There are reasons to hate on Nipsey Hussle at this point. He’s charging c-notes for his latest tape, Crenshaw, which you can just as easily get for free. He hasn’t released an official project since 2011, besides X-Tra Laps, which was a different set of rejects for his TMC project. He’s shown flashes of genius throughout the years, but label limbo with Epic Records has strung out the process of a proper debut album into a series of racing-themed projects, which have always been released for free on Datpiff and for sale on iTunes. He’s outrapped some of your favorite rappers on their own tracks, yet he hasn’t fully capitalized on the buzz that he once generated after his breakout mixtape, Bullets Ain’t Got No Name, Vol. 2. Now he’s looking to change that.

By all accounts, he is doing an amazing job right now. Hate it or love it, you’ve probably offered an opinion on Nipsey’s $100 deal, and it’s easily generated more discussions than his last couple albums combined. It’s never a good idea to put marketing before music, but in Crenshaw’s case, Nipsey just needed a spark to show people how solid his music has always been. More importantly, he needed to carve out (or identify) his core fanbase if he wanted to tango with a powerhouse like MMG, which was rumored to have signed Hussle. Looking at Rick Ross’s recent acquisitions, it’s only the most commercially viable artists that get boosts. Hence why Meek Mill and Wale have dropped albums while Gunplay and Stalley continue to languish in the shadows.

If the MMG rumor holds any weight, then Ross probably noticed Nipsey’s mainstream leanings on The Marathon Continues, where Nipsey worked with Dom Kennedy and YG for the first time and brought in the 1500 Or Nothin’ crew to handle most of the production. Prior to releasing the project, Nipsey described his new direction as a “different sound” that he “wanted to shock people with.” Two years later and it sounds like Nip has been listening to a lot of Dom Kennedy, who is featured twice on Crenshaw. Their flows even sound similar on tracks like “Checc Me Out” and “Crenshaw and Slauson”. Now people are clamoring for a joint project between the two, and if that’s the sound that Nipsey is going to try and appeal to more fans with, then hopefully it doesn’t affect his subject matter. He’s softened his hard edges a bit (less guns, more women and cars) and tightened up his songwriting, but it’s still not the vicious rapper from “Tha Mansion” or “Hussle In The House”. Depending on your taste, that could mean reason for celebration or disappointment, depending on what you want out of him.

Crenshaw has it’s peaks and valleys, though it’s a jagged, somewhat exhausting trail to hike. At 21 tracks, five of which leaked months before, Crenshaw is over 80 minutes long, a little bloated for a project entirely made of leftovers for the real album, Victory Lap, expected to drop in 2014. Towards the end, a trio of songs featuring Teeflii and James Fauntleroy serve to totally confuse the listener before an obscure rapper named BH shows up for a surprisingly entertaining verse on “1 Of 1” (bonus points for the Dido sample). 9th Wonder holds down vintage soul with “Face The World”, The Futuristics lace an audio spliff for “Summertime In That Cutlass” and one of the best beats is the Floetry flip on “4 In Tha Mornin." At times Crenshaw veers dangerously toward a lite version of The Yellow Album, and while it might not hurt him to explore that sound, it also sounds derivative.

Nipsey’s flow used to be more fluid. Maybe he set the bar too high with verses like “I Don’t Fucks With Em” and “Blacc Ice”. Turns of phrases and random details like “pastrami ‘round her peehole” made him an ear-catching MC, but his new music is a bit soothing. It’s a creative freedom that he’s earned, but it doesn’t make for the same vivid music that propelled The Marathon and parts of it’s sequel. Crenshaw has its moments, but it ultimately reflects the process of a rapper stretching styles and seeing what he’s most comfortable with. The exercise might not yield many immediate results, but it’s a necessary workout for an artist trying to please loyal fans and potential newcomers. --Max Weinstein

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