Rico Nasty is a Spongebob in a sea of Squidwards

Rico Nasty is a Spongebob in a sea of Squidwards

She’s energised and unapologetic, but also a massive Spongebob Squarepants fan. Rico Nasty is unlike anyone else in rap.

Header image and in-article image by @worksoface.

“This year is just the beginning of a lot of great ones, hopefully.”

It’s one of the first things Rico Nasty says, an offhand affirmation that’s as much a glimpse into her inner workings as a general mission statement. The Maryland emcee has a lot to be proud of: 2019 has proven a breakout moment in a career already defined by creative and critical flashpoints. 

In January, Rico – born Maria-Cecilia Kelly – dropped Roof, a Kenny Beats-produced banger accompanied by a psychedelic fever dream of a music video. She chased that single with Anger Management, a nine-track concept record that furthered her rapport with Kenny whilst referencing primal therapy and exploring the power of catharsis. In less than twenty minutes, Anger Management swings between confrontation and confession, mobilising rage – an emotion often unjustly suppressed in women – in the pursuit of “rejuvenation.”

Somewhere amongst all this, Rico also landed a cameo in the music video for Old Town Road, now the longest-running #1 Billboard 100 hit of all time; embarked on a European Tour, partially documented by her new vlog series, The Rico Nasty Show; played Coachella, one of the biggest and most famous festivals in the world; and made appearances on tracks from Injury Reserve, DUCKWRTH and, perhaps most notably, Doja Cat. That doesn’t even include her selection for the coveted XXL Freshman Class, a longstanding initiative that shines a light on ten up-and-coming emcees, facilitating freestyles, cyphers, interviews, photoshoots and no small amount of press. 

Still, there are only so many hours in a day. Time Flies, Rico’s most recent single, shines a light on her admirable hustle whilst bemoaning the limitations she’s pushing up against. “A lot of people look at you on the grind and say 'you crazy,' you know, you’re investing your time in that,” she says over the phone - a long distance from Australia, where she'll eventually visit at the start of next year for her first shows here, with the BROCKHAMPTON-led FOMO Festival - recalling the moment she “got up and changed [her] situation.” 

“A lot of people were telling me that, like, the chances of me blowing up were very, very fucking small.” It’s a good thing that Rico didn’t listen, honing her melodic trap sensibilities in high school and launching her fully-fledged music career soon thereafter. Now, just a handful of years on, there’s simply not enough time to fulfill all her creative whims. “I love fashion, I love film, I love acting and stuff, but music right now is what’s making me go hard… I’ll probably start drifting into other things when the shows aren’t as lit, but the shows, man, that shit is like a party!

The shows come across as a real highlight for Rico, having just recently returned from her first European tour, though her rowdy mosh pits and heightened performances aren’t a new development. On Anger Management cut Sell Out, the emcee lauds the resolve of her dedicated fans, particularly those who credit her music with their strength. Rico knows that fortitude comes from within. It’s something that collaborators Injury Reserve also touched on earlier this year, their similarly loyal fanbases a result of both their startlingly candid art and their largely independent come-up. 

“The kids stay around even though the doors let out
'Cause they just want to tell me about how I helped them out

I won't let them down
You guys are so strong and you don't even know it…”

– Rico, Sell Out

“It’s been amazing, going to places where people don’t necessarily speak the same language as me, dress the same as me or, shit, eat the same food as me, and they still bump the same music.” Rico’s recent vlog series explores this feeling, a camera shadowing her as she plays, shoots and smiles her way across Europe. It shows her hugging fans on the street, embracing the front row at her Copenhagen show. London’s much the same: “Sell Out is my biggest tune right now,” says a gushing British fan. “I love that song so much.” Hugs give way to sidewalk renditions, a small circle of fans spitting alongside the emcee herself. They know every word. “The world just seems so big when you’re young, and when you think about places like Australia and New Zealand and China and Japan, you’re like, ‘how the fuck do people get over there?’ To find out that music is how, it’s pretty lit!”

This earnest rapport with her fans is a blessing, facilitating sold-out shows, lively mosh pits and international tours, but it also brings with it a sense of expectation. Rico holds herself to the standard she believes her fans deserve. “I can honestly say that I’m a perfectionist,” she says of her approach to her visuals. “I don’t want to rush music videos, I want everything that I drop to just be one hundred percent what I want it to be.” The disappointment is palpable when she admits that Anger Management won’t be getting any, a consequence of pressing commitments, tour schedules and bad timing. 

“I feel like my fans are going to be really sad about it, but I just want to let them know that if it’s not going to be good enough for you guys, then it’s not going to come out. I know what y’all expect of me, and I know that y’all would rather me put something that’s fucking Rico Nasty worthy than something that you can obviously see, ‘okay, this bitch was rushing. This bitch does not give a fuck about us!’”

Still, you’d best not confuse Rico’s fan fealty for weakness or uncertainty. Hatin’, her take on Jay’s classic Dirt Off Your Shoulder, finds her spitting her hater-immune creed atop an all-time Timbaland beat. You might think there’d be some apprehension about taking on such a legendary track, but Rico’s anything but intimidated. “I kinda just felt like it,” she answers, a little confounded. “I don’t know, is it weird that I remixed those songs?” 

It’s not even the first time Rico’s taken on an intimidating flip: the other track in question is Noreaga’s Superthug, which became the instrumental base of Nasty single Countin’ Up, itself inspired by a particularly big Vegas win. “I feel like Countin’ Up came about ‘cause of my parents. I was making a lot of rock music – well, not rock, I was making Rage and Smack A Bitch, and my parents… they kept saying ‘real hip-hop, real hip-hop,’ so I was like okay, I’ll give you true hip-hop, so I flipped the Noreaga song.” The Timbo beat on Anger Management, however, was entirely of Rico’s own volition: “I just did Hatin’ because ni––as be hating on bitches, and ‘brush your shoulders off’ is just, I mean, that’s what you have to do when ni––as be hating on you!”

Indeed, if there are things you’re not meant to do, Rico Nasty doesn’t want to know. She’s an artist not defined by her limitations, but her capabilities: it seems that, with every new venture, sound, visual and updo, Rico expands upon her already-admirable skillset, carving out more lanes in which she can flourish. The punk-rap edge for which she’s best known is itself an evolution, a more aggressive and unrestrained take on her initially melodic sound. “I don’t do the Taco flow as much,” she says, referring to the more vulnerable persona explored in her early career. “It’s just not something that I do often, but when I do, I feel like my fans really appreciate it. I think that’s why they like Times Flies, it’s sort of like going back to her, but talking about more relevant shit.”

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You can trace her growth through her ostentatious chains, colourful reflections of her persona and her journey. “In order for it to be a Rico chain, it needs to have elements of Rico, it has to have stuff that I’ve talked about,” she tells me, shouting out jeweller Johnny Dang and hinting at a new piece in the near future. “I don’t know if you noticed,” she adds, “but the font that my chain is in is the same font as Key Lime O.G.!” That eponymous chain featured in her June XXL Freshman photoshoot, a relic of an era since-passed and reminder of her long-gestating come-up. 

2019 may have turned out the defining year of Rico’s yet-young career, but it hasn’t gone to her head, grounded by the hard yards that preceded it. This kind of success – a year brimming with newfound accomplishment and recognition – is the product countless hours of quiet labouring, developing a style, honing a sound, fostering connections and bettering her craft. Still, her ever-increasing success hasn’t softened her resolve, and even as we talk, the passion is contagious.

Rico attacks each day with the same exuberant ferocity, ignoring the naysayers – “I took note of everything that was said, but didn’t let anything bother me” – and pushing herself into new and exciting styles and situations, so it comes as no surprise that she’s a huge Spongebob fan. “He was himself, even if it annoyed everybody around him,” she explains. “He didn’t give a fuck. I feel like everybody is just Squidward, and I’m Spongebob.” 

Her character is anything but a birthright: though her father was an emcee, the decision to pursue rapping as a career wasn’t taken lightly. “I feel like it’s hard for anybody,” she reflects, “not just a rapper, but any entrepreneur to not do the normal thing, which is to get a job and go to college and... make your own business.” Whereas the choice to chase the rap career – one which involves money, hustle and self-sufficiency – was difficult, her love of the craft was anything but. Rico Nasty doesn’t identify with Spongebob because it’s who she is: Rico Nasty identifies with Spongebob because it’s who she’s come to be.

“Why the fuck would you wanna be a fucking Squidward? Doesn’t know how to have fun, he’s always at work, he was about his bag, he wasn’t like a friend ass ni––a, he had two friends, you feel me, Sandy and Patrick. It wasn’t no new ni––as, for real.” It makes sense that Rico would object to Squidward, his life-negating outlook and nigh-constant hating the antithesis of her own perspective. Her wholehearted approach to creativity, which incorporates music, graphics, personal style, loud cosmetics, and occasionally demon-esque horns, is a strong affirmation of her outright love of expression. “People think I’m crazy? I think people who comment on people’s Instagram with negativity is fucking crazy,” she riffs. “I’ll spit in somebody’s mouth a thousand times before I comment some hater shit!”

That’s just the way she is: Rico is vibrantly colourful, astoundingly imaginative, musically invigorating and gleefully unrepentant, and though surrounded by a score of revered collaborators, this is her show. She’s self-assured and singular, her bars spotlighting mental health and her subversions letting on greater truths about the human experience. Whether she’s rousing crowds or meeting fans, laying tracks or lighting up, Rico Nasty is a Spongebob in a sea of Squidwards, cloaking her sharp truths and feminist assertions in her energizer bunny sheen. 

“If you get high, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, sit on the couch and don’t do shit – don’t look at your phone, don’t do nothing – and you watch Spongebob, you’re gonna laugh at least once,” she imparts, enthusiasm giving way to laughter. “It’s hilarious. It’s the best show ever!” 

It’s probably not a bad way to enjoy a Rico project, either.

Rico Nasty's latest single, Time Flies, is out now via Sugar Trap / Warner Music Australia. Catch her Australian debut at FOMO Festival in January 2020.

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