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Rico Nasty: rap-rooted, emo-adjacent, young as fuck

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As she prepares for her debut album out this summer, the Maryland artist reflects on her evolution, being a teen in the 2010s and bringing twisted metal guitars to rap

If you want a peek into the appeal of Maryland rapper Rico Nasty, hit YouTube and queue up “Beat My Face”. It’s a rework of “The Race”, a viral hit by ill-fated rapper Tay-K about life on the run from the cops after being charged with murder. But in Rico’s hands, the track is a riff on lip palettes and setting sprays, not assault rifles: “Anastasia, my bitch from Beverly,” she raps to herself in a bathroom mirror, name-dropping cosmetics brands in front of a messy spread of make-up, all popping eyes and wiry limbs. “It’s gon’ stay ’cuz it’s Urban Decay… don’t work at M.A.C but I’ll beat a bitch face.”

The joke – ‘beat my face’ is slang for applying make-up – lands for legions of fans who want to thrash out to songs about cosmetics. Taking Rico in is like shuffling through an American mall: a blur of sugar-rush snacks, glam kiosks, goth outlets and tracksuited mannequins. The 22-year-old rapper, born Maria Kelly, grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, known to locals as PG County. The district is part of the Washington metropolitan area, colloquially known as the DMV, and is home to some of the worst income inequality in the US. While she was a pre-teen, Rico’s parents enrolled her in a Baltimore boarding school, and when she returned home to attend a state high school, she brought with her a love of emo, pop and classic rock, along with the local rap churning out of her old hoods. In interviews, she raises up Rihanna and Joan Jett, bad gyal pop and guitar rock, as dual influences. By 2014, she was showcasing her spiky style and raspy delivery on her first mixtape, brazenly named after the feminine hygiene brand Summer’s Eve.

Since then, Rico has honed her craft through half a dozen mixtapes. Her style has opened up like a Venus flytrap: a jagged, glam-punk aesthetic that cuts through as sharply as her voice. But while she shares visual cues with new-school, emo-adjacent artists like Lil Uzi Vert, her sound is sneakily rap-rooted; listen closely to marquee singles like “Trust Issues,” from her 2018 album Nasty, or the same year’s “Guap (LaLaLa)”, and you’ll hear faint echoes of early Ice Cube or the Beastie Boys in her slow-stomping shouts.

Hanging out front of a swanky steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, Rico hides from the drizzle under a hoodie, slowly blowing down a joint. She’s freshly arrived in New York for a hurricane of photoshoots and holiday season hangs; tonight, her label will take her out to celebrate 2019, a year that saw the release of Anger Management – a mixtape collaboration with white-hot producer Kenny Beats – and the com- pletion of her debut album, due in 2020. Over lobster bisque (“Oh shit, it’s spicy!”) and at least one margarita, Rico speaks to growing up in the last decade and her plans to devour the next.

First off, a fact that is very cool to me: you were born in 1997.

Rico Nasty: Yes. I’m young as fuck.

Do you feel like a 90s baby?

Rico Nasty: On occasion. Because, for some reason, a lot of 90s things transferred over into the early 2000s, so we were able to still grow up around the same things. I feel like family was also hella tight. You had those cousins with the three-year age gaps. You would sit and talk about shit – everyone watched BET Jams together, so everyone was listening to the same music. It’s crazy.

I feel most people would say that you get your real identity around eighth grade, like 13.

Rico Nasty: Ooh, I would hope not.

You don’t think so? Where you know what you like, what you think, your type of jokes?

Rico Nasty: That’s true. And that’s why I cringe, because that’s the worst time of your life as well. You’re just standing on your own two feet, like, “If this is what I like, it’s what I like. You don’t like me? Fuck you, I’m writing dicks on your book.” You know? Hell, yeah. 

You were 13 in 2010. What do you remember about that year?

Rico Nasty: I remember Death Cab for Cutie, Kid Cudi, Kanye West… It was an era, oh my God. Paramore was falling off; it was low-key blowing the fuck out of me. I had grown up loving them, and then, when it was time to face these real-life emotions, those guys were not dishing out the shit I needed! (I was like), “You wanna drop fucking (Hayley Williams’ single with B.o.B.) ‘Airplanes’?” But I did fuck with B.o.B. for a little while.

B.o.B. That’s crazy. I almost forgot about B.o.B. 

Rico Nasty: I’m also a huge Rihanna stan. When you stand back and look at what she’s done over all the years, it’s like different versions of herself. I love listening to “Unfaithful”, “Disturbia”, “S&M”, “We Found Love”, “California King Bed”… I love her.

“I grew up on the internet, and I did a lot of observing...You watch so much that when it’s finally your moment you’re like, ‘Bitch, I’m ready!’ I’ve been in this (job) since I was seven” – Rico Nasty

“Disturbia” is some Rico shit. That video too, a little bit.

Rico Nasty: “Rockstar 101”: Rico Nasty is that song, embodied. (Starts singing) “Hey baby, I’m a rock star / big city, bright lights / all day, all night / hey baby I’m a rock star, hey baby!” Rated R was low-key one of the most influential albums of my life. (It’s) between Rated R, (Nicki Minaj’s) Pink Friday and Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon.

I don’t think you would ever say you’re a Barbie. I don’t get that vibe. 

Rico Nasty: Now, don’t get me wrong, bro: I remember the era clear as day. I remember going to school and everyone had their hair in bobs. I used to wear my hair curly with the flat-iron bob shit. Everyone was listening to Nicki Minaj. In a way it was to piss my mom off, because I wasn’t supposed to be listening to it. (But) that shit was personality, everything. Even Tyler.

It’s crazy to think Pink Friday and Tyler’s debut album (Goblin) were released around the same time.

Rico Nasty: That’s what I was during that age. I had my Odd Future shirt that wasn’t from the store – I fucking drew it. I had Odd Future on my shoes, I had it on my books. It was a crazy phase.

So you were one of the first kids around your way that was up on that kind of shit? 

Rico Nasty: Like, one of three people. People would be like, “You worship the devil, you’re a fucking weirdo!” So I got banished. But (with Tyler) I was like, “This nigga’s tight!” You’re right, that is (the age) when you start finding out what you think is funny. And I remember thinking his shit was funny – “Tina”, “Her”, “VCR”… Maybe not “VCR”, because as I got older, that (became) cringe.

Now, as an artist signed to a major label (Rico signed to Atlantic in 2018), do you compare your own experience to what you imagined Nicki or Rihanna’s experiences to be, as a fan?

Rico Nasty: Not necessarily. I can say I’ve been in situations like a wardrobe malfunction or something. I’ll be like, “What the fuck, how do they deal with something like this?” Because it happens to everybody. Or, this is a little bit inappropriate, but the first time I had to perform on my period. I thought about them. It was such a sensitive moment because if something goes wrong… and you know, (fans) don’t really give a fuck when your period comes. They want to see the body. I look at all the shows (Nicki or Rihanna) have done, looking fabulous. You never notice if they have cramps. You never know when anything’s going wrong with them. I remember being on my first tour, and my period had started the day I left for (the first show). I was like, “Yo. I’m away from home, I’m in hotels, we moving fast, there’s no sitting down…” It was horrible. 

It’s got to be important to have women on your team, too, for moments like that.

Rico Nasty: So they can comfort you. I don’t know, though, sometimes I like having guys around because they don’t take pity. So it’s more like, “All right, let me suck it up. I ain’t no bitch. I’m good. I got it.” Sometimes that’s good for motivation. They be like, “Come on, bro, you got it. Hit a J. Get back on your feet.” But a girl might be like, “Mama, come on, you want to cuddle?” And we don’t have time for that. We don’t, even though I want to. That’s why I bring my best friend with me. She knows when I need it and when I don’t. When I need to be held, and when I need to be pushed.

How did the way you released, shared and promoted your own music change across the decade, as you remember it? 

Rico Nasty: I used to be able to post my music on SoundCloud, but it didn’t last long. Those were the good old days; you could just post your music any-fucking-where. And niggas didn’t really take advantage of it. Grooveshark. I used to be on all those websites.

Were you putting those mixtapes on iTunes? Or were you putting them on (online distribution platforms) CD Baby or DistroKid? 

Rico Nasty: I was putting them on CD Baby. What I did was, I put my shit on YouTube and built up my (profile), then I built up my SoundCloud. Where I’m from in the DMV, it’s (hip-hop mixtape platform) Spinrilla. So once I found the cheat codes to upload my shit to Spinrilla, then I was the hottest in the city.

What was that?

Rico Nasty: My first mixtape, I was in tenth grade. It was called Summer’s Eve. Only bitch rapping in all of PG County. And I was the youngest bitch rapping. So I’m in school and niggas is like, “Woah, you the bitch that rap,” and I’m like “Yeah, yeah.” (But I) didn’t take that shit serious. Couldn’t get no shows.

“Everybody around me didn’t fuck with no labels, but I did. I wanted the team; I wanted the whole shebang” – Rico Nasty

When you were first starting out, did you feel like you had to be on the radio and signed to a record label to make it?

Rico Nasty: That’s the thing. Everybody around me didn’t fuck with no labels, but I did. I wanted the team; I wanted the whole shebang. I wanted longevity. Once different labels started calling me and giving out offers, it was like, “I have a kid. I have to (be) serious. If this deal takes months to sign, that’s what it’s going to take.”

It feels like you understand both sides. The independent internet game and the major label system.

Rico Nasty: I grew up on the internet, and I did a lot of observing – watching and learning from other people’s mistakes. You watch so much that when it’s finally your moment you’re like, “Bitch, I’m ready!” I’ve been in this (job) since I was seven in my mind. I had this feeling when I was young, like, “I’m going to do something big. I don’t know what (yet), but I’m gonna be rich.”

You had that specifically in your head? 

Rico Nasty: I just knew. My family didn’t have money, but once I (found out) what money was I was like, “I’m gonna have a lot of this!“ I only had two jobs in my entire life. I worked at Popeyes and I worked at the hospital. At Popeyes people were so mean to me; the customers were mean as shit. People don’t play about their chicken!

You get an order wrong, you definitely hear about it.

Rico Nasty: I worked at a drive-through so I would hide. I was a pussy.

How has the decade treated PG County and the DMV in general? Has the area changed for the better or worse, musically speaking? 

Rico Nasty: It’s definitely better. I came up with Q Da Fool, WillThaRapper, Big Flock, Tino Loud, Swipey – rest in peace – and Simba. Fat Trel, Wale – those are the people I remember, being avid within those years, even in the last five years. At first DMV rap was really violent. Everyone was beefing. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’m going to because nobody’s going to debate me on this. When (Rico’s 2016 mixtape) Sugar Trap came out, it brought peace to the area. It brought general understanding, bro. Because it was these gangster-ass niggas who were like, “Her shit hard.” But I was flipping what they were talking about. It made a safe space for the girls to start coming out again. People were booking me. It was just a very fun time for the DMV. A very safe time. Because for a long time there was no parties. Bitches was not going out, because there was no music. It was nothing but a bunch of guys, there was no balance. So I created the balance. And much love and respect to every girl from the DMV doing your thing right now. All my female rappers. Shout out Chelly the MC, shout out Pretty Savage, she’s from Virginia. Shout out all my bitches. I’m very proud of everybody, because it’s hard to come out of here, to get (people’s) approval.

Both your personal style and sound have evolved dramatically through the years.

Rico Nasty: Every time I drop something, I try to make it a step up. Something has to step up, whether it’s the song, the visuals or the rollout. I feel like (2019 single) ‘Hard’ was an amazing video because it was done by Reel Goats, (who) do DaBaby’s visuals. Working with them was amazing. Fast as hell.

Do you feel more comfortable looking super-glamorous with make-up, or in more tomboy or punk fits?

Rico Nasty: I feel more comfortable in super-glam mode. I like to have my make-up done and all that. If I don’t, like today, it’s not gonna kill me. But would I rather have my make-up on? Yes. Is this entire book bag full of make-up? Yes, it is. I love getting dolled up, I love getting my hair done, I love getting my nails done. I love all that shit. I love wearing heels, I love Fashion Week.

That’s cool. I feel like people wouldn’t expect that. 

Rico Nasty: I mean, if you’d asked me that question two years ago I’d have said I liked being in sweatpants. But the brand I’ve evolved is, ‘Hell, yeah, I put my costume on. I’m proud to be in my costume.’

Do you consider yourself a futurist or are you nostalgic?

Rico Nasty: I feel like I’m a futurist. Because sometimes the past makes me really sad. I don’t like thinking about it.

OK, so – new shit. Future waves. What can you say about Rico’s 2020 debut album? 

Rico Nasty: I hope y’all motherfuckers like it.

Why do you say that?

Rico Nasty: Because that’s how I always feel before I drop a project. But this isn’t a project, this is the album. So I’ma just be real and say I hope you motherfuckers like it. It’s not based on one aesthetic. I keep listening to it back to back to back, swapping out songs, pulling them back.

What’s your favourite thing on it? The one that feels like something new.

Rico Nasty: The intro. It’s another voice I developed, and I’ll be showcasing that more. Everyone who’s heard the song is like, ‘Is this you featuring somebody?’ But it’s not (done) in a forced way, it sounds natural. It’s really fire. I’m happy that I locked myself in the studio and didn’t give up on life. 

A new voice, that’s very dope. That’s exciting.

She’s not rock or rap. Ooooh! Wait till y’all hear that shit. I’m excited.

Rico Nasty's album is out this summer

Hair Shingo Shibata at The Wall Group, make-up Yumi Lee at Streeters, photography assistant Zazou Roddam, styling assistant Stephanie Yang