Rico Nasty Is the Happiest Rapper Alive

Despite going through hell, the Maryland rapper's jolly, self-proclaimed "sugar trap" has already soundtracked 'Insecure' and 'The Fate of the Furious,' and the 20-year-old is just getting started.

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Nov 29 2017, 7:15pm

“Fenty Beauty just liked my post on IG,” Rico Nasty said with a dramatic gasp for breath. It was late September, and we were in the backstage area of Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right. The Maryland rapper inhaled her last bit of air before carrying out her fake death, collapsing onto her boyfriend’s lap.

It was just over a week after Rihanna launched the cosmetic line, so Nasty’s dramatic reaction made sense. When the 20-year-old born Maria Kelly is not spending her time online sharing her daily look, announcing upcoming performances, or teasing fans with snippets of unreleased music, she does occasional makeup and wig application tutorials on Instagram Live. It’s in these moments online that Nasty connects most with her supporters—cracking jokes, smoking joints, or spilling makeup—and fosters a community that goes deeper than just being admirers of her music.

This community has been at the root of Nasty’s rise since her 2016 single “iCarly.” The song, which is named after a Nickelodeon show from the 2000s about a teenage girl with her own web series, is actually about Nasty befriending a girl that she goes on exhilarating capers with: “First time we hit a lick/ Knew that she was the shit/ She told me point and aim/ I told her duck and dip/ She told me run it up/ I told her never slip.”

The track has now clocked over two million views, and is a direct line to what most rap fans have come to associate with Lil Yachty’s bubble gum trap: cartoony synths, rolling drums, and Rico offering lullaby-like autotune raps. Lil Boat himself ended up jumping on the remix for another one of her kid TV show-inspired tracks, “Hey Arnold.” Then the two came together again for Yachty’s “Mamacita,” which was featured on The Fate of the Furious soundtrack. Between those three tracks, Rico’s pulled over seven million views, proving that she’s solidified a reliable base of fans. Still, she remains relatively unknown to the larger rap community—but judging by the couple hundred packed the main floor was at Baby’s, she might not be that unknown too much longer.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to gauge what someone’s true reach is In 2017, though. Just a couple years ago, an artist like Rico Nasty—relatively unknown, with some internet buzz, and over five videos with more than a million plays on YouTube—would seem to be on a convincing path to stardom. But that formula is changing. Billboard recently announced that views on the video platform will start losing value next year, just four years after they were incorporated into chart rankings. This doesn’t negate the fact that Rico’s online community is growing by the week, but it means that these hefty figures don’t translate to the tangible world as easily anymore. She gave her reach an IRL test that night at Baby’s All Right and will continue to this month when she starts her nine-date Sugar Trap Tour on November 30.

On stage, Nasty gave a wide smile out to the audience before her DJ cranked “Beat My Face,” her version of murder-glorifying, viral sensation Tay K’s “The Race.” He followed with Chief Keef’s thumping “Faneto.” Just over 200 young women, with a few dudes sprinkled in, stomped around to the track like it was their battle cry.

“I see some beautiful ass ladies in the building,” Nasty bellowed out into the crowd. Her blonde hair, dipped in sky blue, flowed down her back. She rocked a bedazzled choker that read “MOOD,” a tattered long sleeve tee that said “Life Is Posers,” and long, black leather combat boots. Her style isn’t unlike the young male rappers of her generation—like Lil Uzi Vert and Trippie Redd—who blend pop punk fashion sensibilities with those of rap. It’s an updated take on aesthetics commonly seen at popular underground New York party, GHE20G0TH1K, equipped with chokers, chains, plaid skirts, and platform sneakers. Rico depicts these looks in the artwork of her recent singles by fashioning herself as a cool, black anime character.

But what also likens her to someone like Uzi is her ability to make music that inspires spirit-lifting glee with uptempo beats and high pitched yelps for ad libs. On stage, excitement oozed out of every pore during her performance. That was especially apparent when she did “Poppin,” a self-congratulatory anthem that found its way onto the soundtrack for HBO’s second season of Insecure this year. “I’m a poppin’ ass bitch let me remind ya/ Don’t hide. I can always come and find ya/ Ain’t no bitch in me, bitch. Come proper,” she screamed on the hook. Rightfully, she ran the song back and invited fans to come join her, where they all simultaneously took videos of each other rapping.

"Feels good to be regular height now,” Nasty said as she slipped off her pink platform sneakers in a midtown NYC studio the day after her performance. She was in an understandably more subdued mood than the night before. Before we linked, she had finished a few meetings earlier in the day and was stuck in hour-long traffic due to Donald Trump’s luncheon with African leaders at the United Nations. The fatigue seemed real but she rolled through with a tightknit group that included friends, family, and her manager, who also happens to be her boyfriend, who all laughed and talked about the show at Baby’s while she rolled a joint with Bamboo paper.

Nasty’s first introduction to the world as a rapper was a 2014 12-track mixtape called Summer’s Eve, which dropped during her junior year of high school when she was 16. In flow, she showed a likeness to Chicago rappers like Sasha Go Hard and Katie Got Bandz with piercing double-time delivery. In some songs she’d bashfully giggle mid-rap as if she couldn’t even believe what was coming out of her mouth. But it was around this time that she discovered she was pregnant, and stepped back as she readied for parenthood.

“The whole crazy part with me is that I didn’t know. My child’s father had died and I didn’t know I was pregnant,” Nasty said to me near the studio’s lobby area, looking me straight in the eye. At 18, she gave birth to her son, who’d lost his father before even being born. It's an incident she refrains from providing details on. “I was sad about losing my boyfriend. So I wasn’t going to school, I wasn’t doing shit. Just depressed as fuck. And I damn near didn’t graduate. I was trapped.” Determined, yet still seeking motivation, new mother Nasty took a job at a nearby hospital, hoping it’d give her some experience on the way to becoming a pediatrician. But the constant exposure to sickness and death was caving in on her at a time when she’d experienced enough anguish. “That shit was making me rethink everything like, ‘what am I here for?’” she said. “You’d see people come in for check ups and the next thing you know, they gone.”

If Nasty didn’t question what she was doing with her life at that point, she likely wouldn’t have picked the mic back up and it surely wouldn’t have been under the new genre she’s coined: “sugar trap.”

For the Maryland rapper, sugar trap is a metaphorical place. “It’s like when you have a really, really bad life and shit good starts happening and you don’t know how to adapt to the good shit.” At first, it sounds like a case of imposter syndrome. But as Nasty continues, what she describes ends up mirroring much of what Kanye West said about “New Slaves” song in 2013, in which the sugar is the temptation you can’t break away from. “You just so stuck in being a hoodrat, you don’t even know how to control yourself,” she said. “You trapped in the sugar.”

With keeping those perpetual challenges in mind, it’s even more crucial to note that Nasty’s music—sugar trap, the genre—is markedly upbeat, bubbly, and self-loving, no matter her chosen delivery. On single “Rojo” from Sugar Trap 2, she uses coarse auto tune crooning to brag about the first car she’s ever bought with her own money, a red Audi. On “Key Lime OG” she forcefully professes, “I know that I be the best. I don’t need no title.” And even in more laid back songs like this year’s “Watch Me,” she melodically suggests “Don't worry 'bout my past, bitch/ 'Cause every move I make, I make it better than the last, bitch.”

“It’s a coping mechanism,” Rico admitted. “It’s crazy what can happen in two years ‘cause I didn’t even start rapping again until my son was like ten-months-old. So going through that and experiencing death so close and then experiencing life was, I think, one of the most beautiful things I could have ever experienced in life. I feel like that shit is what makes the music happy ‘cause sometimes I do write sad shit and I get sad and I feel like I’m lonely and everyone hates me but then my son will do some shit that makes it hard to be mad.”

Rico was in the studio to finish the last song in need of completion before her Sugar Trap 2 mixtape could drop, which was released last month. So after a few pulls from the spliff, she stood up from the comfy black leather studio couch, wearing a hoodie that read “I have the receipts,” which was swallowing her small frame as she walked into the booth. She sang “Baby I’m a rockstar” in a faint voice over techno-leaning production, something I’d never heard from her before. Later, I’d learn that the song was called “La La Land” and it was the first song she’d ever produced on her own. “It’s up to my voice. If I feel like my voice sounds strong, then I like it,” she said. “I really hate when I do a great song with great lyrics but my voice just don’t fit because of the type of beat I picked.”

Much of Nasty’s repertoire has been polished at an accelerated pace over the past year, since she’s secured more access to quality studios and the time she really needs to dedicate to her craft. Sugar Trap 2 is the best showing of that improvement. Songs like “Key Lime OG” feature her high energy raps of which she delivers with much more finesse than the sing-songy flow she leaned on in the tape’s 2016 prequel. “Phone” merges folk and trap elements to wave off a dude hitting her up for no good reason. “La La Land” shows her adding new production to her softer, harmonizing alter ego Tacobella (see this year’s Tales of Tacobella tape). But her personality is just as equal to her success, or at least, the fans’ investment into her persona. In one interview, she goes on a hilarious tangent: “Getting your wig snatched is like getting your chain snatched,” she said before running her fingers through her own blue wig to verify. “I’ma estimate this wig at about like $700. This is 30 fucking inches. Four bundles. Custom color. Lace front. This wig is almost $1200, for real. This shit cost that bag so if somebody snatch your wig, it’s really sad.”

“I’ve had three Sugar Trap 2’s. I’m super picky. Sometimes you put yourself through pressure for shit that nobody pays attention to,” Rico shrugged as we talked to the studio lobby. Her boyfriend poked his head out of the studio room to see if she was ready to hop back in the booth. Her admitted antsiness around getting the song done was obvious. But before she went back into the grind and inevitable stress of finishing a project, she stopped to give herself some praise for what her creative efforts have afforded her this year. “I’m about to move and I’m getting my own place. My son’s gonna have his own room. I’m excited for that,” she said, visibly processing disbelief and gratitude at the same time. “To be 20, you know? It’s surreal. I see motherfuckers really wilding out and going through it and I’m just like, how did I miss out on that?”

Diamond Dixon is a photographer based in Maryland. Follow her on Instagram.

Follow Lawrence Burney on Twitter.