The paradox of authenticity has developed into a recurring problem in mainstream hip-hop discourse. A rapper must be authentic to be respected, yet should their upbringing be morally unfound by today’s standards, they might find themselves shunned by public opinion. Conversely, those who preach what they don’t practice will struggle to find respect in a game that appears to value the real. Yet for many fans of varying demographics, hip-hop serves as a gateway into another world, a vicarious glimpse into conditions unknown. Occasionally, such conditions breed violence as a means of survival, a lifestyle that’s difficult for the inexperienced to understand. As with all good storytelling, it helps to have a reliable narrator, capable of sharing truths both vulnerable and brutal. Revealing the darker corners to better put the light into context.
Nipsey Hussle made no secret of his formative years, nor of his involvement in the Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips. As such, gang life became his reality, and a frequent thematic topic in his music. A 2010 interview with Complex finds him reflecting on early single “Hussle In The House,” which drew controversy over its alleged promotion of gang business. Yet Nipsey maintained his position as a purveyor of truth, difficult though his truth may be to hear for some. “I’m not promoting it,” he said. “I’m just speaking on it.” In the same interview, he’d stress the importance of living in one’s reality, and not simply toggling one’s affiliation for the sake of entertainment. “If you ain’t put on to this shit, you wasn’t courted on, you ain’t going to the back of the buildings to fight, your homies didn’t get put on, you not from a gang,” he claimed. “Not only are you not from a gang, if you ain’t press a line and put in work, not necessarily kill nobody but you know, put yours on the line.”
Nipsey never shied away from the lifestyle he chose. Yet he also understood the importance of moving forward, of finding an answer wherever a question might arise. When he died, he died a pillar of his community, an influential figure to thousands. Few dwelled on his gang-affiliation, because that same affiliation helped him understand those living under similar circumstances. It’s not fair to call Nipsey’s journey a “redemption arc,” because he never sought nor needed redemption – or approval, for that matter. He simply spoke the truth as he understood it, allowing himself room to grow as both a man and an artist. His refusal to milk gang culture as a fetishized commodity spoke to his sense of respect; for that reason, his status as an authority continues to go unquestioned. Perhaps the perfect encapsulation of his spirit in that regard comes courtesy of his two-part “Blue Laces” series.
I’m from Westside California, they run up on ya
Ask you where you from and check yo’ tats under yo’ clothin’
Hustla, go hard make sure my knot swollen
Fuck it, say the wrong hood bullets explodin’
I trust few, people these days ’cause that’s golden
I seen n****s get killed for who they roll with
And chose to keep inside they circle
Satan sittin’ on your sofa
Same n****a that shot you was the one you used to smoke with
In the first installment, originally released as the fourth track of his 2010 mixtape The Marathon, Nipsey paints a bleak picture of his home turf. Off the bat, Nipsey stresses the complex dynamics of gang affiliation. A bleak picture, and it might be tempting to write his bars off as “promotion” of a dangerous lifestyle. Yet given Nipsey’s reputation as an honest lyricist, it’s easier to understand his declaration as a simple statement of fact. Without being subjected to the whims of the streets, Nipsey wouldn’t have been in a position to elevate to such lofty heights; not only as an entrepreneur, but as a role model for youths stuck in his former position. For those, Nip’s words hold resonance, as he details the framework of his code: understand that violence can pop off at any moment and trust a select few, lest the violence befall you.
Shoot-out with no aim, so they no yo’ name
‘Cause when yo’ mama paid rent that was yo game
So when yo’ homeboy bled, that was yo’ pain
And if ya’ll both catch a case you don’t say no names
That’s just the code of the color of my shoe strings
“Blue Laces” arrived during a time where “gangsta rap” felt like the product of a bygone era. Perhaps speaking on the topic with such an authoritative voice helped cement Nipsey as a promising young voice in the early-decade landscape. Rather than pandering toward musical trends, Neighborhood Nip put himself on wax, allowing outsiders to live vicariously, while giving those in similar circumstances a rallying voice. Fast forward to 2018’s Victory Lap, which found Nipsey revisiting “Blue Laces” with a newfound perspective. The mere fact that he chose to pen a sequel speaks volumes. Consider his circumstances – on the verge of being Grammy nominated, and deep into several entrepreneurial endeavors. Yet on “Blue Laces,” Nipsey deftly navigates the past and present, reliving a traumatic memory through the distanced perspective of a man at peace.
There is one key thematical distinction between the “Blue Laces” tracks. Where the first centered around Nip’s reality as a gang member, the sequel finds him reflecting from a position of wealth and material success. Where some rappers rattle off their collection of cars and jewels for the mere sake of boasting, Nipsey uses them as a means to ground the progress of his journey. Yet Nip understands that his success was borne of the authentic groundwork he once laid, all those years ago. “Third generation, South Central gangbangers that lived long enough to see it changing,” he muses. “Think it’s time we make arrangements, finally wiggle out they mazes.” Yet unlike some who find success, relocate, and essentially “rebrand,” Nipsey saw the power in where he came from and moved to harness it. “City council meetin’, they got Hussle speakin’, billion dollar project bout to crack the cement,” he raps, in the triumphant second verse. “So one of our investments had become strategic.”
I flashback on that shootout at the beach, twenty deep
You tried to squeeze, your gun jammed and they released
Blood on your tee, how many stains? I see three
The bitch started to panic so I made her switch seats
Drivin’ now, police chopper ahead flyin’ now
Really not too spooked, calmly asked me, “Am I dyin’ now?”
All I know is keep you calm and collected
Crackin’ jokes like, “N***a, now you gon’ be finally respected”
In an interview with NPR, Nipsey spoke about recording “Blue Laces 2” with Big Reese in the studio. “I went and I did the third verse and the third verse blew me away,” reflects Nipsey. “It was hard for me to get it out. I was overwhelmed because of how truthful it was and how real it was [Reese].” It feels as if the third verse is the connective tissue between both songs, a glimpse into the man Nipsey was, living the life he once detailed in the original chapter. While his depiction of a blood-soaked beachfront shootout might feel out of place in the sequel, consider Nip’s own reflection. He originally created the song during a single studio session, laying down a single verse after another. Yet the idea that such a “real” reflection, overwhelming by his own omission, would follow the first two verses speaks to the authenticity prevalent throughout “Blue Laces.” As he carries the memory with him on wax, so too does he in reality. There is no judgment after the fact, nor does Nipsey move to distance himself from his younger self. As is his way, he simply speaks the truth as he sees it, multifaceted and complex though it may be. And we’ll miss him for it.