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“Until you put out something garbage, they ‘gon keep listening.”
We’re at Nipsey Hussle’s Marathon store on the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson when the 32-year-old rapper explains why, after over ten years in the rap game, and countless mixtapes, he is only just now putting out his “debut” album, Victory Lap. The store’s name aptly reflects his philosophy on longevity — The Marathon — but it also represents his commitment to both entrepreneurship and his hometown.
His mentality that there’s no time limit on greatness has brought us here, with the release of Victory Lap only days away, to discuss just how well that determination and perseverance has served him and why he believes he’s still only getting started.
With the leverage he’s earned over the course of the past decade of self-released smash hits, Nipsey was able to patiently wait for the right label partner to foment the release of Victory Lap. It appears he’s found that in Atlantic Records, who will be releasing the anticipated debut. Nipsey is cagey about the exact terms; according to past interviews, one of the conditions of the contract is that he can’t reveal all the conditions, but he’s always said that he wouldn’t sign unless they were favorable and fair.
“I always felt like when I get the album out, [a label deal] would be the next move, so I spent a while making this album,” he says of the supremely opportune timing of the deal. “It always feels like the stars line up when you put music out. Sometime’s it’s bigger than others but when I say, ‘I’m done,’ I think my track record has been quality, so people like, ‘If he ready to present it, it’s gone be some fire on there, because he ain’t gone present it if it ain’t fire.’”
Which is why he applied the same rigorous standard of his search for a suitable label partner to his song selection process for Victory Lap’s tracklist — which includes guest appearances from Compton rappers YG, Kendrick Lamar, and Buddy, as well as a return of Sean Combs’ Puff Daddy persona.
“That was a critical selection process,” he said. “A ton of factors went into it, but I developed a formula. It didn’t matter if the verse was tight, or the beat was tight. It was an overall song formula I was holding each record to. The ones that passed the bar made the album, but it was a really high bar — the highest I’ve ever put on any of my records. If they just felt good, but they didn’t live up to the standard, they were mixtape records.” He says that some of the songs that filled out prior efforts were originally destined for the album, but that he wanted to make sure that the label situation was squared away first.
He has plenty of reason for the caution; Nipsey hasn’t had the greatest experience with the major label system. It was January 2010 when the world at large was first introduced to Nipsey with the release of “Hussle In The House,” his first widely-released single from his second mixtape, Bullets Ain’t Got No Name, Vol. 2. It’s a single he calls “classic,” and says still plays well with crowds eight years after its release. Over a thunderous sample of “Jump” by ‘90s teen hip-hop duo Kriss Kross, Neighborhood Nip presented his plainspoken yet surprisingly deep worldview with a clipped, nonchalant flow that instantly sent rap fans into a frenzy of expectation.
Signed to Epic Records, the expectations surrounding Nipsey’s eventual dominance of the hip-hop world were indeed nothing less than epic. Within a few short months, he’d collaborated with Drake at the height of his ascension on the track “Killers,” and had been tapped by West Coast legend Snoop Dogg to make an appearance alongside fellow up-and-coming LA rapper Problem on the elder statesman’s Malice In Wonderland. The conventional wisdom was that Nipsey was not only the next to blow from the West, but that he’d single-handedly revitalized gangsta rap with his gruff, incisive dispatches from the Rollin’ 60s, the set he’d grown up claiming and devoutly represented on records throughout his career starting with his 2005 mixtape Slauson Boy, Vol. 1.
However, within a year all the hype and all the buzz were gone. When Epic was shuffled among Sony Music’s holdings and wound up merging with Columbia Records, Nipsey’s contract was among the casualties, leaving him without a deal… but giving him a burning drive for independent success and just enough industry experience to ensure that he could pull it off.
What followed was a whirlwind of successively risky — but equally rewarding — musical endeavors. Shifting gears, Nipsey decided to independently release The Marathon, a mixtape of would-be debut album tracks, on his own label, All Money In. Inspired by a long legacy of independent record labels on the West Coast, he knew that the gamble could potentially pay off big time. “Master P came to the Bay to start No Limit,” he notes. “Death Row was an independent company. I would look at myself as someone carrying that flag. I shouted out Master P in ‘Rap N—-s.’ I shouted out Suge Knight at the end of Crenshaw. Eazy-E was indie. Whether it was a lack of infrastructure that made West Coast artists go indie or the entrepreneurial spirit of being hustlers, I think that I definitely follow in those footsteps.”
The success of The Marathon inspired him to craft a follow-up, The Marathon Continues, then try his most precarious release yet. Crenshaw, a mixtape that would kick off his Proud 2 Pay initiative, would only have 1,000 physical copies created, and each of those copies would retail for $100.
He says that the music, which had evolved from his early days, warranted the confidence. He’d grown so much as a rapper, because, as he explained, “I became a better songwriter. I was speaking to a real specific, narrow group. Which is good a lot of times; I think you lose it when you try to be everything to everybody. But I think I learned how to express the ideas in a way that are more digestible. I think that I became better at making music from just doing it more.”
However, everyone didn’t see his boldness as confidence, so much as reckless arrogance. He must be crazy, went the peanut gallery — there’s no way people will spend $100 on a mixtape. While his series of mixtapes had prolonged his buzz among underground rap fans, this latest stunt seemed like wishful thinking, an insane gamble caused by hubris — until Jay-Z bought 100 copies of the tape himself, sending a wire transfer receipt as proof the concept could work. Crenshaw sold every copy, despite the fact it was also available for free download online.
So, of course, for his next outing, Nip doubled down, charging $1,000 a pop for his next tape, Mailbox Money. While he’s iffy on the exact figure, he is certain of the first-week sales total: 60 copies.
What would have been a debilitating, humiliating failure for a major label artist became a stunning success for the self-made businessman. However, by demonstrating his savvy and willingness to take risks, he weighted every subsequent major label meeting in his favor. He’s proud of the success he’s had with all of these endeavors, but it’s Mailbox Money that stands out.
“Just the whole theme of that project is powerful,” he tells me. “I think they’ll go back and look to what was being said as ahead of its time. That’s a real catchphrase for residual income — mailbox money — and if you think about the pillars of wealth, [the goal] is to create sources of income to get you paid whether you work or not. To have a project called ‘Mailbox Money’ is leveling the playing field and evening out the wealth gap. I’m proud of the whole catalog though. There’s not one thing I would change.”
It’s that eternal hunt for the next revenue stream that led him (along with his older brother and business partner Blacc Sam) to purchase The Marathon Clothing Store in an effort to provide a living example of his philosophy to his neighborhood and his peers (Sam also graciously hooked me up with a black-and-blue windbreaker after our interview). Even now, as he prepares for the release of his long-awaited “official” debut, after outlasting so many of the peers entered the game with, he’s already looking forward to the next project, the next plan, the next opportunity to prove the world wrong and put on for his piece of the big city.
“Once you deliver what Bullets Ain’t Got No Names, Vol. 2 did for my fanbase, or what The Marathon, or what Crenshaw did, until you let your fans down with a release, they ‘gon keep an open ear. If you never drop no bullshit… As a fan, I don’t care if you took your time, when you came back, if it was fire, I’m still with you and you got my ear ’til the next one. Now, if you just drop some bullshit on me, I’m off you, bro. You lost me.”
Victory Lap is out this Friday, 2/16 via Atlantic Records. Get it here.