February 16, 20183:09 PM ET
A decade in the waiting, Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap is more than an anticipated major-label debut — it’s a testament to the independent grind he employed to cultivate a dedicated fanbase. This is same artist, after all, who had the audacity to price physical copies of his 2013 mixtape Crenshaw at $100 a pop, when a still woefully devalued music industry had rappers en masse giving away their music for free.
Nipsey didn’t buy it. And it paid in dividends: $100,000 in the first 24 hours, to be exact — even Jay-Z respected his hustle enough to order 100 copies. But it takes more than an innate business ethic to make great music. And on Victory Lap, the first release from his multi-album deal with Atlantic Records, he opens the vault to reveal of fresh stockpile of thug motivation. A long-time member of L.A.’s notorious Rollin’ 60s Crips, Nipsey’s gangland snarl remains as visceral as ever, but the former street entrepreneur hustles legally now, a reformed hard-head turned inspiration to the hood.
When I talked to him for the exclusive breakdown of his album with NPR Music, Nipsey was still feeling the heat from social media after an Instagram post of him praising a positive image of young black boys was widely condemned for simultaneously expressing homophobic sentiments. He declined to speak on it directly, saying he preferred to let the music speak for itself. In a sense, it does. Nipsey’s hustle speaks to those who often develop a paranoid sense of hypermasculinity in order to survive environments where their own identity is a primary target. That’s certainly no defense, but perhaps some missing context.
“When they [read] this interview, they’ll be able to go through and listen to the album and really break down my point of view,” he told me, after deep-diving into Victory Lap, track by track, in his own words. “That’ll give them an insight on who I am and what I believe in more than any tweet or statement or Instagram post. When they hear the music, they’ll hear what I believe in and what I choose to promote. And I think that’s the most important thing.”
1. “Victory Lap”
“I’m a urban legend / South Central in a certain section / Can’t explain how I curbed detectives, guess it’s / Evidence of a divine presence.”
If you check the stats — the murder rates and incarceration rates in the years I was a teenager in L.A. — in my section of the Crenshaw District, in the Rollin 60s, none of my peers survived. None of my peers avoided prison. None of ’em. Everybody got bullet wounds and felonies and strikes. So to make it out mentally stable and not in prison and not on drugs, that’s a win. That’s a victory in itself. Then to be in the position I find myself in as an artist and entrepreneur who has respect around the world — that’s legendary. And I say it in the most humble way.
That’s what I was talking about in that line. When I reflect on it, it’s unbelievable. It’s gotta be evidence of a divine presence, because it wasn’t that I’m just the smartest dude or just wiggled my way through. It had to be a calling on my life and I started to see that.
2. “Rap N*****”
Me and Diddy had already been in contact with each other by being in the music industry and all of that, but my son’s mom [actor Lauren London] did an early Sean John ad and she had a good relationship with him since then. Her and Cassie were real close; any time Cassie would have a birthday party or they’d be hanging out, Lauren would invite me. I’d be like, I ain’t trying to wiggle into no relationships. But one time Puff was like, “Tell Nip to come through, man; Nip don’t f*** with me or what?” So I made sure that I went. Me and Puff had a real good convo. I was just like, “You know bro, I ain’t one of them dudes that be trying to get up under Diddy’s hand and play niggas close and all of that. I know you’ve got a million people that try to get energy from you and your resources up out you.”
He’s like, “Nah bro, I’m in L.A. and I respect the movement. Let’s build.” We had a convo about Life After Death. Puff was blessed to have an artist as great as Biggie and Biggie was blessed to have a producer as great as Puff. To me, Bad Boy was the Motown for rap — which is being able to engineer the songwriters, the producers, the stars — so I have the ultimate respect for Puff as a producer. I told him, “I would love to get in the studio with you and build on that level.”
He was like, “Nah Nip! I ain’t never done a West Coast album, that’d be crazy. I’ll produce the whole album.” I’m like, “Alright I’m a hold you to that!” When it was album time, I told him, “Look, I got my album done, I’m coming to play these records for you.”
I originally asked him to get on “Rap N*****.” He heard the record and he was like, “Yeah, ‘Rap N*****’ is strong Hussle, but listen to this.” And he pulled up [1994’s] “Natural Born Killaz” with Ice Cube and Dre. And he said, “It don’t sound like that though, bro.” And this was the version [of “Rap N*****”] before the one we put out. It had less production. So I had my producer and we went to Puff’s mansion he had just bought in L.A. — he had built a studio in the back.
He pressed play [again] on “Natural Born Killaz,” like, “I hear what you’re trying to do. It didn’t sound like this sonically; it’s not ready, bro.” And I’m like, “Damn. You right!” We had it mixed and mastered, but the Dre and Ice Cube record was noticeably louder. So we went back to the studioand I hit [sound engineer] Mixed by Ali, like, “Bro we gotta mix it again, it’s not loud enough.” He’s like, “No, it’s gonna get louder in mastering.” “No, bro.” And I played “Natural Born Killaz” for everybody — the producers, the keyboard players. I said, “Listen to the energy of this record. We gotta make it this loud.”
We went back in and reproduced it and added
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