At what point do you know that you’re approaching superstar status? Perhaps when you find you have a critically-acclaimed debut album, millions of adoring fans, a musical style that you’ve pioneered, and near-universal acclaim under your belt?
“Oh my god, I don’t feel that shit at all!” laughs Rico Nasty. “I fucking wish that I could say that I feel this shit because I’m not an artist who’s like, ‘Oh, I’m so cool’. But I actually watch people’s interviews and be like, ‘Damn, they feel it? They feel famous? How the fuck!’ I don’t feel anything. I just feel like a person who has a real poppin’ Instagram…”
However, though she may not quite be feeling it yet, Rico is well on her way to becoming an icon (outside of looking killer on the ‘gram, of course). Having buzzed about on rap’s sidelines for several years, delivering a handful of fiery mixtapes that showcased her self-coined ‘sugar trap’ style and signature growling vocals, her debut studio album ‘Nightmare Vacation’ arrived in its full unfiltered glory late last year, proving that if you didn’t already know who Rico was, it was time to crawl out from under that rock and get informed.
Born Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly in Maryland in 1997, Rico was always surrounded by music; her parents, she notes, would even put headphones on her mum’s stomach while she was pregnant. Yet though she’d always wanted to give music a go herself, the young Maria-Cecilia’s insecurities and need to provide for her family and young son held her back at first.
“I just didn’t even know what that sounded like coming out of my mouth. Like, ‘Hey guys, I wanna be a rapper!’ I couldn’t take myself serious,” she recalls. “I always felt like I wasn’t good enough. So it wasn’t until I graduated high school when I was like, even if I’m not good enough I could be good enough to get a little bit of money? I don’t have to be good enough to be a fucking superstar or nothing like that, but I could be good enough to take care of my family.
“I feel like that was what made me take myself serious; coming home to my son after I’d worked all day and not made any fucking money, and I hate my job and all the energy that I probably would have for him - being happy to see him - is wasted by being exhausted at work. Coming home, catching Ubers, catching the bus, waking up early; I couldn’t really enjoy having a kid. And don’t get me wrong, when you’re 19 you shouldn’t really enjoy having a kid. Like, you shouldn’t have had a fucking kid. But you should at least have a moment when you come home from work and you appreciate your life and I wasn’t having that. I started getting scared that I would grow up hating my whole life and hating my kid and everything just because I didn’t do what I wanted to do.”
After getting in trouble for constantly writing bars on her phone at work, ultimately Rico was inadvertently pushed into following her dream. Being fired from a job that her mum helped her get, she was provided with just the push she needed. “I got fired from the job. It was just like I HAD to get the fuck out,” she explains. “And all this was going on and I was writing [debut single] ‘iCarly’. I wrote ‘iCarly’ at work, and I took the last cheque that they paid me and I used that for the music video and it went viral, and I just figured like nothing in my life has ever gone this seamlessly. Nothing in my life has ever been this easy, so I might as well take the bull by the horns.”
“I started getting scared that I would grow up hating my whole life and hating my kid just because I didn’t do what I wanted to do.”
Dropping back in 2016, the track acted as the introduction to Rico’s sugar-trap world, melding cartoonish influences with impressive musical flow. Soon, the track was followed by more viral moments: 2017’s ’Poppin’ and ‘Key Lime OG’, and 2018's 'Smack A Bitch'.
The fans came flocking in their hordes (Rico’s Instagram is pushing towards the two million mark by the day), equally drawn in by outstanding wardrobe choices that could see the rapper fit seamlessly on a Fashion Week front row or get down and dirty in the grottiest mosh pits. “I’ve always been an exhibitionist and I have always worn shit because I like the way people look at me when I wear it, and I’ve always gotten in trouble for not wearing the uniform because I wanna wear my own shit,” she says. “It kind of got to that point where I was like, if I’ve got all these eyes on me I should look the way that I wanna look, right? And if they’re gonna talk shit about it, at least I know that they’re paying attention.”
Any outfit in particular that you’re talking about? “It was always my boots!” she laughs. “Girls would do fucking interviews and be like, ‘Yeah I just hate those big ass boots that bitches be wearing! I hate those big boots!’ And that’s how I knew they were talking about me because I’m the only person who wears those type of boots anymore but I don’t care, bitch! Fuck you! I will step on your bitch ass! Move out the way!
“There’s so many other women who are beautiful and amazing and dress like everyone else, and everyone still gives them shit! So it’s like, what the fuck?! But it’s always just the wardrobe shit though; people can’t really talk shit about the music because it’s music and I take a lot of pride in that. The worst part about me is probably the way I look to people.”
Using her individuality to her strength, Rico has since established herself as a voice for the “weirdos”, having always felt like an outsider herself. It’s this ballsiness and unfiltered energy that has been difficult to navigate whilst coming into the still-male dominated world of hip hop. “I was just making music and then it was like, ‘Oh you’ve got to be fucking pretty and perfect too!’. I was like, ‘Fuck this’,” she emphasises. “I kind of just stopped trying to please people. That was really the moment. When I started seeing my fans gravitating to my shit and I was like, well if they like this then why the fuck do I have to give in to all this pressure of what a female rapper or any female artist should be?
“As of now, I don’t really feel connected to any of my male counterparts or peers,” she notes. “I’m not sexualised enough for them to be comfortable with me because I genuinely feel like they’re just thrown off by me. When you’re in the position of ‘You’re the rough one. You’re the aggressive one. You’re the fucking dark one', it’s kind of just alienating. People don’t really talk to you. But I like it that way.
“When I feel this uncomfortable way that I feel, I don’t try to fit in,” she confirms. “I always remember that whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable like this, that it’s only for a moment and I get to go home to my kid and my friends and my family and they don’t think that I’m weird. As long as there’s never a time when my friends pull me to the side like, ‘Bitch, you’re really weird as fuck’ then I’m fine! Fuck these people! I always try and keep myself happy by knowing that there’s no one else that does what I do. So that makes me happy. I don’t have to fight to be who I am, I just am.”
“If they’re gonna talk shit about the way I look, at least I know that they’re paying attention.”
Love in the time of pre-COVID
Remember when you could actually go out and see your fave musician? Maybe hug them if you were lucky? Well, Rico’s fans have always been after something a little different…
“It was a joke on Twitter in every city when these girls would be like, ‘Spit in my mouth! Spit in my mouth!’ And I was playing into that shit like, ‘Yeah, tonight I’m spitting into someone’s mouth’. We’re at meet and greet, and we used to have like 80 people at meet and greet and we’re on person 75 and no one had mentioned spitting in mouths and this one girl comes up and shakes my hand and is like, ‘You’re gonna spit in my mouth’. That shit was so funny. I tell my manager and I’m like, ‘Make sure she’s in the front’. I performed the first song and when the music went off the whole front row were like ‘Spit in my mouth!’ I was like, bro, I’m really gonna have to do it! This girl’s looking at me like ‘Bitch, I didn’t come here for nothing.’ So I ran over there and I spit in her mouth and then I spit in this other girl’s mouth. It was fucking wild.”
It’s this message of remaining 100% true to yourself and fucking off the haters that has seen Rico’s fanbase swell. With fan group chats “on Instagram, on Twitter, on WhatsApp, everywhere!”, she considers her Nasty Mob as some of her best pals. Her shows, she hopes, act as chances for them to be unapologetically themselves.
“I’d tell all my fans, ‘It’s OK - you’re weird now, but they’ll suck your dick later, I promise',” she laughs. “I’ve been at festivals and seen girls in spikes and I just be like, I KNOW they’re my fans! They’ll be fans of other people [too], don’t get me wrong, we’re not a cult! But they came dressed like me! You know who they’re here for, god damn it! That shit is kinda cool. I look at that like the Nicki [Minaj] influence, bro. I remember as far as women go, I had my bangs bitch, I had my Nicki bangs. If Nicki ever reads this interview: Nicki, my hair been fucked up ever since! Ever since, bitch! I’ve had permanent bangs ever since fucking 2008!”
Although unable to make those safe spaces happen IRL right now, December’s ‘Nightmare Vacation’ delivered a much-needed new shot of Rico bangers. A snarling debut that hops from hyper-pop to punk, to hip hop and back again, it’s a biting and confident record that hits hard from start to finish, showing Rico’s love for experimentation all over it. “I definitely think that’s something I’m drawn to,” she nods. “Even when I used to paint, I’d mix mediums. I would always mix shit up. It’s just how my brain works! If I hear something that I like, I don’t like to create a boundary that it can’t go where I think it should go. Music is about hearing something and saying this might not be where it belongs but this could be a home for it. This could be a new home or a little apartment, you know?
“When it comes to experimenting, I just feel like everyone in my generation, because of the internet, doesn’t have a timeframe of our own music. The people from the ‘70s, they had ‘70s music because they couldn’t get on the internet and listen to shit from the ‘50s or the ‘60s unless they knew people who had that shit. With the internet, I grew up not having a genre. I was listening to Amy Winehouse at eight years old; I was listening to Nirvana at 13. Then, in the middle of that, I’m going down to the country with my cousins and we’re listening to Destiny’s Child, singing it word for word. I’m listening to Rihanna, I’m listening to Nicki, I’m listening to Gaga, I’m listening to Adele. It’s everywhere, bro!”
Now continuing that experimentation, Rico already has a new project on the way, which she describes as “a bunch of different moods - happy pills, if you will”. “I just think it’s like, this is probably the only artist you could put on and you’re gonna have fun. I guarantee it or your money back,” she grins. “If you get the stick up out your ass and stop worrying about why I don’t sound like anyone else, you gonna have some fun bro, I promise. That’s what it really is, breaking it down. Like, ‘Bitch, you’re gonna have fun OK. We’re here to kick ass, we’re here to rage, we’re here to boss up!’ The music I make is for the people who tend to get shit on for being different in whatever way. They feel a little powerless, and that’s probably why they fuck with me because I wanna give them power just as much as I give myself power and make myself feel confident.”
“I’d tell all my fans, ‘It’s okay - you’re weird now, but they’ll suck your dick later, I promise’.”
Rico’s latest addition to the family comes in the form of a scaly new son.
“He’s called Voldemort! I was getting bashed a lot from the snake community like, ‘You’re getting a snake just to be cool, you don’t know nothing about them’. And I did get a snake to be cool and I’m trying to learn every single day and I’m trying my best, so sorry that I’m not a fucking snake expert… He must be entering his adolescent stage now because every time I look in his cage he’s getting bigger. He’s meant to get to four or five foot, and bro, he’s big as fuck! When I first bought him, the rock that he be sleeping in, he was like a little worm, and now he’s like a whole thing under there. I’m scared!”
Not only wanting to provide a voice for the outsiders, Rico now wants to expand her reach even further, aiming to use the free time that she’s found herself with in 2021 to give back and help others. “I wanna make a difference this year,” she emphasises. “I wanna do something that isn’t just a good deed but something that’ll live with me forever, something that I can do forever and continue to do, whether it’s a programme or a charity or something like that. I feel like 2020 more than anything taught me that I genuinely don’t think in any way, shape or form possible that God could have blessed me like this for me just to use all of this shit for myself. All these resources for myself, all these things that I know just to know them; I feel like I’m supposed to share with people.
"With all these female rappers, I feel like if we started something like that and they were willing to work with me on something like that, it would inspire a lot of other girls who are probably in college to reach out and I would fund some shit like that! I would invest money in that to keep that legacy going and keep that going. We’ve got to have each other’s backs, bro. I’m really starting to see that. The phrase has always been ‘It’s every man for themselves’ but really it’s every woman for themselves.
“There’s a lot of women that get put on their ass for not being the type of woman that people want them to be and that shit’s heartbreaking,” she sighs. “It always hits me the same because I feel like I was right there. I was right there, my mom kicked me out and I had a baby and I didn’t know what I was gonna do, and I had to figure that shit out. Imagine if I had somewhere to go in that time, to not feel like I was a burden on anybody but just genuinely like, this is what they’re here for? That’s what I want to do this year. I want to make a fucking difference.”
Becoming a voice for the outsiders musically and, critically, through her actions too, it looks like Rico Nasty’s legend status is closer to being unlocked than ever.
‘Nightmare Vacation’ is out now via Atlantic.
As featured in the February 2021 issue of DIY, out now. Scroll down to get your copy.
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