By conventional rap wisdom standards, Nipsey Hussle isn’t supposed to be at the point where he’s releasing a major label blockbuster — complete with a feature from this generation’s torchbearer (i.e. hood testimonial “Dedication” with Kendrick Lamar) and sizing himself up to be a marquee player in Hip Hop.
Here is an artist — *ahem* — gangsta rapper (according to conventional rap wisdom standards) who experienced his freshman renaissance nearly a decade ago and seemed rooted in his independent shuffle. The California Crip’s biggest claim to fame was for spearheading a Proud 2 Pay campaign where he doled out physical copies of a $100 mixtape that prompted JAY-Z himself to buy 100 copies in support of the movement.
Regardless of how much or little you know Nipsey’s background, the fact remains that his studio debut album, Victory Lap, serves as the ultimate starting point for the Crenshaw native; a coveted distinction for any artist in a well-established era where mixtapes, unofficial singles and yes, even Instagram, can all yield the same spotlight. From the onset, the album’s brassy and conspicuous score (handled largely by longtime collaborators Mike & Keys) establishes its wish to be a primetime Hip Hop event, without the reliance on pop sensibilities or hooks tailor-made for radio.
Such a wish is made apparent on the one-two punch of the title-track opener and leadoff single “Rap Niggas.” The former is a scenic tale of rags-to-riches ascension overtop Stacy Barthe’s hallowing vocals and a downshifting keyboard labyrinth. The latter is a proverbial line drawn in the sand between the bottomless pool of rappers made possible by Neighborhood Nip’s throaty growls — that allows for the end bar of “nigga” to emote a melodic effect — and 1500 or Nothin’s obvious nod to past West Coast gangsta anthems with high-frequency piercing sonics.
From there, Victory Lap brings on the type of onslaught that will have listeners flip-flopping on their favorite record. Nimble lyricism is hyper-flexed on tracks like the Diddy-backed “Young Niggas” (“Ballin’ since my brother used to hustle out the Von’s/ A couple hundred thousand up, he took the shovel to the lawn/ No exaggeration for the content of my songs/ When he went to dig it up, shit, a hundred-something gone”). Others sport an ideal fusion of cadence, as heard on the excellent Dom Kennedy and Belly bonus cut, “Who Knew,” which proves songs about reliving past struggles will never rust when coupled with intoxicating production.
The trilogy-completing “Status Symbol 3” encompasses the best of both worlds with its pleasantly obnoxious bass knocks, guest star Buddy’s dazzling “Drip! Drip! Drip! Drip!” hook and Nipsey’s swaggy intellectualism. Such a record is not only great for discography building but it’s bound to pull in some new fans with its catchiness.
Victory Lap’s aspiration to be validated as a classic Hip Hop album never sways and it checks off a ton of boxes, from the rhyme-heavy bars on “Grinding All My Life” to the artistically ambitious “Bases Loaded,” the CeeLo record that broaches new territory for the Crenshaw councilman.
Nipsey doesn’t come off as an innovator as much as he does an enforcer upholding time-tested blueprints. Taking on that role leaves room for growth in his approach to song themes, like the bullying “Succa Niggas,” a solid record in its own right but that lacks a wide-reaching appeal. Or the YG-assisted “Last Time That I Checced,” where they exhibit the same chemistry as when they took the blue and red stitches from the American flag and used it to towel whip Donald Trump almost two years ago, but regress this time around by resorting back to the block party.
Minor potholes aside, Victory Lap not only boosts Nipsey’s stock but it raises expectations for the next time he eyes a checkered flag. The benchmark for quality has been set and the race to officially hit the championship podium is only getting revved up.