By: Sheldon Pearce
The long-awaited debut from the Los Angeles rapper cashes in on its promise. It’s the most gripping record in his catalog.
It’s taken Los Angeles MC Nipsey Hussle longer than most to create his moment. The seasoned mixtape veteran has been on the indie-rap circuit for almost a decade and was once touted as a future star. When fame didn’t come, he made his own seat at the table, infamously selling copies of his Crenshaw tape for $100 each and getting JAY-Z to endorse him and buy 100 of them. He parlayed his rap successes into local business ventures—including a hair shop and a “smart store” for his clothing line—and became a hometown hero who turned his talent into a small merchandising empire. Victory Lap, his first album on a multi-project deal with Atlantic Records, is more than six years in the making. It is formally his “debut album” but functionally his big cash in. Bridging several generations of West Coast rap, Victory Lap uses his cache of war stories to power the most gripping entry in his catalog, recouping an investment.
His raps are still riddled with flashbacks to gangland survivalism, but he’s focused on his pivot to legitimacy, how he flipped Cripping on Crenshaw into a lucrative indie-rap career and then flipped that into an entrepreneurial enterprise. Black capitalism is foremost on his mind these days; he wants to build up his community and get others to follow, advocating for the grooming of more strong black men. But Nipsey’s ambitions can be more problematic than they seem on the surface: He has used his enthusiasm can to fuel homophobia, denigrating many of the men he claims to want to empower. There are nuggets to take aways from his lectures, but the primary lesson to be learned here is just how ingrained “toughness” is in representations of manhood.
As statements go, Victory Lap is more of a remembrance than a celebration. From digging up $100,000 his brother buried in his mother’s backyard for safekeeping only to discover half the money had molded to fighting off surprise challengers trying to steal jewelry from his entourage in Vegas, the album painstakingly documents the life of a reformed bruiser turned hood economist. Self-taught and self-funded, Nipsey fought to escape the cycle of an existence measured only in summers—time spent as “the man” on the block or serving sentences in the pen. He has been chasing sustainability since he was a teenager, and now that he has it, he’s appreciative, relieved even. He doesn’t just bask in his moment, though, he challenges others to pursue the same goals, as on “Million While You Young,” which equates money with salvation (“I can tell you niggas how I came up/Similar to climbin’ out the grave, huh”).
His flow is effortless, letting off stream-of-consciousness musings on death and loss that carry anxiety and paranoia within: “All my partners steady passin’, tryna wiggle through this madness/Tryna fight this gravity at times and I swear I could feel it pull me backwards/Puttin’ thousands on they caskets, tryna pick the right reactions/I appreciate the process, but I’m so conflicted about the status,” he raps on “Status Symbol 3.” Ghosts of lost friends and loved ones haunt his raps, the echoes of shots fired long ago still ring in his ears, and his verses are full of close calls. There are subtle tensions within even his most gaudy tales, as no win has come without consequence or sacrifice. But his raps aren’t just a mark of persistence, they are a push to improve—both his state of mind and quality of life.
Nipsey’s rhymes are designed to string out little observations until they form a big idea. They aren’t instantly quotable, but they slowly unspool to reveal kernels of fortune-cookie wisdom. “This ain’t entertainment, it’s for niggas on the slave ship/These songs just the spirituals I swam against them waves with,” he raps on “Dedication.” The remarks don’t always connect or make sense in sequence but they can create powerful impressions. He stays on-message almost the entire record, promoting the expansion of black wealth. On “Last Time That I Checc’d,” which is in part an homage to Jeezy, he salutes hustlers in the streets trying to feed their kids and single moms struggling to make ends meet. But he calls for more “black owners” and presents himself as the template.
Debuts are usually albums of firsts, but Victory Lap is full of sequels and standards. When it isn’t heavily indebted to his West Coast forebears Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, and Dj Quik, or literally adding a follow-up in a song series—“Blue Laces 2,” “Keyz 2 the City 2”—it is returning to Nipsey’s well for hard-nosed bully rap. The hour-long album honors all the work he’s put in and looks back at all he’s achieved, but it also looks forward to all he has yet to build and all those he can still inspire. His tactics can be tone-deaf and without nuance, but he knows exactly who he’s speaking to and for.