“I feel like I’ve found myself again.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and Rico Nasty is pondering the effects of the pandemic on her life over the past year. She’s speaking to me on a video call from home, in between puffs of the joint she’s smoking. When I first see her, she’s in bouts of laughter triggered by her Zoom background, a stock image of the Golden Gate bridge. But less than 10 minutes later, she tells me how deeply the past few months have affected her. She’s been rocked by this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement and a worldwide racial reckoning, the forced global standstill and widespread uncertainty due to the pandemic. But she’s also figuring out how to take the pauses and moments in between in stride.
Born Maria Kelly, Rico Nasty has chosen to separate herself from distractions and stressors while she gears up for the release of her debut album Nightmare Vacation, due to drop on December 4. Work-life balance, she admits, has been difficult with her schedule. Over the past three months alone, she’s released four singles: earlier in August she dropped iPhone, a thumping, synth-heavy offering produced by Dylan Brady, better known as one-half of electro-pop duo 100 gecs. Next month came Own It, and October saw her team up with Don Toliver and Gucci Mane for the laid-back collab Don’t Like Me. And in the week prior to our conversation, she’s released OHFR?, an ominous track that sees her going back to her roots, with screamo-adjacent delivery, her energetic growl aimed at those doubting her success and income.
The impending pressure of a debut would likely cause nerves for most, but for Kelly, it’s the opposite. She’s jovial and chatty, continuously cracks jokes and excited laughter punctuates most of her sentences. She’s in a good place, mentally—Nightmare Vacation signifies her overcoming what she refers to as two years of “not making what I wanted to make.”
“I started feeling like I should make what I hear on the radio,” she says. “I was only making those songs to please my A&R, like, does this sound mainstream? By the time the studio session is over, you have a song that you wouldn’t listen to if somebody paid you.”
On Nightmare Vacation, she has returned to making music she believes in, and creating songs that feel authentic. She’s welcoming all possible responses and feels building excitement about getting the project out. It’s an outlook shaped by experience; Kelly is aware of what she’s triumphed over to create the album, and the sense of pride means she’s no longer buckling to criticism. “I look back at my tracklist like, not only did I overcome people trying to tell me what I should sound like, but I overcame a fucking pandemic and was still able to create it,” she says. “I think I’m on the cusp of being ready to just take shit head on, take it for what it is.”
Though just 23 years old, the rapper holds an astonishing seven mixtapes under her belt. She’s garnered masses of fans since 2018’s Nasty certified her as a rap wunderkind. Hit releases like Trust Issues and the energetic Smack A Bitch proved to audiences that Kelly would be an unfamiliar yet lasting addition to rap, with her combative lyrics screamed over rock-leaning production by way of collaborators like Kenny Beats.
For most, the strength of these past releases, plus the fact that Kelly has made a name for herself in the music industry, might inspire a double-take—December’s release will be her first album? But Kelly’s journey in rap extends even further than that.
The Largo, Maryland native was introduced to music by her father, who originally toured under the stage name Beware and appeared with acts like Jadakiss. “My dad wanted to be a rapper, took me to the studio all my childhood. Now I’m a rapper,” she says plainly. “You’re a product of your environment.”
The two were briefly separated when her father was incarcerated, and she often clashed with her mother over her music. Moving around different schools meant Kelly found difficulty in making friends during her teen years, and she describes her younger self as “a loner.” She embarked on attempts to make friends through the pursuit of recreational activities. “Graphic design, art class, drama class, lacrosse, or some shit,” she lists, explaining how each activity would be quickly dropped in favor of the next. When Kelly eventually took to rapping, skipping school to record her first mixtape and hang with other kids making music, her mother was skeptical of her commitment and worried about her attendance. The polar responses from her parents deeply affected her confidence in her craft. It all culminated when she shared her first mixtape Summer’s Eve with her mom. “I showed her, and she hated it,” she recalls. “She said that I curse too much, she was like, This shit will never get played on the radio.”
But in October of that year, Kelly’s father was released from jail. “When he heard the project, it made my dad cry, he said he was so proud of me.” Kelly talks fondly of how he would accompany her to the studio, protectively standing outside the door while she’d record.” He said that I had potential and a little flow and that I was creative—all the shit I thought I lacked because my mom just wanted me to go to school.”
Though her work has begun to pay off, as she’s plunged deeper into the industry, she says she’s struggled even more with a set of new challenges—namely, being accepted. Kelly’s blend of genres and musical styles, veering from rock to rap to screamo, has left her with fears of being constantly viewed as an outsider. She also feels that her aesthetics—meticulously spiked hair and a trademark penchant for alt, out-there clothing—were stolen by others. It exacerbated the pain, and provided proof of being sidelined by critics who saw her music as “too much.”
“It started making me feel like, so y’all like that but you don’t like me,” she says. “Because y’all take my shit and put it on somebody else—put it on a white girl. Shit, y’all take my shit and put it on another Black woman so that I can be mad at her, knowing damn well that’s not what she fucking do. That shit hurt.”
She suspects the industry’s tendency to ignore her while biting her style likely delayed an earlier album release and set her back creatively. She dealt with writer’s block, running through different styles pushed by her label—EDM, country—which led her to no longer sound like herself. “I was going in the studio and they got writers,” she says. “I mean, I love every writer, they’re creative people. But when they signed me I didn’t have any writers, I went gold off of songs I wrote in 15 minutes.”
During this period of creative struggle, her breakthrough moment came by relying on the ears of those who know her best: her fans. “I always say they have a sixth sense,” she says. “I’d be dropping snippets and they would get no traction, they were like, that’s not you.” She further credits friends in the industry like the rapper KYLE, and Earl Sweatshirt, both of whom advised her to be real with her work and trust her listeners’ judgement. She began funneling the frustration into her music. She pushed back against the discouraging thoughts that would fly into her head while recording. It worked, she says, as a means of “getting her power back.”
“I stopped trying to make all the songs I was trying to do because I wanted to be accepted,” Kelly says. “And what finally got me accepted was just making the music that I already made.”
It’s evident on the record. The body of work shows where she’s arrived, musically speaking—the album name stems from the idea that she’s taken a vacation from the dark experience of “feeling lost.” “I’m just not afraid of shit no more. I’m not afraid of failing, or not being liked, or of being Black and unapologetic,” she says.
This year, Kelly has reverted back to her old habit of picking up new hobbies and activities. She’s learning how to drive, (and recently got her permit,) watching documentaries, and tending to her pet snake Voldemort and dog Fish. She’s also spent a period of quarantine connecting with family—she’s had the opportunity to spend more time with her 5-year-old son Cameron, a rare occasion in both of their usual lives. Though he’s currently staying with his grandmother while she’s working, she visibly lights up at the mention of his name. “It’s crazy because now, he lives with me. That was something that I really wasn’t experiencing consistently since he was like, three years old.”
For now, the main concern is satisfying his love of Spiderman—and securing his later life as he grows. And it seems that, along with her son, Kelly is experiencing the perks of getting older, too. Her plans for the future are hard to pin down, as her passions are endless; she’s interested in makeup, her merchandise line, and envisions a multifaceted enterprise akin to her idol, Rihanna. But she talks fondly about investing in buildings on the album opener Candy, and through the tiny rectangle on Zoom, shares her dream of creating a dance and recording studio for fellow mothers looking to get into the industry. “I feel like we need to bring a sense of community back,” she says. “Your kid could be downstairs, learning how to play instruments or sing songs. And you can still be whatever you want to be.”