Updated at 1:27 p.m. ET on April 2, 2019.
Hip-hop is a phenomenon of global scale, building cross-hemispherical legends with the ease of a SoundCloud upload, and it was on those terms that the 33-year-old rapper Nipsey Hussle had risen to power. He’d collaborated with superstars such as Drake and Kendrick Lamar; he co-wrote “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” this era’s signature protest song. After a string of mixtape releases beginning in 2005, his 2018 debut album arrived at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 200 and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. His sharp bark of a voice and weary-but-proud storytelling were becoming familiar attractions in a complex and borderless culture.
But hip-hop is also still a local art form. Where rappers come from is usually not mere factual trivia but rather something intrinsic to their lyrics, sonic approaches, and social agenda. Nipsey Hussle represented this idea even more than most. He was born in the L.A. neighborhood of Crenshaw, and he stayed in Crenshaw; he rapped about Crenshaw, worked with a Crenshaw sound, and more than anything, tried to improve Crenshaw through both music and extra-musical efforts. His death in a shooting that police suspect to be the result of a personal dispute—outside the clothing store that he founded, a day before he was scheduled for an LAPD anti-street-violence meeting—sadly looks like the kind of South L.A. story he spent his career trying to rewrite.
In his music, Hussle straightforwardly continued the traditions of West Coast rap: N.W.A.’s documenting of gangland realities, Snoop Dogg’s easy confidence, and Dr. Dre’s slow-sauntering, siren-whining sound. His biography fit, too, and he used vivid specifics to explain the mind-space and the culture that form against a backdrop of violence, poverty, and drugs. His 2010 song “Blue Laces” was like a 3-D self-portrait, made up of details internal and external: “I got Slauson on my back, Ed Hardy on my hip / Weight of the world on my shoulders, gold rollie on my wrist / Neighborhood chucks, blue checkerboard tint, Dickies saggin’ off my ass.” There’s a certain glamour to that image, but the song was really a lament about the interrelated stresses of racism and gangs. “They think we on some ‘kill another n****’ shit,” he rapped. “We really on some ‘stay down and diligent’ / The streets is cold, turn innocence to militance.”
By the time of that song’s 2018 sequel, “Blue Laces 2,” Hussle was able to rap about courtside Lakers seats and Ferraris. But he was also able to rap about speaking at city-council meetings and making strategic investments, references rooted in his real-life activism and entrepreneurship. In 2018, as he opened up a co-working and STEM space in Crenshaw, he said that he wanted to counteract the forces that led him to the Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips. “I remember feeling … maybe I’m not even supposed to be ambitious,” Hussle told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s a dangerous thing. I would like to prevent as many kids from feeling like that as possible. Because what follows is self-destructive.” Or as he put it in “Blue Laces 2”: “Third generation, South Central gang bangers / That lived long enough to see it changing / Think it’s time we make arrangements / Finally wiggle out they mazes.”
His m.o. was improvement by mixing art and business in clever ways. His 2013 mixtape Crenshaw was available for free online, but its physical release came with a noteworthy plan. Only 1,000 copies would be made, and they’d retail for $100 each. “Whether we [accept] it or not, buying music is a choice, not a requisite,” he said at the time. “When I think of the psychology behind what makes me purchase an artist’s album, it’s always a form of reciprocation. Almost like a token of appreciation after I experience the product.” It was a loyalty program to counter the devaluation caused by the internet, a common business model today in media, but one that he arrived at a few years ahead of its time. (Jay-Z reportedly bought up to 100 copies of Crenshaw.)
As his profile grew, Hussle continued to work on multiple scales at once—specific and local, but also broad-minded and big-tent. “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” a bouncy 2016 collaboration with the fellow L.A. rapper YG, attracted attention for the bluntness of its outrage against the man who’s now president. But Hussle’s verses show careful craft and a clear recognition that he’d be speaking to a wide audience. Calls for black, brown, and white people to unite were made in bracing and uncorny fashion. Threats of revolution were threaded alongside info about voting. But, as always, there was Crenshaw: “I’m from a place where you prolly can’t go / Speakin’ for some people that you prolly ain’t know.”