On March 31, the world mourned the loss of rapper, activist and community leader Nipsey Hussle (born Ermias Asghedom), who was gunned down by 29-year-old Eric Holder following a dispute in front of his Marathon Clothing store on Slauson Avenue. Hussle was born August 15, 1985, in Crenshaw, Calif. and was 33 at the time of his death. In the wake of his murder, fans, supporters and even his detractors reflected on the rapper’s complex legacy. As an artist, Hussle was an undeniable force whose at times divisive politics, proud first-generation identity, and desire to uplift black people globally was actively crystalizing - both through music and grassroots community efforts - into viable structures for positive change.
Not only was Hussle coming off of a well-deserved Grammy-nomination for 2018’s Victory Lap, but he was also in the process of revitalizing a country-wide vision of a black enterprise that had roots on his beloved Slauson Avenue. Working with private equity investor David Gross, Hussle was quietly buying back his neighborhood while simultaneously developing the blueprint for a self-sustained community that would not be ravaged by the typical outcomes of gentrification, which often results in the displacement of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Instead, Hussle was creating the change he wanted to see, developing affordable housing and a STEM center for the neighborhood’s youth. He even had plans to open an inner-city coworking space where young creatives of color could connect.
From sobering reflections on his proximity to death and violence on his first mixtape, Slauson Boy Vol. 1, where he first introduced himself as “Neighborhood Nip,” to the era of Bullets Ain’t Got No Name mixtape trilogy, all the way through the release of Victory Lap - his first and only major commercial release - Hussle’s music is a testament to the arc of his life, as well as the personal awakenings that came with his journey. Here are some of his most resonant songs.
1. “Blue Laces” (2010)
They think we on some kill another n***a s**t / We really on some stay down and diligent / The streets is cold, turn innocence to militance / Young n****s gangbangin' for the thrill of it / Pops was gone, moms was never home /The streets was right there so they took you as they own.
Although Nipsey’s music frequently reflects on inequity - much of “Blue Laces” does just this - the lyrics are bolstered by an innate sense of pride. Yes, he addresses the cyclical nature of violence, and how it creates outside perceptions that demonize young black men, but in Nipsey’s hands, they are humanized...as they deserve to be.
2. “Blue Laces 2” (2018)
I wonder what it come to you in your brain for you to run to / Ones that hate us, handcuff us and mace us / Call us dumb n****s 'cause our culture is contagious / Third generation, South Central gangbangers / That lived long enough to see it changing / Think it's time we make arrangements, finally wiggle out they mazes / Find me out in different places / I'm the spook by the door, this the infiltration.
A follow-up to 2010’s equally definitive “Blue Laces,” this sprawling sequel displays Nipsey’s unique ability to proselytize to people and communities that have been historically devalued, reminding them not only of their humanity but their very real ability to impact change.
3. “Crenshaw & Slauson (True Story)” (2018)
There are really too many good bars to choose tbh.
In this three-part saga, Nipsey’s affinity for storytelling is elevated to an art. The narrative is a deeply personal one that details his ascension in rap music starting from the moment he decided to “cut out the middleman” as an 18-year-old neophyte, to the sacrifices required to gain a foothold as an independent artist. In the same way, Nas revealed a new level of introspection and lyrical artistry by personifying a bullet in “I Gave You Power,” so too does Nipsey on “Crenshaw & Slauson,” which feels like a journey into the interior of an at times guarded artist.
4. Childish Gambino, “Black Faces” featuring Nipsey Hussle (2012)
Look, young rich nigga s***, pops was an immigrant / Lifestyle ill legit, but I know I own business / Started out the trunk, ended up at the dealership / All gold Rollie, black face no blemishes / Legend in my city ‘cause I grind so vigorous.
Hussle’s fiery feature on Donald Glover’s surprise sixth mixtape Royalty was something of a happy coincidence, one that started on Twitter and snowballed. After the rapper shared that he was a fan of Glover’s 2011 project, Camp, the duo hit the studio and cooked up "Black Faces," an unapologetic celebration of black resilience and entrepreneurship. The rapper’s reflections on the nature of his empire, which began in the streets and metamorphosed into legal businesses, also highlights his family’s immigrant experience, reinforcing the importance his Eritrean identity played in his life and music.
5. “Racks in the Middle” (featuring Roddy Ricch & Hit-Boy) (2019)
Teaming up with Compton rapper Roddy Ricch, Nipsey delivers braggadocious bars that reflect on the nature of success and the material goods that come with it. Following a Grammy nomination and critically-acclaimed album, it’s a well-deserved flex. And as Nipsey’s last release of his life, it is certainly fitting to include.
6. YG, “F**k Donald Trump” featuring Nipsey Hussle (2016)
Look, Reagan sold coke, Obama sold hope / Donald Trump spent his trust fund money on the vote / I'm from a place where you prolly can't go / Speakin' for some people that you prolly ain't know / It's pressure built up and it's prolly gon' blow / And if we say go then they're prolly gon' go.
Politics and rap have been deeply intertwined since the birth of hip-hop, which was conceived as an innately political statement. In the face of one of the most divisive elections of our time, YG and Nipsey Hussle, though affiliated with opposing sets, mobilized to send a strong message refuting the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump. Hussle in particular unpacks America’s long and crooked political history, espousing Reagan-era conspiracy theories with the same ease he that he reflects on his childhood in Crenshaw.
7. “Dedication” featuring Kendrick Lamar (2018)
Young black n***a trapped and he can’t change it / Know he a genius, he just can’t claim it / ‘Cause they left him no platforms to explain it / He frustrated so he get faded / But deep down inside he know you can’t fade him / How long should I stay dedicated?
While the Kendrick Lamar assist certainly enriches “Dedication,” Nipsey’s signature cadence delivered over a Mike N Keys-produced beat embodies the core of his rap ethos. His ability to verbalize the internalized struggles of being a black male in America without succumbing to a sense of hopelessness is as rare as it is precious.
8. “Sound of My Ceremony” (2012)
I ain't got a boss, I am not a slave / Turnin' up my hustle is how I give myself a raise / And it's funny how people let money make 'em change / See you stickin' to the script then start rippin' out the pages of history, it ain't a mystery / If I died yesterday, my life would be a victory
Although “Sound of My Ceremony” ultimately didn’t make it onto The Marathon Continues, Hussle went on to add it to The Marathon Continues: X-Tra Laps. Much in the same way singles like “Hussle & Motivate” balance gritty realities with hope and dignity, so too does this song. Not only does Nipsey frame himself as royalty, but in one verse in particular he describes his life as a victory, which feels almost prophetic.
9. "Hussle in the House" (2009)
Look, I'm comin straight off of Slauson / A crazy motherf**ker named Nipsey / I'm turnt up cause I grew up in the 60s / Caution to you rap n****s try and diss me / I go hard that's why yo' b***h wanna flip me.
Not only does Nipsey pay homage to NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” in the song’s opening line, but he also interpolates Snoop Dogg’s “G Funk” intro and serves it all up with a sample of “Jump” by Kriss Kross. The bars are true Nipsey Hussle form - a litany of “guns, money and b***hes” as Hussle goes on to say in a later verse - but there’s still a playfulness that makes it a solid palate cleanser for some of A Bullet Ain’t Got No Name Vol. 2’s more heavy offerings.
10. “Hussle & Motivate” (2018)
Judge a young n***a by they address / Left us no option, what they expect? / Only thing we knew for sure was to bang the set / F**k livin' basic, I'm takin' risks.
F**k what they sayin', I'm sayin' this / Don't waste your time, it don't make you rich / It don't mean nothin' so f**k 'em, let's make a grip / Double up, triple up, make assist / Ballin' so hard, you could play your bench /Lead to the lake, if they wanna fish.
Sampling from Jay-Z's “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” Nipsey reflects on the sacrifices, setbacks and victories that ultimately brought him success. As it were, the song isn’t a boisterous celebratory lap (although it appears on the Victory Lap album), but rather a sermon of sorts; a love letter to the young men and women of his community and beyond.
Here, Nipsey takes aim at the hypocrisy inherent in the glamorization of street life while the very same communities are actively disenfranchised, effectively causing the cycles of violence they are often accused of perpetuating. More important, he looks beyond this reality, offering motivation, and a blueprint for transcending circumstance.