A Year Without Nipsey Hussle
Hip-hop has a grammar for loss, a routine for the deaths of its icons. In hip-hop, death is a constant, implacable presence, pervading its words, music and culture. Posthumous music could be a subgenre.
Still, when Nipsey Hussle was killed a year ago today in his home neighborhood of Crenshaw, Los Angeles, the hip-hop community’s mobilization to enshrine his legacy was remarkable.
That may be because, though he was only 33 when he died, Nipsey chose the long route to success. He released his first mixtape in 2005, 13 years before his debut album, Victory Lap, broke through. Along the way, he managed to impact seemingly everyone in hip-hop, building a reputation for his unyielding clarity of vision and inspiring fierce loyalty and enthusiastic support from those with whom he interacted.
In several of his posthumous releases, it’s hard to miss that consistency in Nipsey’s character. On “Rich N—a Lifestyle,” from Rick Ross’ Port of Miami 2, Nipsey declared, “ain’t a real street n—a ’less you got a code”; on “Perfect Ten,” the title track from fellow L.A. hip-hop luminary Mustard’s 2019 album, he implored, “Where your backbone, n—a, where your code at?” An obsessive advocate for his community, Nipsey was killed standing in front of the store he founded with his brother at the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, the cornerstone of his initiative to buy back the block.
In “Higher,” a collaboration with DJ Khaled and John Legend, Nipsey narrates the origin of his famous entrepreneurial spirit, which he gained from the determination of his grandmother and from his father, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Eritrea. On “Welcome Home,” from the Game’s Born 2 Rap, Nipsey lets the beat drop out and announces, “Probably die up in these streets, but I survive through my name.”
A number of artists have offered musical tributes in the past year. Among the highlights: an uncharacteristically muted Young Thug bids Nipsey to rest in peace on the reflective “Just How It Is,” and on “Ballin’,” also from Mustard’s Perfect Ten, Roddy Ricch promises to live life emulating Nipsey and his widow, Lauren London. On Carnivore, by his resurrected metal outfit Body Count, ICE-T asks us to show people our appreciation while they’re around to receive it on the Amy Lee-assisted “When I’m Gone.”
Shy Glizzy, a rapper from Washington, D.C., with an aptitude for constructing tableaus of success, depravity and the paranoia in between, captures the mood immediately following Nipsey’s death the best. On “Riding Down Slauson,” off last year’s Covered N Blood, released 19 days after Nipsey passed, Glizzy recalls, “still remember my first show was at the FUR / Back in 2012, Nipsey was there.” Into a breezy song, Glizzy tucks harrowingly real images of devastation — for example, “It seem like every other week a n—a dead / Your mama drop down to her knees and burst in tears” — with the requisite numbness and disbelief.
Later, Jhené Aiko, a fellow Slauson Avenue native, opted for a different mood on “Party for Me,” from 2020’s CHILOMBO, reveling in the simultaneity of joy and grief and imagining looking down on a party in her honor following her own death. Aiko borrows Nipsey’s trademark snappy delivery to demand, “I’ma need y’all dancing / And when you cry don’t stop crying till you’re laughing.”
Listening to the way an artist’s lyrics have been forcefully recontextualized by their death can feel uncanny, almost violent. On “Perfect Ten,” Nipsey induces a shudder by closing out his hook with “n—s die every day, can’t control that,” and the song’s lattice of guitar weeps and wails contributes to the aura of premonition. Still, above it all, Nipsey insists that what matters will remain: “I’ma die behind what I’m getting at.”
Adlan Jackson is from Kingston, Jamaica, and writes about music and nightlife in New York. You can read his newsletter here.
Image: Nipsey Hussle performs in San Francisco in 2018. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty.
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