This month, Vinyl Me, Please Rap & Hip Hop is featuring Nasty, Rico Nasty’s 2018 breakthrough album. You can sign up to receive our exclusive edition of the album right here.
Below, you can read an interview with Rico Nasty. We sent our staff writer, Michael Penn II, to interview her in a studio in Los Angeles in between tour dates and recording sessions. Here she talks football, being herself and how she got the Rico Nasty nom-de-rap.
A treacherous fact gone relatively undiscussed: Rico Nasty, born Maria Kelly, is a Cowboys fan. It’s a contentious reality for someone who spent many formative teenage years on Village Green Drive in Palmer Park, a low-income neighborhood within Landover, Maryland: home of FedExField. Rico grew up five minutes from where Washington’s football team — genocidal name omitted — causes mass drunkenness, eventual disappointment and traffic, no matter the outcome. To come from the DMV is to comply to the familial rift of another two-party system: either you’re hailing the home team, or you’re with America’s Team. If you stay around Palmer Park, maybe you sell your lawn space for parking and flip a few plates of barbecue while your cousin scalps a nosebleed seat.
I also come from that Maryland, that rift over a despicably ironic Thanksgiving dinner, and a family of Washington season-ticket holders. I spent many Sundays scaling the road with my father, scouring the tailgate for wings and greens. The thrill of the endzone became a primer for my manhood: victory, failure, contentment, loyalty. For Rico, Sundays were fucking annoying: her father’s a Washington diehard, her then-boyfriend loved the Dallas Cowboys, but the block was way too damn hot for Washington to always lose like they do. Rico’s moved to the Largo side in the last year, still in the heart of the seasonal excessiveness, but she still prefers Dallas for the no-nonsense aesthetic, how they even take their losses like victories.
“Like how the fuck [Washington] gon’ lose, you got all these people coming out in our hometown,” Rico says, her casual disgust piquing my nostalgia. “In Maryland, people don’t go out and do shit. Muthafuckas go out to a goddamn football game when the [Washington Football Team] is playin’, and them muthafuckas don’t play like they whole city there! I just can’t get past that.”
Somewhere on Fairfax in L.A., there’s a huge studio room at the Atlantic/APG compound that’s between zen and den, it depends. The Buddha statues compliment the stripper poles. The studio manager says it’s legendary, but won’t explain why. Fresh from a blonde wig malfunction, Rico arrives, joint in hand, fitted in a lime-green AKIRA/Supreme hoodie with black pants and black-and-white shoes. Within moments, Rico and her friend compete to slide down a pole, both giggling incessantly. “Cardi B who? Sike, nah!” Rico says, squealing as she gives it another go. She hasn’t been home more than three days in the past four months; she recently wrapped her six-week stretch of The Nasty Tour in support of her breakout mixtape, Nasty. She’s tired-yet-accustomed to the suitcase lifestyle, often fascinated by the differences in trash and debris left in mosh pits across the country. There’s no baseline of wylin’ for a Rico Nasty show: bras and panties are thrown, earrings and glass lenses scatter the floor, some folks pass out and one particular fan demanded that Rico spit in her mouth. (While recalling this moment with visible discomfort, Rico assures me this won’t become a regular occurrence.)
Rockstar aside, Rico’s beaming charisma cuts across in person; she embodies the energy, never stepping into a role she can’t fit. She’s a striking conversationalist, as animated and intense as the direction her music’s taken. She spares no details and can bookend her most piercing convictions with an affirmation or a subtle joan; very Prince George’s County, down to the accent and the mannerisms. In her more reflective moments, she recalls a life of beautiful and nagging dualities fueled by heritage and location: born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican mother and a Black father who’d later divorce, she spent her teens moving around the DMV, eventually ending up at a boarding school in Baltimore. In her time there, she faced the perception of being soft because she’s from PG County: the region with the country’s highest concentration of Black wealth. Meanwhile, she came from “the trenches” of Landover, engulfed by the poverty PG County holds as well. Baltimore, culturally and politically, remains its own Maryland separate from the loose confines of the DMV — put Rico on the defensive, fighting her peers and rebelling against the administration until her eventual expulsion for smoking weed.
Once she returned to PG County to attend Charles H. Flowers High School, she encountered a familiar neglect only a PG public school can foster: skipping class at half-day when you had a full course load, having an administration who put in minimal effort, getting a grade boost if you became a lunch runner for a teacher. It was high school when the class-clown Maria Kelly became Rico Nasty after a random taunt from a boy, using her Puerto Rico lanyard as the source material. While her peers reveled in the false superiority of their college acceptances and graduation cookouts, Rico became isolated and depressed, reeling from the sudden passing of her boyfriend Brandon and birthing their son, Cameron, at age 18.
In what’s felt like her whole life, Rico became accustomed to the fluidity of an outcast, shapeshifting by context and never fitting anywhere in particular: with her father’s side of the family in Maryland, she’s the lightskin weird one who’s presumed to always get her way. In New York with her mother’s side, she’s the country dark-skinned Black girl with curly hair who’s in desperate need of a flatiron.
“I just don’t fit, so it was always, like, hard trying to find a balance of like, you know, ‘Who am I?’” Rico remembers. “Like, ‘Am I more Black than Puerto Rican, or?’ Like, what the fuck? I don’t really know too much about either, so I just started educating myself on it. I just feel like I’m definitely Black, because I don’t speak another language, and I’m definitely raised up Black because it’s just like, my mentality versus my other cousins and the way that they move around cops versus how I move around cops, is like, different. Like, if we’re all in a car and they drivin’ wild as fuck, they might not care. They don’t have that [foresight,] like ‘Y’all, chill the fuck out because niggas be gettin’ shot.’ Like, they don’t have that. Their life ain’t like that.”
And when it came to school, it never mattered where she went, her differences radiated off her in a way she could never escape. And from that trapped feeling came the necessity for Maria to embrace Rico: loud, eccentric, inventive with fashion, listening to MF DOOM, Lady GaGa, M83 and KiD CuDi. Embracing Rico Nasty as a rapper means entering the Sugar Trap: a true fan, coined a Sugar Soldier, remembers to embrace the good in life rather than fixating on negativity. Channeling one’s own mood makes a world of difference; as she grows, Rico rarely has the time to ponder her accomplishments and remember what she means to the game, specifically the catharsis she provides for the women she’s impacted. When she does catch a moment, often spent with a bath bomb and a joint like Rev Run with the Blackberry in the club, she slows the time down and contemplates how to make everything easier for the folks around her.
“When people listen to me, I just want them to just find new air,” Rico says. “That’s what it is, that’s what listening to me is, it’s finding new air. It’s literally just finding new. New things about yourself, new sounds that you probably wouldn’t have heard together, new, everything new. Even down in my fashion. And I feel like being a Sugar Soldier is being, like, new to the world and you still got that ignorance-is-bliss type of vibe, but you still are well worn-in and you know what the fuck is going on. That’s how I look at my fans. Whenever they listen to my music, you must be in a time where you need some type of uplifting, and you want to show anger but you can’t, because your job, or your school, or your friends ain’t like that, they’re not those type of people. My music is just, it’s venting, it’s literally a breath of fresh air.”
Something Rico Nasty does worry about: anybody taking her fall for her. She’s reluctant about posting Cameron on her social media, opting to make a private Instagram to share pictures of her son rather than placing him on her main channel to become another target for ruthless users with no sense of tact or sensitivity. The latter informs her public clapbacks as well, reclaiming her right to experience and learn through motherhood with her trials like anyone else without the fame. She wants to minimize the digital footprint to shield her loved ones, yet she’s well aware of the gamut she runs to keep her personality fresh and intriguing in an industry that already has her on the clock by gender alone, the weight of her mistakes eternally compounded in comparison to the men in her space.
“If I say some dumb shit — and it was dumb, but I don’t notice that it’s dumb — and they underneath a picture of my kid, like, ‘Your mother is a dumb-ass bitch,’ it’s like, I don’t even want that,” Rico says. “Just comment under my picture, I’m a dumb-ass bitch, just let me be the dumb bitch. Like, don’t comment on a picture of me and my mother or me and my best friends and comment, ‘Everybody you be with a bitch,’ like, come on now, now you rilin’ up everybody I be with. Wakin’ up and being Rico Nasty, it’s a lotta shit. There’s been so many times where, I bring on new team members, and it’s like a phase of just hate that they go through, because people are like, ‘Why do they get to work with her?’ and it’s just weird shit that be happening. And being Rico, I just try to just remember I am literally just Maria. Rico Nasty is me, but I am just a person. And stay humble, learn all your lessons, don’t take nothin’ for granted. Because I’ve seen shit happen and then just like un-happen, like fall out the sky and then be snatched away.”
On the contrary, Rico’s unconcerned with reductive criticisms of her work: gendered, regional or otherwise. The regional angle recently flared up from Atlanta-native/DMV-transplant Bali Baby, taking to Instagram Live to charge DMV artists with stealing Atlanta’s flows and aesthetics. (The critique was met with widespread dissent; Bali was clowned for being so unoriginal that she left Atlanta to gain DMV clout in the first place.) Recalling earlier in Rico’s career, Lil Yachty was one of the first in the industry to embrace her as an artist, jumping on a remix on her breakout single “Hey Arnold” before anyone else cosigned her. Given Yachty’s quiet positioning as a gatekeeper to the New Atlanta, matched by the new sonic mutations in flows found primarily in DC street rap — Big Flock and Q Da Fool are often credited in leading the wave — it’s easy for an outsider to take Bali’s critiques at their surface. And in a post-Migos landscape, their rapid-fire percussive flows have left an imprint across the game at large. But take one step into PG County, or Northeast and Southeast D.C., and the aesthetics are far from derivative: from the fashion to the slang, Georgian overlap is minimal if not negligible. And in the rap conversation? One wouldn’t place Rico Nasty there at all, and she gained all her clout at home, where it still feels impossible to do.
“The reason why [Bali] is even talked about is because she blew up in the DMV,” Rico says. “So I don’t give a fuck if her argument is valid and we all copied from Atlanta; you didn’t blow up in Atlanta, so you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. So now it’s no longer ‘who raps like this,’ it’s a respect thing. Out of respect for the niggas who put you on, who was paying you for features, putting money in your belly, you don’t disrespect a whole state like that. You damn sure don’t disrespect the DMV because you know how we get. So, I just look at that shit like, I can’t speak on what everybody else be doin’, I can speak on myself, and I know I don’t [make music] like, ‘Oh yeah, this is some Atlanta shit, they gon’ fuck with this.’”
The critique becomes even more nebulous considering Bali was dancing in the “Hey Arnold” video, shouting Rico out in interviews, stamping Sugar Trap when Rico invented it from the perils of her situation, coming from nothing. Rico’s bothered by the obsession with annexing new emcees under the closest sonic or thematic proximity when the comparisons tend to be grossly inaccurate; some folks still hold her as the female Yachty, ringing grossly-inaccurate on the gender scale and in the music itself. If it’s not her being a woman, it’s folks tying her image to whichever single they heard her on, be it “Hey Arnold,” the Insecure-featured “Poppin’,” or “Smack a Bitch.” She traces it all to the lingering fear of being different in a music industry that perceives innovation as risk, where being derivative appears to be a safer bet for a quicker ascension. This very affliction impacted her earlier releases, most specifically the Tales of Tacobella mixtape where she dabbled in the girly, bubbly tendencies expected from femininity in rap with no room for growth or deviation from the norm.
“If I would have not just been so afraid to not be cute, that’s really what it was,” Rico says. “I knew I was gonna have a lot of people lookin’ at me and I didn’t want to be that ugly girl. So I conformed and I tried to be cute on purpose. And I tried to give them like this girly aesthetic, and no matter how hard I tried to do that, it felt like school all over again. I’m really trying to put myself in a box that I don’t go in; like, you don’t fit there, your voice don’t sound good like that. Like, you sound OK, but you don’t really sound good like that. So, I made “Poppin’,” and it was like me literally reminding myself like, ‘Get the fuck up out this, like, you’re not a wave, you’re an artist. You can literally make this shit. You actin’ like you don’t know how to switch flows and switch aesthetics like bitches change they panties.’”
Nasty is the rejection of expectation and a warm embrace of every edge she can deliver. Where the Sugar Trap series symbolized the first steps into the Rico Nasty signature, Nasty is a full realization, shedding the conventions she negotiated far too long with. She’s pivoting from the poppier beginnings of Tacobella to the Rico Lavigne personality: fierce and furious, glory uncompromised. She leans fully into the rasp of her voice, she rages with the best of ’em, and she spits in a caliber most men swear is unattainable to women. Inferiority is nowhere in sight because Rico kicked him in his throat. With the Sugar Trap aesthetic on high, Rico approaches the rock-tinted trap with a youthfulness that’s gripping, often hilarious and never afraid to reinvent itself. “Ice Cream” finds her reinterpreting, literally, an ice-cream truck jingle to flex on every man in her wake — “He tried it, I denied it like shit / He text my phone, I ain’t replyin’ like shit” — and “Won’t Change” lifts her melodies to carry the song as an endzone dance for her success.
The chemistry between Rico and Kenny Beats carries almost half of Nasty, something Rico attributes to Kenny’s uncanny ability to let the fun permeate the work. “Kenny is old enough to like look like somebody’s dad, so you wanna listen to the advice he gives, and then he’s like young enough to like look cool as fuck and know what he’s talkin’ ’bout and be like hip with the in-crowd, so you listen to him regardless.” He’s had one of the best breakout years on this end of the decade, forging unstoppable album-length partnerships with the likes of Freddie Gibbs and KEY! When Kenny and Rico link up, the sub bass shakes with apocalyptic furor and Rico’s voice rises to the occasion, becoming a Sugar Trap Overlord raining gems from her throne. “Countin’ Up” finds Kenny revitalizing N.O.R.E.’s “Superthug” to give Rico the space to flex her lyrical weight, a throwback tribute to her father’s era of rap when he was comin’ up. The thunderous two-piece of “Trust Issues” and “Rage” are Rico Lavigne in full force: commanding with a lingering vulnerability, Rico granting herself, and women like her, permission to transcend their paranoia and unleash the rage gone unheard.
“Kenny just got like a real good heart, and he’s very patient, and I fuck with that, too,” Rico says. “We make these songs literally like back-to-back-to-back, like we make these hits like everytime we see each other, we make like a fire-ass song. We be in the studio like, ‘Ay Rico, don’t think too hard,’ you know. Sometimes you just need those reminders, you need somebody tellin’ you like, ‘Don’t stress yourself out too much about this, it’s just a song, and it’ll come.’ And, you know, the songs just be comin’.”
As she cradles the precipice of fame, the duality of Rico’s experience has come with the sweet rejoice of stability and a perpetual struggle with survivor’s guilt. When Maria from Palmer Park becomes Rico Nasty who goes to China on vacation, there’s an emptiness permeating the success when you remember not having money for the bus and still can’t evade the depression that follows you through fame. Celebrity makes her feel huge, yet insignificant; she’ll be damned if she’s ungrateful, but the emptiness is unrelenting. And as the biggest woman-identified MC to come from this generation of DMV artists, she’s confronted by another duality: she loves where she’s from, and the region loves her dearly, but she’ll never earn the crown she deserves if she waits for home to validate her. In three years time, she’s surpassed the legions of men who’ve come before her in popularity and acclaim; she’s always shown love, been embraced by popular men back home, but Rico’s faced the most rampant misogyny back home more than anywhere else.
“I know for a fact I can’t sit around waiting for them to call me the best because as long as I have a pussy between my legs, they won’t call me the best.”
Still, she works. She calls on her manager/boyfriend Malik, and the men on her team, to speak for her when men won’t address her or grant her the respect she deserves. While she understands the tendency of late adopters to wait until you’ve proven yourself — especially women, who are pigeonholed and disposed of in a fraction of the time as men — Rico refuses to let anyone play with her, make her the bid. Knowing one’s worth remains an essential key; in the DMV, you have to move like a star or they will never treat you like one.
“I know for a fact I can’t sit around waiting for them to call me the best because as long as I have a pussy between my legs, they won’t call me the best,” Rico says. “They just won’t, they won’t do it, and it’s like, it sucks. I’m gonna whisper, ‘I know I’m the best.’ Look at me: look at what the fuck I’ve done, stop playin’ with me. I got a magazine cover, I got movie placements, television placements, I was the first rapper to get verified fast as fuck [on] both Instagram and Twitter. My views [and subscribers] on YouTube, my plays on Spotify, the views I get when I drop snippets, like, it’s unbeatable, it’s unmatched, nobody else is doin’ what the fuck I’m doin’. That’s what I can say in my head, but if I wait around waiting for them to call me the best, I’ll be depressed. I’ll be sitting in my room like, ‘Why they don’t like me?’ That’s where a lot of artists get caught the fuck up, because the DMV is not a place that like people… they deal with people.”
Some years ago, she visited her grandmother in New York during a citywide bedbug outbreak; upon returning to Maryland, Rico brought the bedbugs back to her mother’s house, causing them to remove every stitch of furniture and spend their nights together on an air mattress in the same room. While they came from the trenches, they did it together; Rico never blamed her mother, and holds her in high regard for how hard she worked to be better even when she couldn’t do better. Toward the end of our conversation, Rico’s answers all revolve around the pursuit of happiness: not a false joy smothered by the artificial distractions of her fame, but a genuine appreciation for where she is and where she came from. This ongoing pursuit cuts through the warmth in her voice, her eyes growing as heavy as the weight on her spirit; she’s awestruck by the human condition, how easily ungratefulness and entitlement leak into the most beautiful experiences. She’s blown her fair share of bags in her come up, but she refuses to become frivolous when the poverty she knew remains a reality for so many.
“It’s very important to really understand that money is not gonna make you happy,” Rico says. “It doesn’t matter how many bills you got: you get enough money, you pay them shits off, that’s all that it is… just paper. Like, there is no emotional attachment or anything that can give you [happiness.] When I was livin’ like that and we had to get rid of our furniture, me and my mom got close as fuck, because we’d just sit in the living room and watch movies on the air mattress. But it had to be movies that came on cable — we ain’t even have the movie channels — so we used to have to just finesse that shit. I don’t know, being broke was lit sometimes, when I think about it: I was way more happy. Less responsibility. It felt better.”
One moment, Maria’s dead broke, finessin’ every dollar she can; in the next, Rico’s in L.A., drinking hot chocolate in a studio on Fairfax. She’s lived the duality, but there is no separation between the rebel girl and the rockstar woman. She thrives in all the margins: Black, Puerto Rican, woman, DMV, mother of a Black boy, voice of the unheard, “A Poppin’-Ass Bitch” who came from nothing. I ask directly: “What is your happy?”
“I just want to take this shit the farthest it can go, you know? And other things that I doubt myself and I say that I can’t do, I just want to do them. I just sat here and said that they’ll never call me the best… I’ma keep workin’ until they do. And sometimes it’s good to set goals that you think for a fact you won’t meet cuz then you’ll never stop workin’. You always got somethin’ to work forward to. And that’s why I’m very blessed to be from the DMV because… they always give me somethin’ to look forward to, man.”