Show & Prove
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Rico Nasty always felt that she was destined for greatness. “I wanted to be famous,” the 21-year-old artist says matter-of-factly. Only problem was, as a child she didn’t know what exactly would propel her to stardom aside from her striking looks: almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, sharp bone structure. “I thought I’d be famous for being cute. I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with me. Like, I didn’t know what my talent was.”

Rico’s talent is undeniable at this point. With her latest mixtape, Nasty, the rapper solidifies herself as one of hip-hop’s most exciting and unpredictable voices. Her punk-rock aesthetic, thrasher mentality and chameleonic style—able to switch from glam to grunge in an instant—blur genre lines. “I’m like pixie grunge,” she laughs, describing her style. “The perfect blend of sugar and spice.”

Growing up in Prince George’s County, Md., Rico (real name Maria Kelly) points to her mother’s taste in emotive music—especially after her parents’ split—as an indelible influence. “I think I became addicted to being depressed,” she says, remembering the Etta James breakup ballad, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” that her mother would play on repeat. “My mom was so sad. Her fucking taste in music washed up on me.” The rapper derived more than just pain during those formative years. Rico also became exposed to fiercely strong women—artists who would later influence her own craft like Joan Jett, Blondie, Kelis and Amy Winehouse. “I always had this ear for different shit,” she says of herself. “I like music where someone is trying to get their power back.”

It took some time for Rico to find her calling, despite hip-hop being in her bloodline. Her father was a local rapper named Beware, who once toured with Jadakiss. He was incarcerated when she was a teenager and Rico says that his influence on her career was subsequently nil. But she was always a rebel. Rico was expelled from boarding school at
age 14 for smoking weed. It turned out to be a blessing, though. Once she was transferred to public school, young Rico saw fellow students rapping and realized music could be her ticket to celebrity. She took on the name Rico Nasty as a nod to her Puerto Rican heritage (“rico” means “rich” in Spanish), the RICO Act (a federal law targeting crime bosses) as well as the nostalgic Ricola lozenge commercials. “You can roll your tongue on it,” she laughs of her moniker. “Ricollllla!” She added the “Nasty” suffix for a masculine, fierce touch, “so the guys would think I was a boy. They still do.”

Rico honed her skills by recording with friends in makeshift home studios. Her first mixtape, 2014’s Summer’s Eve, was a local bop that made her the talk of Charles Herbert Flowers High School. But real-life shit temporarily derailed her musical aspirations when she gave birth to her son, Cameron, at 18. As a new mom, she began second-guessing herself. “I didn’t want to do music. I was very doubtful. I was like, ‘Oh my God. No one wants to hear a teen mom rapper.’” A stern pep talk from a best friend snapped her back into focus.

In 2016, she released “iCarly,” a gangsta take on the Nickelodeon show of the same name. The song went viral, notching nearly 500,000 views on YouTube in a few months and breaking 1 million streams on SoundCloud. Lil Yachty became such a fan that he invited Rico onstage with him in Baltimore, also hopping on her track “Hey Arnold”—named for another popular cartoon—that year. Rico points to Yachty—with whom she connected online before his own breakout success—as an inspiration for her confidence and wild aesthetic. “I never seen that shit before,” she gushes of Yachty’s nonconformist come up. “Like, that nigga really famous for being weird and being himself.”

The cosign from Lil Boat kicked things into high gear: Rico released a slew of mixtapes, including 2017’s Tales of Tacobella and Sugar Trap 2; her track “Poppin” from the latter project was featured on the soundtrack to HBO’s hit series Insecure. The ferocious cut became an anthem for unbothered women everywhere: “I was wearing wigs/Think I’m moving on to braids now/Everything I do/Bet she wanna do it, too now,” she raps. Instinctively, she knew she had a hit. “I had a feeling the night I made it,” she says. “That shit came so easy. Creatively, I was just like, Let me put these bitches in their fucking place. I did shit nobody in my area ever did. No bitch my age ever did.”

She inked a deal with Atlantic Records in June 2018 and released Nasty, her sixth mixtape to date, which shows off a sassy but vicious style. “Before you cross a bad bitch, boy you better look both ways,” she punches hard on “Oreo.” She gets introspective on “Why Oh Why,” rhyming, “I been in the worst moods, I been upset/I been havin’ mood swings, sayin’ shit that I can’t take back.” Meanwhile, “Countin Up” is an update of N.O.R.E.’s “Superthug,” 20 years later.

“Up to this point, Rico has never used anything about being a woman to up her status,” says producer Kenny Beats, who crafted six tracks on Nasty, and her feisty standout, “Smack a Bitch.” “There’s nothing about her body—her tits, her ass—at all. She’s done this all by being super hard, super witty, super talented, super charismatic. She stands on her own island.”

Rico Nasty looks back now, reflective of where she’s been. “I feel like everything paid off,” she says. She heads overseas for her first international tour this fall and is in talks to drop a merch line with counterculture clothing retailer Hot Topic. After that, it’s back to the studio to work on her forthcoming album. “I just want it to be bigger and better than the last time.”

Expect the unexpected.

Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2018 issue including Meek Mill's letter to his younger self, Show & Prove interviews with Gunna and City Girls, Lil Durk opening up about his Signed to the Streets 3 album , boxer Errol Spence Jr.'s connection to Dallas hip-hop, the A-list features on Swizz Beatz's forthcoming Poison album and more.

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