Rico Nasty: “I definitely resonate with being a pop-punk princess”

In a world where rap and punk are best friends, the musical polymath talks about her new sound, female empowerment and her ‘Joan Jett moment’

We all know the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows: it’s OK to get a little nasty sometimes. And Rico Nasty is the 23-year-old Maryland native dominating the macho rap world, all while injecting a bit of punk realness along her way to stardom. With hustle, braggadocio and immense talent, women are now running rap with a sense of community spirit; Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Rico and more are sticking together and trailblazing with wildly original artistry.

And, in the middle of a pandemic, Rico – real name Maria Kelly – is still serving looks. Today, over Zoom, she’s sporting a short, luridly green wig, looking like a pixie in a Fenty hoodie. She’s giddy because she’s just dropped the ear-shattering single ‘iPhone’ and freshly announced her first-ever make-up collaboration with the brand Il Makiage. It’s been more productive than your average bread-baking lockdown, that’s for sure, and she’s also trying out new hobbies – such as painting, cooking and scouring the internet for apple jelly – because, she says, such restlessness is “the thing about being a Taurus that sucks”.

Rico Nasty Big Read 2020
Jonathan Weiner for NME

The rapper has fled Largo, her quarantined hometown, to be in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, two besties and her son Cameron, whom her fans can’t get enough of every time she posts him on her Instagram. Although she’s found self-isolation tough, she sees a silver lining in the fact that it enabled her to spend more time with Cameron.

She says that “at first quarantine was amazing”, before restrictions tightened. “Everything was open and we were going to Chuck.E Cheese. We’re at the movies or in Target buying toys – and then everything just stopped.”

Although she seems relatable and low-key via video call, Rico has spent the past six years rising from local star to a global modern rap icon. In doing so, she’s proven that she’s more versatile than your bog-standard rapper. She can sing, as she proved with 2017’s otherworldly and synth-heavy ‘Tales Of Tacobella’; one track, the heartfelt ‘Brandon’, was dedicated to her child’s late father, who died of an asthma attack in Rico’s senior high school year. And she can deliver different genres too: tracks such as ‘Sandy’ and ‘Cold’, created with infamous super-producer Kenny Beats last year, saw her unleash her hellish screamo voice over crackling guitar.

Rico Nasty Big Read 2020
Rico Nasty on the cover of NME

Now with six mixtapes under her belt – from 2014’s icy ‘Summer’s Eve’ to 2019’s frenetic ‘Anger Management’ with Beats – a shiny deal with Atlantic Records and an ever-growing fan base, it’s the perfect time to solidify her sound with her debut album, ‘Nightmare Vacation’. Nasty’s known for coining the term “sugar trap”, blending hardcore, gruff vocals and grungy hooks with softer, computerised beats. She describes the new album, due for release this month, as “sugar trap on steroids”.

‘Nightmare Vacation’ taps into the DIY freedom of 2017’s underground ‘Tales Of Tacobella’, but with a more refined approach. This is especially true of the trappy ‘Loser’, which features SoundCloud rap’s foremost screamer Trippie Redd. Rico steals an iconic line from cult classic movie Mean Girls: “We’re going shopping, loser – get in!”. Channelling nostalgic noughties culture and sound while exuding turbulent modern production, Rico’s studio debut solidifies her status as a singular talent.

“Joan Jett taught me how to hear ‘No’ and smile”

“I don’t know where I fit,” Rico says of her place in the music world. She welcomes in misfits from all walks of life; her audience is just as eclectic as her sound and image, as she switches between the oversized tracksuits and stacked chains of hip-hop and the spiked chokers and fishnets beloved of old-school punk. “I don’t really resonate with punk stars because I’m not that hardcore. I like bubbles and stuff; I’m not harsh and crazy. And with this new album, I definitely resonate with being a pop-punk princess.”

Rico Nasty Big Read 2020
Jonathan Weiner for NME

Before she became a punk rock princess, eight-year-old Maria was an only child madly in love with Guitar Hero. Before all the vamp glam and spiky looks, she was in awe of Midori, her favourite character from the music game: “I loved her hair, I loved how she acted. She was so kawaii [cute] but she was so badass.”

Kickstarting her badassery, Rico jumped from a cutesy game character to the persistently hardcore Joan Jett, to whom she dedicates her career. The founding member of ’70s punk band The Runaways embraced a traditionally masculine image, which was frowned upon by the industry. Jett was bashed by male critics – especially when she went solo, yet has remained an icon of selfhood decades later.

“My personas are inspired by three people: David Bowie; Tyler, the Creator; and Nicki Minaj”

Says Rico: “[She taught me] how to take ‘No’ and smile. So many people told her that her music was too hard and too raw. When I came on the scene, I was definitely on the softer side but then I started telling people to kiss my ass. I felt like I worked so hard that I deserved what I have, so I started making crazier music.”

While those early releases exuded bubblegum rap, it was 2018’s adrenaline-bursting ‘Smack A Bitch’ that saw her truly channel Jett’s no fucks attitude. No wonder it became a fan favourite that’s racked up over 34million views on YouTube. She’d been under pressure from those in the industry – and even her own family – to play down the profanity in her work, but felt validated when her most outrageous song to date became a smash. “It wasn’t a shake-your-ass song,” she says. “It was purely for healing. To hear a song like ‘Smack A Bitch’ go Gold makes me so happy.”

Rico Nasty Big Read 2020
Jonathan Weiner for NME

And just like Joan Jett, Rico has always been a powerful symbol of inclusion. In an interview with style Bible Dazed, producer pal Kenny Beats explained that when “you go to a Rico Nasty show, there’s gay people, trans people, white people and black people all in the mosh pit together, and it’s beautiful”. This is perhaps partly down to the fact that she has so many different personas – there’s something for everyone. With ‘Sugar Trap’ and … Tacobella’, she adopted the guise of Tacobella, whose sound is bubbly and sweet, despite Rico’s gruff delivery.

While the latter record blew up due to songs such as the invigorating ‘Poppin’, Rico turned to her darker wild side for her penultimate mixtape, 2018’s ‘Nasty’. Here we saw Rico’s true punk credentials as she channeled a character named Trap Lavigne; the music got grittier and more aggressive atop distorted, hardcore instrumentals. Who inspires her musical personas?

“I got them from three people: David Bowie; Tyler, The Creator; and Nicki Minaj,” she says. “A lot of people may be like, ‘Nicki Minaj!?’ But her [male alter-ego] Roman was hard. I really fucked with how she was the first to give her different personality a different sex. Like, Roman was a guy and he was always trapped inside of her and I feel like that’s why she was able to bar up with guys.”

“When you tap into your confidence, nobody can tell you shit”

With her androgynous nature and outlandish style, Rico has been an icon for outcasts for years. This, she says, is because she was once an outcast like her fans. The mosh pit became her outlet, and she was able to find herself as she flailed around with fellow super turned-up teens at her first Rolling Loud Festival, one of the biggest rap events in the world, held all over America. “When someone’s an outcast looking for a safe space,” she says, “they walk around like, ‘Where the weirdos go!’ And it’s like, ‘Hey! Go to a Rico Nasty show’.”

If you do go to a Rico Nasty show, you’re bound to be welcomed into a raging moshpit. “In the underground scene there have been moshpits [for some time],” she says. “Ever since, like, 2012. Chief Keef, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert – it was always a thing for the underground. But all them names I just mentioned, what are they all now? A-listers. So they just brought that shit with them and it caught on.

Rico Nasty Big Read 2020
Jonathan Weiner for NME

“When I was younger, I don’t remember any girls moshing at concerts. I’m sure there was a female out there, feeling the same way that I feel before I get on stage. [Now] we get to be bad bitches and break shit.”

It’s fair to say that Rico is a part of a contemporary musician revolution of amazing female rappers (sorry, “bad bitches”). With Cardi B and Nicki Minaj sitting pretty atop of a cool roster of modern talent, this century’s female rappers don’t seem to fight as much as the ’90s ladies did. In the space of a decade, female rappers went from trying to kill each other (literally – see Lil Kim and Foxy Brown’s infamous feud) to having each other’s back and showing love across the whole community.

“In the moshpit, we get to be bad bitches and break shit”

Of course, this is typified by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s traffic-stopping hit ‘WAP’, the raunchy video for which showcased new-gen rap stars such as Rubi Rose, Sukihana, and Mulatto. But Rico doesn’t think that Bronx-born Cardi should get all the credit: “She’s a mirror of what’s happening. The underground females have always done songs together.” Indeed, Rico featured on Doja Cat’s menacing 2018 track ‘Tia Tamera’ before they both properly blew up. “We’re [all] pretty cool with each other, minus the typical static when someone sounds like you or shit like, ‘Oh, I don’t like that bitch’. That’s going to happen.”

It’s true, though, that ‘WAP’ offered liberation to millions when it came to their sexuality, which is something Rico can get behind: “Let these guys know that they can’t tell you what to do. I’mma shake this ass, and you’re going to watch it and you’re going to pay my bills. I love it because it’s time women stop worrying about what men think about them. We might not say we are, but [women can be] really mean and like ‘That’s that hoe shit!’ and it’s really not. It’s really just having fun and enjoying your life.”

Rico Nasty Big Read 2020
Jonathan Weiner for NME

As a little girl, before she discovered Joan Jett, before she drew inspiration from Bowie and way before she was digging ‘WAP’, she looked up to the Bajan pop princess Rihanna for life lessons on resilience: “She taught me a lot about being a boss and being on your own two feet. She ain’t never need no man and even if she did, she was very clear that she was running shit.”

Whenever Rico thinks of giving up, she says, she turns to Rihanna’s 2008 track ‘Question Existing’, on which the singer ponders the existential question: “Who am I living for?” For Rico, it’s her fans, for whom she tries “to keep hope alive”. Rico’s desire to give hope is deeply rooted in her former craving for confidence and inspiration: “I don’t want people to think that they’re not good enough and look at me and get hope because everybody can do something very awesome. They just haven’t tapped into that part of their confidence yet.”

“Rihanna taught me a lot about being a boss”

And with ‘Nightmare Vacation’, she’s serving plenty of inspiration. She admits that every time she goes into the studio, she always wants to “top ‘Tales Of Tacobella’ when it comes to vulnerability”. Fittingly, ‘Nightmare Vacation’ is the first record that she’s “nervous” to release. But she’s excited at the same time, having “really tried to perfect her craft”.

She explains: “I made ‘Anger Management’ in a week. I made ‘Nasty’ and ‘Sugar Trap’ in around three months. I made ‘Tales Of Tacobella’ in a month – two, tops. I made this album in a year.” And yet even this leads to self-doubt: “I hope that I’m not one of the people that overperfected it and took away what [the fans] enjoyed.”

Rico Nasty Big Read 2020
Jonathan Weiner for NME

Hoping to maintain her boundless artistry to inspire the next generation of girls who want to be pop-punk princesses in the male-dominated rap world, Rico longs for this album to remind women that “you are fire once you tap into that level of confidence. And when you do, nobody can tell you shit”. Combining the badassery she learned from Joan Jett and mixing it with her sensitive mission to keep hope alive, she wants to teach the next generation that “you can walk down the street like you want to – we’re talking about strutting, feeling yourself.”

This sentiment leads to a brilliant Nasty closing riff. “All the best shit happens when you’re scared,” she says. “It’s probably a sign because you only get butterflies because of fear, but you gotta get that bitch away and do it. Don’t do something that someone else might like – do something that you know you’ll like. You gotta be happy with all the decisions you make and make them right. If you do that, you can’t fuck up.”

Rico Nasty’s ‘Nightmare Vacation’ is out soon

CREDITS: Hair by Preston Wada
Make-up by David Velasquez
Styled by Haylee Ahumada