In 2020, the male domination of US hip-hop has finally been crushed. Cardi B blew up with ‘WAP’ (alongside Megan Thee Stallion), Megan consolidated her status as a cultural phenom, and even Doja Cat has fulfilled her pop destiny. But the year’s female takeover isn’t over, with Rico Nasty (aka Maria Kelly) launching her long-promised debut album, Nightmare Vacation. And, in meta mode, the renegade rapper, singer and fashionista has ensured that the cacophonous Nightmare Vacation soundtracks the hype. The album – clocking in at under 40 minutes – is a statement, and manifestation, of Rico Nasty’s career ambition in a time of flux and TikTok virality. She wants to be famous, albeit as a trailblazer.
Starting in 2014, the then Maryland teen unleashed her raspy, combative and hardcore flow on successive mixtapes – Rico Nasty’s cartoon screamo style the very anthesis of mumble rap. She gravitated to uptempo sounds: punk, vintage trap, trance, noise and power-pop. Nasty developed an aesthetic, sugar trap – now the name of her label. Lil Yachty was an early champion of the former hospital receptionist.
Rico Nasty also befriended cult Connecticut producer Kenny Beats – who helmed her 2018 break-out trap metal anthem ‘Smack A Bitch’, possibly a feminist reclamation of The Prodigy’s controversial ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, with a targeted fury. (She and Kenny subsequently notably collaborated on 2019’s acclaimed mixtape Anger Management.) Eventually, Rico Nasty signed to Atlantic Records. Last summer, the global festival rave toured Australia for the first time with FOMO. Mind, Rico Nasty has endured challenges. She became a mother at 18, months after losing her childhood sweetheart to an asthma attack.
The Nightmare Vacation roll-out has inevitably been complicated by COVID-19 – but Rico Nasty seems unfazed, actually referencing face masks in the chorus of the hyperpop lead single ‘IPHONE’: “Smoking so much gas, I forgot to put my mask on.” For the song, she recruited Dylan Brady of the St Louis contra-EDM outfit 100 gecs (she previously graced a remix of their track ‘ringtone’ with Charli XCX). It’s an instant classic, with Rico Nasty’s Auto-Tuned vocals, trance synths, glitchy beats, and guitar. ‘IPHONE’ belongs in a parallel universe where Santigold, Uffie and Alice Glass are a sole person. Lyrically, she despairs that, while autonomy matters to her, it can feel lonely.
Today Rico Nasty is known for creating both bubblegum bops and hard candy bangers – and Nightmare Vacation purposefully continues that dichotomy. The title is an allusion to her relationship with celebrity, the artist explaining in a letter to fans, “… there will be good and bad with everything… Sometimes the things you want aren’t the things you need.” In fact, the topics Rico Nasty addresses on Nightmare Vacation are familiar – success, haters, biters – but she individualises them, generating a mythos. She is occasionally sweet; occasionally salty. Yet she overrides any self-defeat, her ethos one of self-empowerment (‘Own It’ summarises her philosophy of self-acceptance, flaws and all). Above all, ‘Rico Nasty’ never comes across as a persona.
Nightmare Vacation is prefaced with ‘Candy’ – a trap banger harbouring thundering bass, in which Rico Nasty recalls Nicki Minaj at her most archly theatrical on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ominously, she raps in a sing-song voice, “On a dark and stormy night, I don’t blend in, bitch, I shine bright.”
Increasingly, rappers are pointedly refusing to be boxed-in, regulated or marginalised. The likes of Ye have rebuffed genre designations, preferring to be described as ‘artists’ over ‘rappers’. The digital boom has facilitated cross-exchange, experimentation, and the hybridisation of hip-hop, R&B, electronic and indie. However, some of this is in resistance to the segregation apparent in Grammy categories where ‘pop’ is still coded as white, despite the music industry’s belated disavowal of the racialised ‘urban’ tag.
Rico Nasty is indebted to street rappers like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and Trina as much as the conceptual Missy Elliott. But she’s a boundary-breaker, too, citing as influences Joan Jett and Avril Lavigne. She has called herself a “punk-rock princess”.
Intriguingly, with Nightmare Vacation, Rico Nasty expands her sonic range yet again – emitting the same transgressive spirit as ‘Yeezus’-era West. In many ways, she’s modernising the electro-punk of 2000s mainstays Spank Rock and Kid Sister. ‘STFU’ – one of two album cuts guided by Take A Daytrip, the crew behind the Travis Scott and Kid Cudi hit ‘The Scotts’ – is Skrillex-y brostep. The thrash metal ‘Let It Out’ (another Brady production) has to be a future mosh fave, Rico Nasty bringing comedy to catharsis as she rages about being “an asshole” – Denzel Curry would be shook. ‘OHFR?’ is aggro rock-rap. Imagine Clipse crashing Run-DMC.
She drops her own ‘WAP’ in ‘Pussy Poppin’ – a sugar bounce track. Ironically, the guests on Nightmare Vacation are predominantly male. On ‘Don’t Like Me’, a flex to the haters, Rico Nasty is joined by Gucci Mane and Don Toliver – the Houston crooner aligned with the Cactus Jack stable. The Buddah Bless-stamped song is among the LP’s poppiest. Rico Nasty reveals a mellow, and expressive, side on ‘Back & Forth’, featuring Portland’s underrated Aminé and a flute loop. She and that defiant post-rapper Trippie Redd duet on the quirky ‘Mean Girls’-inspired ‘Loser’.
Three years ago Rico Nasty was infamously embroiled in a feud with onetime friend Asian Doll, accusing the Dallas rapper of copying her. Alas, such rivalry is symptomatic of a macho music culture that, not only tokenises female artists but pits them against each other, inducing unnecessary professional anxiety and toxicity. On Nightmare Vacation, ‘Girl Scouts’ may be a fresh missive at biters, although here Rico Nasty admits she’s secretly flattered. Regardless, she is fostering solidarity with her music sisters.
The album end with a symbolic remix of her iconic hit ‘Smack A Bitch’ – inviting along queer Californian rap sensation ppcocaine, ‘Love & Hip Hop: Miami’ star Sukihana, and Rubi Rose. Rico might be nasty – but she’s also nice.