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Rico Nasty Is So Tired of That Damn Box

When her debut mixtape Summer’s Eve came out in 2014, Rico Nasty was still a high school student in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Since then, the artist born Maria Kelly has steadily pushed her style and taste to new boundaries: She coined the concept of “sugar trap,” combining playful, candy-coated rhymes full of nostalgic references to cartoons like Rugrats and Hey Arnold with hard-edged trap production. Her clothing and hairstyles crossed into punk-rock stylings, and she recorded vicious scream-raps over mosh-pit ready anthems. Rico seemed to have 1,000 different personalities, all of them too niche to really catch on. But with this year’s Nasty, released in June, she put it all together.

Nasty captures all sides of Rico: goofy yet unapologetically tough and bratty; a nonconformist with a superstar persona; an ability to flip between childish glee and barely controlled chaos in a matter of seconds. She’d fully come into her own sound, and in 2018, it seemed like the world was ready for her. Nasty felt as big as her personality, and won deserved praise and accolades for it.

“Honestly, this has probably been the most fun year of my life,” Rico says when we speak on the phone earlier this month. She sounds exhausted at first: She’s on a Facetime call with a friend and in the process of moving to a new place, but as we chat her spirit picks up and she becomes more animated, unleashing some of the trademark infectious energy that has made her a star to watch. There’s no one more excited about her year than Rico herself, so to cap off 2018, we discussed making Nasty, dealing with artists who bite her style, and why some women just need to fight.

You’ve talked before about having an “arm’s length” approach with labels and media because of how they tend to choose the one female rapper they like, and then everyone else has to take the scraps. Do you still feel that way, even as your own profile has risen as a female rapper?

I don’t think I ever really meant that everybody is picking up the scraps after they pick the one person. I think what I meant was that they’ll pick their one person to claim or signify as unique and different, and then everyone else, they’ll clusterfuck us together instead of giving us our own times to shine.

You know how like, male rappers could all come out at the same time, but we’re all gonna give them the opportunity to branch off and do their own thing? But [with women] we all start saying who’s copying who and what sounds like what. They don’t even give us the opportunity to be our own people, and I think that’s where they start clustering us together. It’s like, “Oh yeah, they all wore a blue wig this one time? Yep, so they’re all best friends, let’s all give them the same article post.” Instead of just doing their research and singling us out, they’d rather just push us all together. As I’ve gotten more clout or more known, I still feel like they do that shit.

Because you’re a person who naturally stands out, do you think it’s a little easier for you to create a lane for yourself?

It is kind of easy for me to speak out. Just because I am very vocal in my music about a lot of different emotions, like anger, and normally stuff that people would hide, I’m okay with as a woman. I think that that makes my voice more powerful, ‘cause people—when I open my mouth—are expecting me to sound like a hoodrat bitch, and that I don’t know what the fuck I’m talkin about, and I do know what I’m talkin about, and I’m cool as fuck. So it balances it out.

Do you still find people trying to put you into a box?

Oh yeah, the box, of course. I’m so tired of this damn box following me everywhere. Just like, “Oh, if you’re gonna make rap music you need to dress like this,” and, “You need to know about this,” and, “If you’re not gonna make that real hip hop then you’re not black,” and… You know people constantly tryna cancel you and all that shit.

This fuckin’ box, man, I’m telling you. They’re never gonna not put you in a box. It’s something that they have to do, because nine times out of 10 people don’t understand creativity. So they’re gonna put you in a box because they don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. When it comes to that shit, it just makes me even more inspired to go further out and more unexpected than they ever would’ve thought me to be. The box just makes me go harder.

Before Nasty, you had these different styles and different sounds that you tried out on your different mixtapes, almost as if you were trying on a new type of personality on each tape you made. And then Nasty was more like a well-rounded mix of all of them. Was that a purposeful move?

I feel like what made Nasty so fire was it was finally something that they couldn’t take from me. And a lot of times, when I say “take from me” I mean like… when I made Tales of Tacobella, and I made Sugar Trap, it was like people literally trying to say that like, either that they made it, or that they helped make it, and then they continued to try to steal the flow, try to steal the aesthetic of everything I tried to build. So Nasty was really one of those times where I was just so happy that I made music the way I wanted to.

And I always talk about the stereotypes that they have for women in hip hop and the way they’re supposed to sound, and how good they were supposed to be, and I transcended that, and I did it so well that I feel like people follow in my footsteps today. That wave of “iCarly” and “Hey Arnold” is still very relevant in female rap; that’s kind of what’s cool right now, what I was doing two years ago. People are still fighting over who started it when the proof is in the pudding, it’s in the date. When I listen to shit like Tales of Tacobella and then I go and I listen to “Trust Issues,” I listen to Nasty, it’s like…. I feel like, if people would have never tried to put me in a box, and if people would have never tried to take my style, I would have just stayed the same. But it forced me to get out my comfort zone, it forced me to try new things and to be more confident. I think that’s what the game is all about, is just being versatile, confident, and not letting anybody knock you off your game ‘cause a lot of people try to do that.

Do you feel pressure to change your sound or come up with something new that people aren’t really doing?

I used to, when I was trying to… When I made my old music it was like I was trying to do something that wasn’t heard, or that I thought other people couldn’t do. And then once I heard people able to do it, it really made me feel like, Well, what can I do that they can’t do? And that’s when I really came into my voice, and that grit, and sounding really hard, because it was like: Nobody’s gonna want to sound like that. No girl wants to sound like that. Only the guys want to sound like that. So you just reverse the sexism, in a sense. Everything that they don’t want you to be, I just decided to be that. [Laughs.] I’m the antichrist of female rap.

A lot of Nasty you worked on with Kenny Beats. How much of Kenny’s influence was part of helping you perfect your style?

Kenny is one the best instruments in the world when it comes to being in the studio, because literally whatever comes to mind, he can do that. When I came to Kenny, the first style of beat that we tried was a typical Tales of Tacobella—very bubbly, pop-trap type beat, melodic. And I recorded a song—this was the first night I met him—I recorded a song, and then I came out and was like “I want guitar!” And he was like, “Guitar?” And I was like, “Yeah bro, you got some guitar?” And we made “Smack a Bitch.”

The biggest thing about Kenny is he doesn’t tell me no. If we going through beats and sounds and I like one, he’s not gonna be like, “Ah no, I don’t like that one, it has a weird tone, it has a weird key.” He’ll fix it to where I like it, or where it sounds good enough to be put in a beat, and we’ll build the beat around it. It’s always good to have another set of ears as well. [Kenny] and my manager be in there helping with everything, helping to get the song together, like, “Does the hook go first? Does the verse go first? Do we repeat this? Do we keep that? Do we take that out?” Both of them really do play a big part in the way my music sounds when it finally comes out. I could like something ‘cause I spent so much time on it, and they’ll always be the ones like, “Nah it’s not hard enough, you gotta go harder,” or, “You gotta fix this.” I’m very thankful for them.

When I saw you live in New York, it was very high energy, and at some point you wanted to do an all-girl mosh pit. When did that become a thing you wanted to do at your shows?

Honestly, that shit just be happening. Honestly. It’s been a few times where I’m like, “Yeah, I want an all-girl mosh pit,” but mostly it just be happening. I don’t really know how to explain what it is, but I feel like it’s a constant battle within women where… we want balance, a lot of us want balance, but a lot of us also enjoy chaos. And I really love that they feel confident and comfortable enough to cause that type of chaos in such a balanced environment, where they know they can have that much fun and people aren’t gonna like, try to beat the shit out them. Like you look on Love and Hip-Hop, if someone elbows you bro, you’re gonna throw a shoe at them, you’re gonna beat the shit out them. Look at Cardi B, look at all these women, they fight. Look at me, shit! I be fighting too, fuck that shit, we all be fighting!

But a lot of times [at the shows], in chaos, there comes bonding, somehow. I be seeing a lot of bitches get punched in the face, and then they be best friends by the end of the set. It’s all about that release. A lot of times people overlook these women’s need to release, and they think her way of releasing is sexually, her way of releasing is this or that, but there’s women who want to get the shit beat out of them—we want to fight. We want to feel something, and I’m very thankful that I give them that environment to do that in these shows.

Have you put any thought into what you want to do next with the spotlight and anticipation fixed on you?

I want to keep making music, I want to work on my next project. And I just want to continue to find myself, cuz I feel like the better I get at finding myself, the better the music will be. And I just want to give people really good music, and continue to bust they ass with the merch. And also music videos! I like to direct and co-direct a lot of my music videos, so I got some fire shit coming out, and I been working with some new directors and new videographers. So we’ll see if my fans like it.

Before you go, what’s the music you’ve found yourself really into this year?

I really been listening to SZA’s CTRL, I really been listening to Anti by Rihanna, Flower Boy Tyler. This might sound very random, but I lowkey have been very obsessed with Cardi B’s album. It’s pretty good, I like it a lot. Fucking Earl Sweatshirt, man. I’ve been listening to a lot of Earl, even like old Earl Sweatshirt, old Odd Future. Channel Orange by Frank Ocean. I just been trying to listen to a lot of the stuff that I would listen to when I was like 15, ‘cause I think that’s when my brain was like a sponge, and my taste in music was at an all-time high. You know, your adolescent phase, you just trying new shit. I really liked a lot of the stuff that came out during the 2014 and 2015 range.

Find more from Spin’s 2018 Year in Review here.