In an era in hip hop where it’s become stylish to celebrate self-destruction, what set Nipsey Hussle apart was his clearheaded, unwavering insistence that striving for better will lead to a better life: “I say it’s worth it, I won’t say it’s fair, find your purpose or you wastin’ air,” he explained on “Victory Lap.”
While it’s not unusual for rappers will head to the suburbs once they’ve escaped the cycle of poverty, and reached a certain level of success—bringing up with them only their nearest and dearest, while still continuing to portray and profit off the same image they had when they broke out—Nipsey, on the other hand, took his financial success and reinvested in the Slauson neighbourhood he came up in. He bought real estate and owned stores, allowing the dollars he made through music to travel back to the hood. To this end, Nipsey will be remembered as he lived, as a man who symbolized integrity, grit, determination, independence, and the better side of entrepreneurism. While his vision for greatness ricocheted from narrow and short-sighted, to openly bigoted, positioning him in rap’s central myth has become closer aligned to that of American dream and the self-made man, rather than someone who could embody the future of the genre. In that respect, Nipsey was his generations paradigmatic example of this ideal.
Breaking out through the mixtape-blog circuit of the late aughts, Nipsey was part of the class of rappers who ended the ’90s hangover and widespread label mismanagement that was the aughts. He was also a leader in the recent west coast revival, seeing national attention before Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, YG, Tyga, and Vince Staples. His first releases to gain significant traction was the mixtape trilogy Bullets Have No Names Vol. 1-3 which was bolstered by the single “Hussle In The House.” Quickly gaining traction, he signed to Epic and made the 2010 XXL Freshman List.
Later that year, however, he grew disenchanted with his label deal after they shelved his debut album, South Central State of Mind. He soon left the label, becoming a prominent spokesperson for the importance of hip hop artists going independent and retaining their masters. This was perhaps best symbolized by the rollout of his mixtape, Crenshaw, which was made famous for its $100 physical price tag, and the 100 copies Jay-Z bought of it in support. In 2018, he finally released his studio album debut, through his own All Money In No Money Out label and Atlantic, to great acclaim and a Grammy nomination.
Following in the footsteps of artists like Jay-Z and E-40, Nipsey preached the importance of black ownership, giving back to where you came from, and integrity. For Nipsey, success wasn’t just about owning the nicest cars or jewelry but more so about creating social change through giving back. It is also what makes his tragic death so crushing: that this man who defied the odds and created sky-high success for himself, was killed so senselessly in front of the store he owned in the neighbourhood he so proudly represented and cared for. It is this spirit of imparting game and inspiration to his audience that makes Nipsey a divisive figure for a generation; as fans and critics alike recognize his sustained desire to change institutional systems, and identify the shortcomings of his viewpoints which have long muddied the legacy of rap. Now, his legacy lives on through not only his music, community, and countless number of people he’s inspired to find a better life, but as an example of the reality that even artists with the best of intentions still have room to grow.