Interview by Darian Symoné Harvin.
Photos by Blair B Brown. Lighting by Whalen Hair by Preston Wada Makeup by David Velasquez Styled by Haylee Ahumada
Rico Nasty is kind of surprised that you’re surprised that she’s talking about sex.
“It blows my mind when my fans point out my little sexy bars,” she says, via phone. “They’re like, ‘She’s talking about her kitty.’ It’s like, I have a whole kid. Why do you all see me like a child? Rico doesn’t take offense to it, per se, but she is amused. “It’s adorable, honestly.”
With six mixtapes under her belt, and the upcoming release of her proper Nightmare Vacation debut, Rico Nasty, 23, has already taken her place among a class of heavy weight and quickly emerging female rappers who poke at men’s insecurities with self-possession and confidence — and the best sex stories of all time. With her sugar trap vocals, she’s become a leading voice among those stretching the hip-hop genre.
But first and foremost, Rico Nasty, born Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly, is the punk-rap princess from Maryland’s Prince George’s County. And as she continues to rise from hometown rebel to mainstream fame, she is sharing more, not less. “I’m always raging and yelling and telling everyone to get out of my face and I’m smacking bitches, but now on this album I’m really like, “I’m going to go now guys, I’m having sex.”
Rico is in fact well known for brash hits like “Smack A Bitch,” with over 54 million streams on Spotify, but she’s never shied away from rapping about love and loss. “Brandon” on the ‘Tales of Tacobella’ tape is dedicated to her high school boyfriend and father of her son. He passed away from an asthma attack when she was 18.
And she keeps peeling back layers. The high-pitched “iPhone,” from Nightmare is about keeping love close in a less than perfect world. “I am talking about love more,” she says, “and I’m talking more about what I expect and how I expect to be loved. I have a lot of songs about how a relationship should be, literally. How he should make you feel.”
In her latest single ‘Own It,’ Rico is perched. Hip out, she clicks her four inch nails against a clear cart carrying baby birds. Her toenails, just as long, never hit the ground, even in yellow platform heels. The main attraction: her head wrapped in a spiked mask with rhinestoned lips poking out.
Hair, makeup, nails and skincare have always been a weapon women rap artists use to wield their power. For Rico, it’s also an imaginative place, a playground filed with knives, blunts, and RiRi Woo. (She credits Rihanna for her foray into expensive, high quality makeup.) Living in this world had led to her finding a community that understands her, while navigating an industry where she feels like an outsider.
In this conversation, Rico talks about the making of her debut album, her collaboration with the makeup brand Il Makiage, her relationship to beauty, her confidence, and the world of rap.
I saw you post and ask people if they had learned anything new since they’re in quarantine. Is there anything that you have picked up?
Well, I suppose I was cooking, but then as we get deeper into quarantine, I find myself just binge watching makeup tutorials on YouTube.
Who do you like to watch on YouTube?
I like to watch Makeup Mouse. I like Jackie Aina. She’s my favorite person right now because she’s not just a beauty influencer, she’s giving all types of advice. And I really fuck with that. A lot of her videos are very, very personal, but at the same time she’s teaching you how to beat your face. So I’m learning new tricks that I can use and then I’m also learning all types of advice. It’s pretty cool, she’s my favorite person. I found out about her through Alissa Ashley, and I love her too.
And I remember the first time I had ever went to the MAC store with my friends and I was honestly taken aback at these bitches paying $30 for some mother fucking lipstick.
How did you get into makeup?
Well, I was definitely, definitely into hair. I didn’t know how to do makeup. I was really big on plucking my eyebrows. I don’t understand why that was my obsession! I used to make my eyebrows super small. And then eyeliner, of course, was my guilty pleasure. But for dramatic looks, I would literally wear black lipstick. That’s as dramatic as I was getting back in high school because I didn’t have the patience, and I didn’t have the money.
And I remember the first time I had ever went to the MAC store with my friends and I was honestly taken aback at these bitches paying $30 for some mother fucking lipstick. I wanted to fight them, because I really grew up with $30 to survive for a whole week. So it was just hella weird. Then I remember Rihanna had come out with the collab with MAC, and that was the one lipstick that I had. I can literally bet this on my life, I’m such a huge Rihanna fan, that was the only lipstick I have ever finished.
You really learn the value of a product, and you really learn what’s good, what’s worth it and what’s not. I remember… with skincare? Girl. I used to slap my foundation straight. On. My. Face. I would just put it on there.
No primer, no moisturizer, no Vaseline, no lotion. Absolutely nothing. When I was pregnant, I would go to Sephora and Ulta. I would look at skincare and I’m like, “This shit is more expensive than the foundation. I’m not buying this.” And then I found a product that I loved. It was called Peter something.
Peter Thomas Roth?
Peter Thomas Roth. Period. That’s the one. I was using it three times a day. Seriously, anytime my face was dry, if I didn’t have makeup on, I was putting it on. And it really just made me value skincare because then when I would put my makeup on, it would just sit so well that it made doing my makeup hella easy.
Even thinking about YouTube and how you pick up on new tricks, how do you feel like your relationship with makeup has changed?
I feel like makeup is my best friend. In a weird way, I feel like a huge outcast in the music industry. And I know it’s probably because I don’t live in LA. I don’t go to the club, I don’t party. I just make my music and go. With makeup, I just found a little community that gets me. It’s a community of girls that, I’ll do a look and they fucking copy the look. And they’ll do that shit freckle for freckle. That’s the community that keeps me going when I feel ugly, because a lot of times I’ll do the look and I’m like, “Okay. This is cool.” But you never know which one they’re going to like when you post it.
I feel like you also have used makeup and hair to create your alter ego, even just to rebel, to create a new look for yourself.
I’m not even going to lie. The fans, they create the characters more than I do. I feel like I just put out the images and I put out the looks and I put the vibes out and then they just categorize it. And they’re like, “Oh, this is Taco Bella. This is that.” But I don’t ever put on hair like, “Okay, I’m about to put on my Taco Bella wig.” But they have their own perception of what each character is built up to look like. And that’s pretty fire. Use your imagination.
I literally just put some heels on just to go get some wings.
Makeup and hair is very much part of your persona. Do you still find yourself wearing looks, just for yourself? Even if you’re not going anywhere?
I literally just did that. I literally just put some heels on just to go get some wings. My boyfriend was like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I want to see how they feel. I want to see if they’re comfortable. I’m trying to see something.” But I feel like that’s on a good day.
On a good day, you might catch me in three or four different outfits. I’m weird like that. I would change my clothes multiple times in a day.
What do you think it is that pushes you to do that?
How do I explain this? Because it’s not necessarily not being comfortable in your own skin or anything like that. But it’s more so, I have this fixation with not looking the same and I don’t know when it started. I was younger. It does tie a lot into self issues, but the older I get, I just find confidence in the ability to switch it up, because for a long time it was used as a way to hide. Once I got to that point, I’m flexing my self esteem, I’m flexing my ability to do makeup and pull looks. That’s one of those days where I’m switching my looks three or four times, and I feel bomb.
So you flipped it and you use it now as a way to motivate yourself to be confident?
Yeah. I do struggle a little bit with looking in the mirror and just being completely satisfied. I’m not doing my foundation over. I’ll do my makeup, and two hours later, I just start drawing. I make my brows thicker, or I change my lipstick. Everybody needs to be doing makeup. Feeling ugly? Just do a little contour. Have you ever been drunk and washed your face? It’ll change your life.
Have you ever been high and washed your face? I feel like the first step of my skincare routine is honestly, I get high. And then I’m like, “Now I feel great.”
They’re making their own rules.
You posted a video of some of the rappers that you are listening to right now. What is it about that group of women that you are just feeling, that you’re loving right now?
They’re making their own rules.
Yung Baby Tate, Doja Cat, all the other women in the video, you have all created these very distinct looks for yourselves.
I agree. Because I feel like Doja’s aesthetic fit her when I met her, and Yung Baby Tate’s aesthetic definitely fits her when I listen to her music.
Let’s talk about Nightmare Vacation. What was the inspiration for the name of the album, and how you chose it?
Well I feel like “nightmare vacation” is everybody’s best worst experience, whatever that might be. Whether it’s love, whether it’s something that you work towards. But then you don’t want it any more. It just feels like a moment where I accepted the nightmare that comes with the vacation.
I’ve accepted the shitty stuff that comes with living an amazing life. There’s so much rage on the album and there’s attitude and there’s like, “Get the fuck out of my face.” But then there’s so much, “I need you and I want this and I want stuff to be better and I want stuff to work.” And it’s not just with love, but with life too. It’s just nightmare vacation, literally. Nightmare fucking vacation.
What was the production process like for “Own It”?
“Own It” was made in literally 30 minutes. I got to the studio and Fangs, she’s an artist to herself, we hit it off as soon as we got to the studio. There wasn’t any awkward silence. She went, she laid the hook and after she laid the hook, I was just like, “Bitch, I love this.” I changed a couple of lines, and then I went in and I did my verse.
When you are signed to a label, they do bring writers in. They’ll just ask, “You want to try something different, get new vibes, get new experiences.” And every artist should want that. There comes a time where you actually are isolated, because you’re blowing up and people notice you all the time so you ain’t going nowhere, you’re not experiencing life.
You might need a writer to help give you a different perspective, but with me I take so much time writing. I take so much time going on those adventures to rap about it, and having the most fun I possibly can until I’m about to pass out to the next day. And the song just comes to me, because that’s how I make my music and it’s cool to have help. But I really didn’t want help on my album and Fangs somehow made her way on there and I fuck with her for that because it takes a lot. When it comes to writing though, I feel like if you’re a real artist you should be 110% in charge of the narrative that you are portraying.
I take so much time going on those adventures to rap about it, and having the most fun I possibly can until I’m about to pass out to the next day.
The pandemic has thrown out the rules of the music industry in a lot of ways; from touring to events and parties. How do you see yourself continuing to move forward?
Well, it’s a mixture of both for me because I really don’t like the internet anymore.
I’m tired of seeing people die on my phone.
Why don’t you like the internet anymore?
Because the internet makes me feel weak, it makes me feel helpless. I know I’m not the only person that feels like this. I’m tired of seeing people die on my phone. You as a person can make a change, but it’s traumatizing as often as [police shootings] happens. I post my pictures because I want my fans to know that I’m alive and I’m okay. We have a WhatsApp group and they hit me up on there.
Being a Black artist and a Black woman in the spotlight, brands commodify you. They view you as a package, something bright that they want to touch. You are going to hurt and also you’re going to want to speak up for yourself and for your community during these times. And if they’re uncomfortable with that, whose problem is it?
Black women, we give so much sauce. We give so much sauce, it’s effortless. We don’t even try, we just live. We start so much and don’t get credit for it and brands take that shit. I have a collab coming out with Il Makiage. I’ve been working on it for nine months. It’s two pallets. It was just so cool to actually have a brand really fuck with me. I didn’t really know what that felt like to have a brand saying “Come on, let’s do this shit from the ground up.” It’s like a real baby
Black women, we give so much sauce. We give so much sauce, it’s effortless. We don’t even try, we just live.
Tell me more about just the creative process and what you went in wanting the pallets to be.
The entire direction is about makeup bringing people to life. That is what I always feel like makeup does, because a little bit goes a long way and you can really make certain features pop out and go crazy with just a little dab of highlight.
With these palettes, I didn’t want any rules. Of course I have my favorite colors that go together, but I feel everybody’s going to have their favorite too. To each their own. The name of the palette is LowFi, and the other one is Neon Rage.
Those two phrases describe the different ranges and moods of your music.
It really is an actual piece of me. I have been traveling with the samples that they gave me for the past three months and I haven’t been telling anybody, but unless I tagged the makeup artists, all the makeup that I’ve been doing on my Instagram right now has been with my makeup.
How has your life changed in the past two years?
There’s a lot of financial freedom in the air, I will say that. Growing up, everybody has ideas. Everybody has cool stuff that they want to make, and they can’t do it because they don’t have the resources. I could’ve spent money flexing, going dumb and doing a lot of shit that I felt pressured to do. I saved a lot of my money and I spent a lot of time just planning stuff. Now, life is different in a way where it’s so cool to have ideas actually be brought to life.
You mentioned understanding the vision, knowing what you’re going for. What is that vision?
We’re going for a visual representation of the perks of not giving a fuck. The perks of trying new stuff and not being afraid to fail.
I feel I’ve really made it clear that I just want to make my own footsteps. I don’t want to follow behind anybody. I don’t want to do what works for someone else, I want to come up with my own shit that works for me. Time and time again, that’s what I’ve done and it’s worked for me and I’m just really blessed to have a team that trusts me.
About the Author
Darian Symoné Harvin is a reporter and news curation editor covering beauty at the intersection of politics and pop culture. She writes the newsletter BEAUTY IRL, which is an extension of her work across various publications. Darian grew up in Buffalo, New York, and lives in Los Angeles.
Follow her on IG: @darian