By all accounts, Nipsey’s career was starting to take off. The Slauson Boy was coming off of his most fruitful year, including a well-deserved Grammy nomination for his long-anticipated and critically acclaimed debut, Victory Lap. As his motivational music was starting to resonate with the masses, his community-focused initiatives were growing as well. Whether it was the expansion of his Marathon clothing brand, opening a housing complex in his neighborhood or working with the LAPD to stop gang violence, Nip was practicing what he passionately preached.
His run of mixtapes, from his first work in 2005 to artistic highpoints like 2013’s Crenshaw, were built on audio snapshots of life in South Central Los Angeles. Hussle addressed health and wealth in the hood, advocating for himself and his coommunity. Nip’s brilliance came together on 2018’s Victory Lap, the crown jewel of his catalog and an album that cemented Nipsey among rap’s upper echelon.
To celebrate Neighborhood Nip’s life and career, Billboard went through his catalog to rank his ten best tracks.
10. “Blue Laces” (The Marathon)
The Marathon was a turning point in Nipsey’s career. The 2010 mixtape made so much noise in the streets and on social media that a larger audience had to take notice. “Blue Laces” is an organ-driven hard-knock anthem about the tribulations of making it in gangland. The slow-burning and nearly haunting chorus “Blue Laces, shell cases, we catch bodies, we don’t leave no traces/Big faces, suitcases, if you ain’t know ho, we gettin’ paid bitch” provides a bridge between the detailed verses about living and dying by “the code of the color of my shoestrings.”
9. “Dedication” feat. Kendrick Lamar (Victory Lap)
Of course, K. Dot gets busy with an astute verse on this Vitory Lap stand-out, but from start to finish Nipsey is at the forefront of “Dedication,” dishing out scripture-worthy bars.
Nipsey treats the track as a play in two acts; he reflects on how far he’s come, and then contrasts that with how much further he has to go. Lines like “This the remedy, the separation/ 2Pac of my generation, blue pill in the fuckin’ Matrix/ Red rose in the gray pavement/ Young black n—a trapped, and he can’t change it” hit home on multiple levels. But don’t think for a second that Nip took his foot off his opposition’s neck — he still comes through with a punishing haymaker: “Royalties, publishing, plus I own masters/ I’ll be damned if I slave for some white crackers.”
8. “Face the World” (Crenshaw)
Before Victory Lap, Nipsey’s breakout moment came in 2013 when he dropped his Crenshaw mixtape. It was available to download for free, but Nip started a movement by selling hard copies for $100 each as part of his #Proud2Pay campaign. His dedicated fans (and Jay-Z) spent their hard-earned money on the physicals, affirming the value of Nip’s art. Songs like “Face the World” made it worth it. Nip’s street sermon came to life thanks to the soul-sampling savant 9th Wonder, who gave Nip a poignant beat for his day-one listeners to ride to.
7. “The Hussle Way” (Nip Hussle The Great Vol. 1)
Nip Hussle The Great: Vol. 1 is considered one of the best mixtapes in Nip’s catalog. Released eight years after his first mixtape offering, “The Hussle Way” served as Nip’s most thorough introduction to date. Heavy keys and a bouncy string section usher in Nipsey’s declaration of life as a hustler. The song boasts one of his best choruses, and he pens lines like, “You too deep in it to quit, I know the pain of it/ You love the game but knowin’ that the game doesn’t/ Love you back love the fact this the same struggle/ City to city we products of the same hustle.” Words to live by.
6. “Ocean Views” (Slauson Boy 2)
Imagine coming from poverty to driving Benzs and looking out at the Pacific on the regular. That was Nipsey’s reality once his hustles began to pay off, as he eloquently explained on “Ocean Views. ” The Slauson Boy 2 cut is one of the only times where Nip calmly reflects on his successes without immediately verbalizing his plans for the future — he just takes in the moment. With The Futuristiks and DJ Khalil providing the jazzy soundscape, Nip revels in his achievements — and challenges foes to test his gangsta.
5. “Crenshaw & Slauson (True Story)” (Crenshaw)
One of Nipsey’s best storytelling songs is “Crenshaw and Slauson (True Story).” For almost seven minutes straight Nipsey details his entire career, while of course sprinkling in some wise words for up-and-comers. From the first time he and his crew “bought a Pro Tools and a microphone” to getting “em on that #Proud2Pay shit/ Half of a million cash, he gon’ offer me a label,” Nip has come a long way. If you need an introduction to the story of Nipsey, this is where you start.
4. “Keys 2 the City” (The Marathon)
“Keys 2 the City” is another cornerstone from The Marathon mixtape. It finds Nipsey at a crossroads in both fame and fortune. Back at this time, in 2010, Nipsey was starting to get some mainstream attention and had to decide whether to leave the hood behind or take them with him; thankfully, he chose the latter.
3. “Last Time That I Checc’d” feat. YG (Victory Lap)
“Last Time That I Checc’d” was the second single from Victory Lap, a banger that featured longtime collaborator and fellow L.A. native, YG. The chorus — “Last time that I checc’dm, it was five chains on my neck/ It was no smut on my rep” — is loud, proud and guaranteed to give even the most insecure person a straight shot of self-assurance.
2. “Hussle in the House” (Nip Hussle the Great: Vol. 1)
“Hussle in the House” is perhaps Nipsey’s quintessential West Coast track, evident from his N.W.A homage in the opening: “Look, I’m comin’ straight off of Slauson/A crazy motherfucker named Nipsey.” Taken from his esteemed Nip Hussle the Great: Vol. 1 mixtape, this track not only features some of his best technical rapping but a true “introduction to this Nipsey Hussle music.”
The blueprint to his future success can be seen in subtle moments on this song, like rapping explicitly about the disenfranchisement of minorities in L.A.’s hoods and voicing his desire to take over the rap game.
1. “Blue Laces 2” (Victory Lap)
“Blue Laces 2” is Nipsey’s full circle moment, revisiting the themes from the first “Blue Laces” released eight years earlier. He picks up right where that track left off by embracing his mogul status — something he put in motion over the past decade.
“Ones that hate us, handcuff us and mace us/ Call us dumb n—as ’cause our culture is contagious/ Third generation, South Central gang bangers/ That lived long enough to see it changing,” he raps. To cap off this riveting record, he ends the track with a “flashback to that shootout at the beach” that still haunts him — proof that he can never get rid of his “blue laces.” It’s a painful listen in the wake of his death.