All of 2020 has felt like a bad dream, and the holiday season is especially grim. So this week we're leaning in to the terror and celebrating with Five Days of Rico Nasty, the rapper whose debut album, Nightmare Vacation, doesn't seek to comfort listeners so much as validate their anger and anxieties. After talking the rapper and her collaborators about the best and worst parts of an awful year, we're rounding off the series with a deep-dive into the LP.
Maria Kelly, more widely known as Rico Nasty, has always been in her own orbit, circling the stratosphere of contemporary trends and galvanizing organic support through her fiery mixtape run — including fan favorites Sugar Trap 2 and Tacobella. But it was her unwavering Kenny Beats collaboration, Anger Management, released last year, that unearthed the cathartic components to Nasty's composition. Frothed with unequivocal vanity and self-belief, the DMV lyricist embodies the essence of a Kelis or Redman as she navigates her burning desire for havoc. Eventually, she takes a deep breath — literally — silencing her "madness," leaning into patience.
It's here that the loosely-labeled Rage Queen begins cultivating her identity and unknowingly (at the time) sows seeds for the project's successor Nightmare Vacation.
Bathed in affirmations, Rico leaves no room for doubts on the receiver's end, simply hissing "On a dark and stormy night, I don't blend in, bitch I shine bright" on album-intro "Candy." Her naselled cockiness is enough to ignite butterflies in even the most stern of listeners, physically commanding that they heed. Rico Nasty floats across the moody, sometimes adrenaline-inducing backing. Here, as she rhetorically asks "Can you feel me?" serenaded by banjo chords, it feels as though she's morphed into Marvel character Storm controlling every naysayer in her past.
In places, Nightmare Vacation ups the ante, sometimes leaning into a performance that mirrors screamo. "Let It Out" and its menacing electric guitar foundations flirt with the sub-genre, Rico Nasty juxtaposing her "go" screams, with disclaimers: "If you wanna rage, let it out," she states, embodying a therapist. On her former project Anger Management, both Kenny Beats and Nasty studied Arthur Janov's scream therapy. Here, it feels as though there's a synergetic thread tying both projects together, as well as Nasty's multifaceted realities. Her encouragement for her behavior coming from a harnessed sense of wisdom. The rapper is aware of her triggers, as well as the healing component in most scenarios.
Despite their mutual love of one another creatively, Rico Nasty — for the most part — departs from her beloved Kenny on her debut album, instead ushering in an army of new producers, leading to a plethora of results. Take "IPHONE," for example. On the now-bubbling hyper-pop sound, Nasty pushes her voice to new heights, reminiscent of an anime or wider cartoon protagonist throughout — the Emil Nava directed visual reinforces this portrayal.
Sonically, she again harkens back to former eras, this time of her Sugar Trap 2 mold. It's a meatier manifestation here though, anchored in a Dylan Brady-crafted fusion of punk-rock amongst her newly-crafted nod to pop. Although the 23-year-old has never sought mainstream approval, "IPHONE" feels as close as she's ever gotten to a commercial hit — on paper at least. Fundamentally though, the album single displays a softer side to her, letting us in to her perceptions of love, her annoyance that can come with it. The nuance of wanting a partner one minute, then shedding them the next ("I think I need my space"), she reminds audiences of her age here, as she deciphers her wants and desires.
Rico Nasty stated in a recent interview that she's wanted to collaborate with Trippie Redd for a while. On "Loser" the pair finally cement their mutual goal and it feels as if they've known each other all of their lives. The misfits are surprisingly subdued, as they embrace their distinct identities. Adopting a Mean Girls reference ("loser, get in"), the Sugar Trap / Atlantic signee flips the coming-of-age cult classic, instead leaving her fans with a strong example of self-love. It's this same ethos that's allowed her to stand out in a realm that can sometimes box women in rap into pre-existing subordinate stereotypes that have historically led to objectification. Oddly, Redd's verse seems to veer from theme, however, his cadence cushions Nasty's dreamy, hypnotic delivery. "Loser" can be likened to a distorted lullaby of sorts, ushering teenagers to find and champion their true purpose; a refreshing and uncannily mature addition to Nightmare Vacation.
Perhaps the most consistent thread across Rico Nasty's inaugural LP is its commitment to being playful. Pummelling through "STFU" she dominates Take a Daytrip's supporting production using her signature shifts in tone to demand naysayers silence. "Be quiet lil' hoe you ain't gettin' pay-sos," she roars, imitating crying sounds in her adlibs. "OHFR?" employs a similar technique, but it's layered in word-play also — double entendres and alliteration in particular. It's the cultivation of these skills that accentuate Nasty's artistic growth in her time as a professional artist. In the latter-number, she's fueled by buying her first house, signing her deal and accumulating even more fans. It feels like these components only embolden her to development, push her to continue owning her mystique. As she puts it "Oh you mad, that you can't hurt my pocket or my feelings," seemingly nodding to former altercations.
The present moment for women in rap is defined by a reinvisioned sense of unity. Nasty has championed this ethos in her professional career, befriending the likes of Flo Milli, championing Nicki Minaj and collaborating with a plethora of acts including Doja Cat. On an updated version of her underground hit "Smack A Bitch" she continues by adding Rubi Rose, Sukihana and ppcocaine into the ether. The already vivacious cut gains a new lease of life, with each lady proving how assorted the marketplace for women in hip-hop is. Whether it's the majestic Rubi Rose or an emboldened, screeching ppcocaine, all represent valid and necessary sounds.
Nightmare Vacation isn't as tightly bound as Anger Management or even the self-titled Nasty, but it imagines all elements of Rico Nasty's identity that we have seen on previous releases, attempting to — and for the most part succeeding in — rationalize the rapper, humanize her. What it does tell listeners is that Nasty is now a self-actualized woman, not the child she entered the industry as. She'll always carry with her a whimsical persona, but now it's rooted in a sagacity which can't be ignored.