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Rico Nasty
Rico NastyPhotography @worksoface

A conversation with punk rap renegade Rico Nasty

The Anger Management rapper discusses channelling Joan Jett, being a young mother on tour, and why she wants her house by the lake

An artist like Rico Nasty doesn’t come around too often. With a look that sits somewhere between Harley Quinn and Siouxsie Sioux, the 22-year-old rapper’s aesthetic is proudly nonconformist, while her raspy drawl – which frequently transitions into passionate, cathartic screams – has just as much in common with post-punk bands like The Raincoats as it does hip hop artists like City Girls. Rico’s voice feels at once strong and vulnerable as she drains every last bit of emotion out of her vocal cords. When she spits, you feel it in the pit of your stomach – vengeful songs like “Smack a Bitch” and “Roof” recall the raw firecracker energy of emcees like DMX and Sticky Fingaz, albeit with rainbow-coloured nails and deliriously camp make-up. For Rico, traditional notions of femininity and masculinity are two sides of the same coin, and she’ll often channel both within the same song, moving quickly from being overwhelmed by emotion to being ready to smack you right in the face.

Rico Nasty’s live shows provide a space for young outsiders to let out their pain. “And I’m screaming, fuck Trump! / Black girls, stand up!” she chants on “Bitch I’m Nasty”, as people in the crowd punch the air, treating it more like a call-to-action than a punchline. When the metal-inflected guitars of “Rage” ring out and raucous mosh pits start forming, it isn’t just fun, but cathartic. When she uses the word “bitch” to describe men (as she does on the absolutely lethal trap anthem “Poppin”: “I don’t need your money / Bitch, I got my own money”), Rico takes a slur that’s long been directed at women in hip hop culture and flips it on their thirsty male counterparts. 

“She gives a voice to the girls who are sick of having to listen to whatever their fucking boyfriend listens to,” says hip hop producer Kenny Beats, a frequent collaborator with Rico Nasty. “You go to a Rico Nasty show and there’s gay people, trans people, white people and black people all in the mosh pit together, and it’s beautiful. These people can be who they really fucking are and stop hiding as there’s something about Rico’s energy that just let’s people be their fucking selves in the most effortlessly weird way possible. She takes off their chains.”

The pair teamed up earlier this year for the collaborative mixtape Anger Management, a punk-rap record that sees Rico expressing her rage amid gnarly guitars and menacing synths before simmering down into gentler love bops. For Anger Management, “we really tapped into primal scream therapy and read all these books by this psychologist called Arthur Janov, who’d gather depressed people and take them deep into the woods where they’d just scream and throw rocks until they let out all of their inner pain and found peace,” Kenny says of the project’s ethos.

“That’s the kind of journey we wanted the music to take the listener on! We start with these angry songs and by the end of it, Rico is singing in Auto-Tune about needing a second chance and she’s bringing back that softer sugar trap sound. It’s like she has transitioned through a temper tantrum and found inner peace.” Anger Management has proven to be one of 2019’s most essential albums, helping process our collective pain in a way that’s healthy, and where we can come out on the other side smiling.

Anger Management followed a series of inspiring and diverse mixtapes that have each defied genre categorisation. Rico, who was a prominent figure at last month’s New York Fashion Week, is now working on her debut album for Atlantic Records, while still riding high having been chosen, alongside Tierra Whack and Megan Thee Stallion, by XXL Magazine as one of this year’s most important new rappers. It genuinely feels like she’s one hit single away from becoming a pop culture staple and being able to afford the house with a lake that she spits about on “Phone”: “My next house must have a lake / I’m onto big and better things.”

Rico’s success has been hard won. At 18, she had her son Cameron, but his father, Brandon, tragically died shortly after the birth through complications related to asthma. Although she was grief-stricken and having to raise her son alone, she set out to do everything in her power to succeed artistically so that Cameron could live a more comfortable life. One of her earlier songs, “Brandon”, which poignantly samples Vanessa Carlton’s sad girl bop “A Thousand Miles”, sees Rico pour her heart out about the loss, rapping: “They say time heals pain, but mine still ain't gone.” For the day ones, hearing Rico go on to confidently use the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in a complex rhyme scheme (check out the quirky banger “Big Titties”) or boast about financially surpassing the teachers who used to openly dismiss her dreams in class (on “Trust Issues”, amid riot-inducing thick waves of distortion, Rico jokes: “I make more than my old teachers and I’m proud of that / I should have teached your ass”) is wildly inspiring, proof that you can be dealt a bad hand and still emerge as one of the biggest rock stars on the planet.

My interview with Rico has been pushed back multiple times as she bounced between the studio and fashion shoots, struggling to fit everything in. Yet when I do finally catch up with her over the phone, she’s in a great mood despite admitting she feels exhausted. However, this kind of chaotic lifestyle is also something Rico cherishes. “I want everything I do to be unique, just like how David Bowie used to do it,” she tells me. “I want to grow with my fans, and for every look or project I drop to be completely fucking different from the last. Being an artist is about innovating and pushing limits. You can’t stand still.”

I was at your show in Primavera in May and it was obvious that your fans feel a real sense of community when you perform. It’s like you speak for the outcasts and the kids who feel like they are on the fringes of society. Are those the kind of people you enjoy targeting?

Rico Nasty: I’m so happy you think I can do that for people. I guess an artist like Tyler, the Creator used to do that for me. Like, when I used to listen to “Radical” and then I listened to “Sandwitches”, I just would feel like, “Bro, there’s a place here for me with all the weirdos and outcasts.” I want young girls to feel like that when they discover my music, for it to make them feel like a superhero. You have to be completely yourself in order to find more people just like you, so that’s what I do. It means that when my fans come together, they are surrounded by family, and we can just fucking riot!

I don’t necessarily think it matters what gender you are at a Rico Nasty show. It doesn’t matter your sexual preference, if you’re in drag, if you’re straight, or if you’re dancing with your fucking little sister. We’re all just people who want to escape from this fucked up world. I mean, life ain't about whether you win or lose a fight. Life is about what you do after the fight. That’s what I’m all about.

You definitely have that Harley Quinn stature on-stage, the kind of person who can look into the abyss and just be fucking smiling. Do you feel like a superhero when you’re on that stage?

Rico Nasty: Maybe. I feel like the character that really comes out and the person I channel a lot of the time is Joan Jett. It’s just her voice. The way you said I give off the Harley Quinn vibe, she gives me those vibes. She gives me, like, fucking badass, I’ll-punch-my-enemy-right-in-the-face vibes. She really doesn’t give a fuck, and that’s liberating. I try to embody that and make my own version of it. If I’m thinking, maybe this verse isn’t hitting right, I think: “What would Joan do?” She would make it sound crazy, so that’s what I’ve gotta do, too!

It must be difficult building your name as a rapper and having a young son. How do you balance the two? And would you be happy if he one day became a rapper too?  

Rico Nasty: Remember, I’m the only female rapper from the DMV to go to fucking Barcelona and perform! So that’s big. I’ve been to Italy, France, and Ireland, so something must be working, right? But I’m away from my son a lot too and I miss him all the fucking time. I get off the phone with my son and I’m like, “I hope I’m not missing something by chasing a dream that’s not really working.” But then I get on stage and I see how crazy the people go, it makes me smile, and sometimes I realise it might be worth it after all. 

My son is, like, four, and my mom plays him my music, and he’s like, “My mommy works on TV!” He doesn’t completely know that I’m a rapper yet. At this point, I would definitely tell my son not to be a rapper. I don’t want him working like this – just working and working and working. Even if you are an independent artist, you will waste so much money just trying to make it.

Why wouldn’t you start your own label? He needs to think bigger than his mom. Why don’t you start your own festival? I’m working hard so he has those options. Like, this shit happened to me because I believe God literally winked at me or something. It’s hard fucking work. And I don’t want him struggling. He should do something bigger than rap. Sure, rap heals people, but he could deadass be a doctor and actually physically heal people instead!

Let’s go back to the music. I was talking to Kenny and he said Anger Management was about processing anger in a healthy way. Can you elaborate on that?

Rico Nasty: When I made Anger Management, I wanted it to sound like a temper tantrum. There’s an element of primal scream therapy too. So many people want to know like, “What do you get out of screaming as an artist?” I think sometimes when you can’t express the right words of how profoundly upset you are, screaming has a more visceral impact, so I’m just like, arghhhhhhhh! It’s therapeutic. I feel like that shit works because there are actually rage rooms; they have people who can take you to a fucking mountain, then you just go up there and you scream. Some people aren't good with their words and just walk around like robots, so they just need to get it out of their system. I want my new music to do that for you.

I guess at a time where America has a mass shooting every other week, it’s important to scream. Screaming is a form of protest, maybe?

Rico Nasty: I've lived in America my whole life and, like, I’ve never seen people so fucking scared! I am experienced in music now, but seeing how weird people are around loud noises at a festival is sad. Sometimes when you play something too loud, people are kind of looking around in a panic. It’s hard to be free in all of this shit. People in America are scared of their own shadow, so they need spaces to let out those emotions and just scream. If a young black girl is shy, but they see me up there on a stage standing defiantly, then she won’t be shy no more.

When I was young, I lost my father suddenly. “Brandon” really resonated with me in terms of the grieving process.

Rico Nasty: I don’t even know if people can hear on that song that my voice is cracking, like I’m about to cry a little bit. It was really hard recording that song. I never talk about that song and, literally, you can’t find an interview with me talking about it. That song was extremely hard to make because you’re still right in it. You’re submerged in what happened, you’re thinking about it, and you’re trying to talk about it in a raw way. yet you don’t even know if people are gonna like the song. I love anyone who tells me they love that song, because that shit is hard to make, and we all – bro, we all go through that shit, and it’s the worst thing you could fucking experience. Like, you just feel so lost. But I’m here ready to tell people there is good shit that comes out of the bad stuff. My past isn’t a fucking secret, but people see me continue to rise and it inspires them to do so too. Shout out to anyone who has been through some fucked up shit. Pat yourself on the back, you’re still alive!

Where does Rico Nasty want to be in five to ten years time?

Rico Nasty: I'd like to be big. I want to be a star, and I feel like that’s the direction that I’m headed in. I’d love to be an artist who breaks down doors. I think I am that artist, because whether you love me or hate me, this shit is undeniable. It would be nice to work with Tyler and Rihanna too. Is there a female DMX? Maybe there needs to be. I just hope that in the future, you know, my little son, he does what he needs to be doing, and I get my house with the lake, and things just turn out the way that they’re fucking supposed to. If you put in good hours, you get good things back. I’ve got this.