and “Victory Lap” marked a pivotal point in his career. After more than a decade of working mostly on the independent circuit and investing all the returns back into his music and community, Nipsey watched as this album caused the mainstream to take notice, culminating with a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. On the title track, Nipsey declares, “Spoke some things into the universe and they appeared / I say it’s worth it, I won’t say it’s fair / Find your purpose or you wastin’ air”; it was both a call to action and a well-earned exhale.
But sometimes, no matter how well you run the race, there’s no outrunning circumstance, and the bullets that snuffed out Nipsey’s light are grim reminders that “getting out” doesn’t always mean getting safe. Nothing about a premature death ever feels fair or just, but, in Nipsey’s case, it is particularly excruciating. He was someone who built on his artistry to become a pillar of his community—a student and a teacher rolled into one. He gleaned feelings of responsibility and manhood from the music of such rappers as Tupac, which came out in his lyrics and in his actions. (On one track, “Dedication,” he proclaimed himself the “Tupac of my generation”—a haunting statement now.) Nipsey rebuilt basketball courts for kids with hoop dreams and started Vector90, a STEM center and co-working space that he’d hoped would bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and the inner city, for those with other ideas. He chose a Crenshaw shopping plaza where he was harassed growing up as the site for his clothing store, Marathon. He wanted the kids of his neighborhood to feel welcome where he didn’t. He instilled hope and found beauty where so many had only found despair and hopelessness, and that is, itself, revolutionary. He loved Los Angeles; he loved hip-hop; he loved his people; he loved us.
“I understand my obligation—I got an obligation to my community first, my family first, to hoods like L.A. all around the country who live for the culture,” he wrote in an essay for the Players’ Tribune. “That’s part of the game, the way I see it. I have a duty to justify the seat that I’m sitting in. Nobody has any success on his own.” Nipsey embodied many of the things that make hip-hop so powerful. In 2013, he sold physical copies of his mixtape “Crenshaw” for a hundred dollars a copy (Jay-Z purchased a hundred of them) and, the next year, pressings of its follow-up, “Mailbox Money,” went for a thousand dollars each. What could be interpreted as crudely capitalistic instead seemed more like an example of what it means to bet on yourself without an intermediary, to commit an act of radical self-determination. He was as tenacious in his artistic endeavors as he was in his vision of communal prosperity, and, though his liberation politics sometimes fell short—particularly when it came to the L.G.B.T.Q. community—his kind of integrity was rare. The passion and respect for home and self that he rapped about were evident in his philanthropic efforts; that he had bought back the block that he was killed on is the biggest tragedy of all.
At a moment like this, it’s hard to know where to go next, how to give without becoming jaded or how to live without becoming cynical. There are no easy answers, but there is always the music. Nipsey was the uncommon rapper who made a point of owning his master recordings—a fact that he relentlessly trumpeted, as if he were trying to show his peers a way out—so, in his honor, let’s just play his songs. Let’s blare his redemption story, set to trunk-rattling bass and whining synths, like a blueprint that can inspire the next generation to fight in both the pursuit of a dream and on behalf of their own neighborhoods. Because, to quote Nipsey, that’s “How you win the whole thing and lift up a cigar / With sweat drippin’ down your face ‘cause the mission was hard.” Nipsey earned that cigar and every triumphant breath of his victory lap, and with the beacon of his life and legacy, the marathon continues.