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Nipsey Hussle Tells The Epic Stories Behind 'Victory Lap,' Track By Track

Nipsey Hussle's <em>Victory Lap</em> is out now.
Nicholas Watkin @NickWYNC
Courtesy of the artist
Nipsey Hussle's Victory Lap is out now.

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 condemnedfor 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 the synths to go throughout the whole song instead of [dropping] the instruments out on certain parts. This is West Coast street anthem. Let the synth go through the whole song. So we remixed it and brought it back and Puff was like, "Now it's ready, bro."

3. "Last Time That I Checc'd" (feat. YG)

I wanted to create something for the West Coast that they felt like was specifically for them. And I'm sure that it won't stop there, but I do feel like it's going to belong to the Coast. I just wanted to. I reference the Jeezy line — "Last time I checked I was the man on these streets" — so I started with that idea and I remembered how important that moment was for Jeezy. I wanted to create an anthem for the streets and my generation.

A lot of us were raised off these principles that we got from the Jay-Z catalog or the Tupac catalog and, later on, the Jeezy catalog or the E-40 catalog. There were jewels in there that, if you really live by them, your life will benefit and your financial status will benefit. My perspective was ingrained in that music. And this ain't a shot at no other artists, but if we live by the principles in the music that my era is being exposed to, we're gonna end up strung out, we're gonna end up in a bad position. You get artists that say "I ain't no role model," and I respect that. I understand art reflecting life, but we grew up on art instructing life, with love and from a position of: I been there young bro and I know it's hard on you but I did it like this; here's the bread crumbs.After a while, I felt like it was almost a responsibility for me to give the game up [on record]. I look at it like a blueprint.

4. "Young N*****" (feat. Puff Daddy)

The session [with Puff] was so legendary. I'm like, "Puff, you not finna trump my energy on my album. Just know that in your first session with Nip, I'm 'bout to be turnt up more than you." We clapped it up after every take. We doing push-ups. I brought a pound of Marathon O.G. He tapped out like, "I can't smoke no more of this weed with you Hussle, I'm 'bout to smoke my weed in these joints." We really had a legendary session; he got to feel my energy, I got to feel his energy as a producer. And he was in the booth screaming. It was a room full of people and I told everbody, "Hey man, when he comes out that booth, everybody clap just to keep the energy going. Not to stroke no ego, but just to keep the energy up, you know what I mean, to say, I appreciate you giving your all to this record." It was just a fire session.

We got way more than what we needed. Then I just sat there, edited it later and just kept the lines where he was really responding to what I was saying. But yeah, I think Puff added a lot of dynamics to that record.

I also talk about a real-life story that took place. My brother had buried a quarter of a million dollars in my momma's back yard on 60th Street that he had just got off the street. He left it there for a year and when he went to go dig it up a little bit more than half of it had molded. He had the fire-proof, earth-proof safe, wrapped it in plastic, dropped it in the safe and then buried it. But when he dug it up, half of that money was molded. I remember him just losing his s***, and I'm like, "Oh man, this is devastating." I remember us all being in the living room in my momma's house — my mom included, my little sister, she was probably like 10 or 11 at the time — we had all this money laid out. It was like a conveyor belt. Somebody was in the kitchen rinsing and trying their hardest to scrape all the mold off. The money was ripping in half. It was hundreds and thousands like lumped together. Now you couldn't even unfold the money. It mildewed. And I just remember us in the living room with a blow dryer, blow-drying all the money and trying to salvage as much as we could.

I wanted to represent that story on record. It's blended into the overall verse but if you really tap in you'll hear the moment where I speak about it.

5. "Dedication (feat. Kendrick Lamar)"

"This ain't entertainment, it's for niggas in the slave ship / These songs is the spirituals I swam against them waves with...."

I meant that in my spirit, and I never was able to articulate it. I got major support for this album — we spent millions on marketing — and that line is on it. As somebody that looked at our position in America and had an opinion about it, I feel like I did my job by being able to get that line off. And that means everything to me. I was really proud that it came out like that 'cause I ain't write none of these lyrics; I just went in the booth. So it was in my gut and it was in my spirit to say that. That's a really important line to me.

Marathon was the last project I wrote [lyrics down] for every song. And I didn't even write all of those. I get a more passionate delivery when I just go in the booth and let the music talk. It's less rigid and it's less structured, so sometimes you lose content value. But I found a good balance lately. I ain't never spoke on it cause that's Jay-Z's narrative and that's Biggie's narrative. So I never wanted to seem like I was copying them. But I've been writing raps since I was probably 13, 14 years old. So it has evolved. I can go in the booth once I hear the beat and instead of writing it I say into the mic.

6. "Blue Laces 2"

Lebron James, when he won that first championship, they got footage of him on YouTube in the locker room before the game started and he was playing a song in his headphones. When he took his headphones off, I got the song blast through the headphones and it was "Blue Laces" off the original Marathon. I was real flattered. So I'm like, I wanna make a "Blue Laces 2" on Victory Lap. So I called Mr. Lee from Texas. He's a legendary producer from down south [in] Houston. I was introduced to him by Jonny Shipes, who owns Cinematic Records and originally signed me. Lee's like Rick Rubin with his ear; he's got an incredible hip-hop ear. We did the original "Blue Laces." As I'm wrapping up Victory Lap, I called him and I'm like, "Bro, make me a 'Blue Laces 2.' " He made it in two days and sent it to me. I was blown away. And I just went in the booth again and started talking.

Me and Big Reese from Lincoln Park in San Diego became really close, he's like an O.G. He's been around forever, but he just turned into a real positive dude that came up out the struggle. He was part of Xzibit's movement. So I was in the studio working on "Blue Laces 2," and by him being a part of Mike & Keys' production group, we had a studio together. So he was always in the studio with me. He heard when I did my first verse and he was like, "That's tight Hussle, where you goin'?" I'm like, "Leaving. Come back tomorrow." He's says, "Don't leave. Do the second verse right now." I did my second verse and he's like, "D*** that's tight, bro. The second one is harder than the first verse." He's like, "Finish the song right now, Nip. You've got a certain spirit right now. Don't leave."

I went and I did the third verse and the third verse blew me away; it was hard for me to get it out. I was overwhelmed because of how truthful it was and how real it was to him. I was in the booth having a moment. I got out the booth and I'm like, "Damn, bro. You was utilized by some higher power today." Cause I would have left and the verse wouldn't have been the same. I know it. So I gotta give Reese his credit on that one. That's one of my favorite records. I can binge listen to that over and over and over. It's just real natural and it's real honest. The third verse, especially, is about a moment in my life.

7. "Hussle & Motivate"

One of my homegirls did a lot of hooks on my mixtape catalog. She just got the right energy. She writes like a trained songwriter, but she got hip-hop swag, too. So I called her up and said I need a hook for this. Come through and vibe on up. And she brought this guy I never met before. I'm like, "I ain't tell you to bring nobody; I said come through!" I'm real funny about who comes to the studio [so] I was a little upset, to be honest. I'm like, "Man you brought [people] I don't know to my studio?"

As soon as the beat starts playing, everybody's bobbing their head. And as soon as the verse stops, he starts humming. And when he starts humming I'm like, "Oh this n****'s the truth! Good lookin'." So I tell him, "Don't hum it, go in the booth, bro!" So he goes in the booth. And, if you notice, half the hook isn't words, it's humming. It's like a Negro spiritual, just like an emotion.

He says, "I'ma fix that." And I'm like, "No you not! Leave that s*** just like it is." The communication on that one is visceral. You don't necessarily understand it intellectually, you feel it though. It's a vibe; it's a frequency that you capture. We were talking about getting other artists to sing it, and I was like, "We not changing nothing. Leave it just like that. He's gonna be on the album as-is." Then I went in and did the second verse.

Clearly it's a sample of the Jay-Z "Hard Knock Life" record. Shout out to Jay 'cause he signed off on that one. The hook is basically saying I don't do this for nothing. They got this narrative, [assuming we] want to be in the streets going through what we go through and taking risks. That's just the farthest thing from the truth. So I wanted to address that.

8. "Status Symbol 3 (feat. Buddy)"

I met Buddy through Mike & Keys, my producers. We built a studio and the whole goal was to create the synergy that Motown had and Death Row had, where the producers, the writers, the artists, the executive team was all under one roof. The studio [h]as four rooms, two offices and a workout room. And it was just a dope energy. And Buddy was the artist that they brought in to work on.

Instantly, I saw that he was gifted. He's from Compton, but he's got a completely different style of music than what you know Compton for, and the dude can rap as good as your best rapper. He can sing as good as your best singer. And he's 100 percent free from all social pressure to be one of these type of individuals. That's what I respect about Buddy to the utmost; he's him. And he's far from a punk type of person. He's not a gang member. He grew up in a gang area but he's just him — an artist and a cool person. He got charisma; he's like a star all the way through and through. I hopped on a couple of his records just 'cause I believed in the music, and then we did the first "Status Symbol."

"Almost Forgot" was the title of this record for like a year or two. But then I started thinking and [decided], nah, it's called "Status Symbol 3." When me and Buddy come together on a record, it's gonna be called "Status Symbol" from now on.

9. "Succa Proof"

I've been known to be real positive lately, real business astute and an inspirational figure. But I have to tap back into the energy of what this is. We ain't endorsing celebrities and gang membership. We ain't doing that in my tribe. We trying to redefine the tribe. We trying to stimulate the young people that did come from jail. But I been there; we trying to be on good terms.

This ain't no subliminal diss for anybody that started bangin' after they were successful. That's Soulja Boy; that's Chris Brown. If the shoes fits, wear it. I know Soulja Boy and I know Chris Brown, but I want to be real. As far as gang bangin', they're not gang bangers. You probably are a real n****. But as far as Piru, Crip, Blood, you're not a Blood, you're not a Piru. You'll never be one, period. You're not a Crip. That's just a fact. Stop playing. I got dead homies from this, for real.

Do I feel like Soulja Boy's not a man? Nah. I respect Soulja Boy. I've been in the club with Soulja Boy. [But] if I got a little brother and he's doing goofy s***, I'ma tell him: That's goofy, bro. That ain't a hundred. But I still got love for you. You still my brother, but that's goofy and we ain't condoning that type of goofiness. Period. That's what this song is about. We ain't gonna tell you to gang bang; we gonna tell you to buy out the block. And we gonna support the businesses and create tourism around here. This is Crenshaw Boulevard. This is a famous street.

10. "Keyz 2 The City 2 (feat. TeeFlii)"

It's a fact-check on the city of L.A. I see a lot of so-called competition; subliminal dissing going on. Everybody's celebrating what they feel is an accolade. And to me, if we want to be straight-forward, what we did in our community and what we did internally as gang members from my section, the Rollin' 60s, that's the blueprint. So every other gang in L.A. — and it's not disrespect — follow the blueprint. Link up with your team, build businesses, build enterprise, create additions for your young people to come up underneath. That's the bragging right. We already putting numbers up. Check your scoreboard.

We never lost on some street s***, but that ain't worth bragging about it. That's not what the metric is; the metric is what we built as entrepreneurs and as leaders. That's the nature of Crenshaw and of the Marathon store. So that's what this song's about.

11. "Grinding All My Life"

I told [producer] Murder Beats I needed something for the club. I needed something that was up-tempo that could move people. Sonically, that's the inspiration. I spoke about a real situation that took place in [Las] Vegas. 50 Cent and Mayweather were there. Some n***** tried to rob one of the people that was with us for his jewelry. The charges got reversed, and it didn't go so well for the other guy. But other than that, I wanted to tell the truth. All my life I've been grinding. I stopped going to school when I was 14 and I was self-educated since then. But I pursued hustling and music full-time since then.

It was just what the music sounded like to me. I wanted the album to be a collection of narratives and to represent real stories that took place in my life. So I had a real day, YG was hosting at the same club I was hosting at and 50 was there. We had all the cars out. And it was just a real night.

12. "Million While You Young (feat. The-Dream)"

The goal was to make a million dollars, for me, dealing in the street. That's like going platinum. If you're in music you want to [sell] platinum and win a Grammy. But to be able to cross that threshold, literally, and say, "Damn, I touched a million dollars." I wrote that song and remembered the emotion of feeling like, "How can you make a million dollars? How can you do that?" I didn't even know how, or what the path was.

I just wanted to talk about the journey and what that's like — how unlikely it is to not go to the Feds, not get life in jail, not get killed or betrayed and turned on by your people before you touch that million. It was just a celebratory expression. That's why I put it toward the end of the album, because it's like you get there eventually. It's kind of like a moment, and a listening experience, to celebrate the victory.

13. "Loaded Bases (feat. CeeLo Green)"

That's a real life moment I describe. I remember being 19. I had reached all my adolescent goals. It was 10 years, 15 years ago almost. I had touched two bricks for the first time, and I felt myself getting pulled into a direction. Once you cross these invisible lines, it's hard to go back. So I felt myself make a decision: "What you gonna do, homie?"

I had given up on music because I went broke so many times trying to do music when I was a teenager. I wasn't one of them types; I wanted to have money. I'd felt what it feels like to be independent and celebrated in my area — even on such a shallow level. For the girls to love me, having cars and having jewelry and being a young teenager; I was adolescent ballin'. I liked that feeling.

That train of logic drove my thought process. I don't know nobody in the streets that ever made a hundred million dollars. I'm looking at Jay-Z, Puffy, Master P — these guys have a $100 million. And it's a marathon; it's a long haul. But I don't know a man hustling that made a hundred mill. I know n***** that made it to $1 million, $10, maybe five. But none of them avoided the Feds. All of them got told on. They were the man for five summers and they gave the state or the Feds 20 summers. So the risk versus reward didn't pan out. That same day, I went and sold all my equipment and sold my jewelry. Sold my Lincoln; I had these rims, these Alpina rims that everybody in L.A. kept asking me [about]. I did not want to sell it, but I made a decision. That was one of the best decisions of my life. Sold the Lincoln and I went to Guitar Center and my brother met me up there and matched me. We bought all the equipment.

So that's what that line [comes from]: I was sitting on my Lincoln, I started thinking / N**** I ain't gon' make a hundred mill off in these streets and / more than likely I'm gon' end up in somebody's precinct / or even worse, a horse and carriage in front of the church laid off in a hearse."

14. "Real Big (feat. Marsha Ambrosius)"

It was just thinking about where I'm at in my life with my wife and my son. I always had a hunch that I could do it. It was always an uphill, I don't know how I'm going to do it, type of thing. I just thought I could. I believed that if I just took steps toward it, the path will reveal itself.

When I look at what this moment is, it's confirmation again: We here. That was my goal, to put out a major album, on my label, and be respected as an authentic artist in hip-hop and have a great business setup. I always knew that it would end up like this. I've been through a lot, and we've been through a lot of setbacks and loss and moments where I didn't know if it was going to happen. And I dealt with all of the pressures and all of the expectations and letdowns and everything. And just to be where we at, it's just a song reflecting on that. You gotta power through it mentally, and you gotta walk by faith.

15. "Double Up (feat. Belly and Dom Kennedy)"

"My new s*** sound like it's 'Soul Train' / Tookie Williams over Coltrane"

That's what the album sounds like to me, man. It sounds like Tookie Williams over Coltrane. If I was to sum it all up, I would say that. My tone is a lot more relaxed than people normally hear. I'm almost talking. And then Belly's contribution is crazy. He's one of the dopest artists, rappers, and songwriters in the game. I'll listen to words and why he chose to say that word. And the words are unique and I personally like artists who are not drawing from acceptable palettes that already work; they're choosing new palettes and new colors. So I love what he did. Then me and Dom got a history of just doing dope records together, so right before the album was done we got on the phone and I said, "I need you on this album. I don't think I should close the album without having you roll on it. I got Kendrick and I got YG; I need you." So the album belongs to the coast. I think we all collectively built this West Coast back together in our respective ways.

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.