Nipsey Hussle was a work in progress. Even with more than a decade of mixtapes under his belt, the Los Angeles rapper only released his debut studio album, Victory Lap, last year. Hussle’s long road to the mainstream, major label project—paved with unstinting work ethic atop unsuccessful label deals—was validated when it secured a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album.
Many of Hussle’s extra-musical projects, too, were bearing fruit. He’d made it a point to pour money back into his South LA hometown of Crenshaw, opening Marathon Clothing in 2017 and Vector90, a co-working space and cultural incubator, last year. He owned a Fatburger restaurant in the area and even invested in its elementary school. He was known as Neighborhood Nip, and he made sure he lived up to that name.
Hussle’s untimely death last week cut hip hop deep for all the above reasons and more. Here, we revisit five songs that help explain where the rapper came from and where he was headed. Rest in peace, Nipsey Hussle.
1“Hussle in the House”
“Hussle in the House” was actually on Hussle’s second mixtape, Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol 2, which dropped late 2008. The bouncy track, with its quintessential West Coast whine, became the rapper’s debut single, and was supposed to lead to an album titled South Central State of Mind in the summer of 2009.
That project never came to fruition, but “Hussle in the House”’s lyrical combination of unvarnished street realities, shoutouts to friends and the neighborhood, and moneyed boasts would serve the rapper well for years to come.
2“Gangstas Life” featuring Snoop Dogg
If you watched that video for “Hussle in the House” and came away thinking the lanky Hussle reminiscent of a certain Snoop Dogg, you’d be forgiven—as even the FADER pointed out in 2009, the comparison was a common, if not entirely valid, one.
But collaboration is always better than comparison-turned-competition, and The Doggfather was one of the bigger rappers who leapt into the booth with Hussle after the latter started to ruffle feathers. “Gangstas Life,” with its easygoing guitar-accented beat and Pooh Bear’s melodic singing on the hook, was a smooth vehicle for both rappers to shine in their own ways. Hussle would later feature on Snoop’s 2009 album, Malice n Wonderland.
3“Crenshaw and Slauson (True Story)”
“I had a vision nobody else could see,” Hussle proclaims on “Crenshaw and Slauson (True Story),” the closing track of Crenshaw. And when one thinks back to the entrepreneurial rollout of the 2013 mixtape, it’s difficult to disagree. Though Neighborhood Nip, ever attuned to the wants and needs of the everyman, dropped the mixtape for free online, he also had 1,000 physical copies made and priced them at $100 each.
“The reason I chose to charge $100 each copy and only start with 1,000 units is because I tailor [make] my music for those who are listening,” Hussle explained to Rap Radar at the time. “It’s not about stepping outside of what I’m known for in hopes of new discovery.”
The rapper’s faith in his fanbase was well-placed. Not only did he sell more than a thousand copies, he attracted the attention of one deep-pocketed, influential patron: Jay-Z, who bought a hundred copies. And Nip would up the ante on this business strategy for his next mixtape, 2015’s Mailbox Money, which he priced at $1,000 per copy. A week after its release, he’d already sold 60 copies.
4“Status Symbol” featuring Buddy
After Hussle’s passing, tributes poured in from myriad artists. It seemed like there was no one in the hip hop and R&B worlds who didn’t appreciate Neighborhood Nip. But when one casts an eye on the range of artists he’d invited onto his songs and the collaborations he had nurtured project after project, it’s no surprise that Hussle was so beloved.
Take, for instance, “Status Symbol” featuring Buddy off Mailbox Money. They would link up again for “Status Symbol 2” on 2017’s Slauson Boy 2, and “Status Symbol 3” off Victory Lap, settling into a fraternal pattern: Buddy took care of the melodic hooks and choruses while Nip got his bars off.
But that wasn’t all. “Status Symbol” ends with a two-minute skit where the rapper Lil Cadi PGE offers to spit some bars for Hussle. After an impressive freestyle expressing the youngin’s desire to go major, Hussle welcomes the 16-year-old rapper into the fold. As Nip carved his own path, he made time and space for friends old and new: Even on his records, he loved to build community and pull others up with him.
5“Grinding All My Life”
Talk about a song that encapsulated Nip’s whole ethos. “Grinding All My Life,” one of the many standouts of Victory Lap, balances a sharp, infectious chorus with hard-boiled truths about Hussle’s slog through the streets and the industry.
“Damn right, I like the life I built,” he sneers. “I’m from west side, 60, shit, I might got killed.” Elsewhere, he elaborates on the gang life he chose when he was a teenager: “I know that west side, RSC’s is us / LAPD on my dick, Imma squeeze and bust.” Even with Murda Beatz’s polished production, it’s easy to hear the world-weariness that colors Hussle’s bars. That voice, hoarse and heavy with authority, is one that hip hop will sorely miss.