How Rico Nasty Rose to Rule the Sugar Trap

On ‘Nasty,’ Rico Nasty doubles down on all of her strengths to become queen of the sugar trap.
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Sugar comes in many forms, the best of which—and this is not up for debate—is neon blue rock candy. Bright, bold, teeth-aching, instant-buy-every-time-you-see-it: that’s Rico Nasty. Born Maria Kelly, the 21-year-old DMV native is pioneering her own hip-hop tradition. This is not pop rap, not bubblegum trap, not a sloppy punk-meets-hip-hop fusion, but a definitive genre: sugar trap.

With the release of her Atlantic Records debut, Nasty, Rico has come to own the sugar trap both as a style and mindset: raw and unafraid. Perhaps what’s most exciting is the expediency with which Rico Nasty came to rule the sugar trap.

In order to best understand where Rico is headed, it's mandatory to know where she's coming from. Specifically, her 2014 debut mixtape, Summer’s Eve. From the tenderness of the cover to the reserved, perhaps forced poise of Rico’s delivery, we only get wisps of the Rico Nasty that people have come to love in 2018. That’s not to say that her present work is unemotive; on the contrary, Rico can belt out a tear-jerking ballad with the best of them. Truly, Summer’s Eve exists more so for Rico than it does for listeners. Amidst tripping over syllables and finding pockets of energy to thrive in, Rico used the tape as a training grounds.

Obviously, it paid off.

Fast forward two years to 2016, a campaign which featured two new tapes and a more fleshed-out Rico Nasty. First, there was The Rico Story, which features her breakout hit, “iCarly.” 48 days later, she dropped the inaugural Sugar Trap, which features the equally big hit, “Hey Arnold.” Both tapes are endowed with promise, and their imperfections humanize Rico. Her charisma and unabashed personality make up for any minor hiccups that turn up in her flow or vocal delivery. Some people like to call this punk, and we can easily argue that the spirit of punk is the spirit of hip-hop: honing and projecting unfiltered energy and personal truth.

“The more that I dug deeper into myself, I realized that ‘sugar trap,’ is loving something you’re not supposed to love, like loving to do something you’re not supposed to do,” Rico Nasty told Complex in 2017. “It’s just good and bad put together,” she concluded, explaining that her truth is the sum of light and darkness.

To grasp the whole of that sentiment, we need visuals. Rico Nasty thrives on camera, and the videos for “iCarly” and “Her Arnold” reveal her to be overjoyed and in control. On “iCarly,” in particular, Rico raps with the nonchalant swagger that first drew us to A$AP Rocky in 2011. She’s magnetic and she knows it. Her subsequent videos follow a similar, minimally edited and minimally cinematic format—all potent looks into her colorful personality.

The uncertainty of Summer’s Eve and blind spots of her 2016 tapes thusly melt away on camera. Rico became an artist-to-watch—literally. Fans new and old are made keenly aware that Rico Nasty does not take visual cues. She uses them as an ashtray, bitch. Where critics want to police Black women on wax and on the screen, every step she takes is effortlessly radical.

With two proofs of concept under her belt, 2017 saw the release of Tales of Tacobella. Tacobella is marked by an understood and shapeshifting pining for success, for those gone too soon, and for happiness. This tape, as well as her hyper-feminine Tacobella persona, established the essential “sugar” of sugar trap while packing a visceral punch.

Specifically, Tacobella’s “Watch Me,” features Rico running laps around the beat, rapping as if oxygen were no object. The sandy pop dip that coats her voice pairs well with her breathless bars. For most other artists, this combination of technical savvy and toybox soundscape would be ridiculous, but for Rico Nasty, “Watch Me” was just another step towards conquering the sugar trap.

On the whole, Tacobella served as a worthy re-introduction to Rico Nasty for myriad reasons, but the most important being that it has fans searching for Rico’s voice. Not her artistic voice—that’s clear as day—but her unfiltered voice. Five months later, thankfully, we get just that. In October 2017, Rico Nasty dropped Sugar Trap 2, a vitriolic and welcome growth spurt. With “Key Lime OG,” “Rojo,” and “Poppin,” Rico’s cadence roils syllables. Rico Nasty prowled across Sugar Trap 2’s 14 tracks as a wolf surrounded by a litter of new school puppies.

Rico Nasty finally reached her sonic nirvana on June 15, 2018, with the ceremonial release of Nasty. The project is yet another quantum leap. Nasty leans into the terse and staccatoed edge of Rico’s delivery without sacrificing the sing-song alternative atmosphere of Tales of Tacobella. This balance, too, is radical when we remember that women in hip-hop can either be gentle or coarse, but never both. Rico Nasty, of course, exists as everything.

In terms of craft, Rico’s voice continues to mature. The strain and struggle of breath control on 2017’s “Mad At Me” is a distant memory on Nasty. Even the sugariest cuts (“Ice Cream,” “Life Back,” and “Why Oh Why”) balance the vocal fry and boom of Rico’s voice with an appreciated fullness. Rico Nasty sounds all the more confident, all the more overjoyed, and all the more approachable. This is her moment and she’s reveling in it on all technical fronts.

With every belt, croon, and acidic bar on Nasty, Rico achieves a new level of catharsis. Serrated and muddy bass lines along with grunge caterwauling make “Trust Issues,” “Transformer,” and “Rage” instant standouts. While a gaggle of young men attempts to make a name for themselves by bringing the static of punk to the mic, Rico Nasty trumps them all with the added panache of being an inherent songstress.

Her melodies, particularly on “Hockey,” are more unctuous than ever before, no longer disintegrating against the grain of vocal effects. With only two guests on the tape—BlocBoy JB and Lil Gnar—Rico Nasty establishes herself as the star of this tape. Even a misleadingly subdued cut like “Pressing Me” reminds us of her star power, wherein Rico Nasty sounds like she’s playfully kicking rhymes while reclining in her throne. The audacious nonchalance of “iCarly” is tripled here, and we’re hooked.

With an impressive quiver of signature styles, it would be easy for Nasty to become a bland attempt to harmonize for accessibility’s sake. Instead, Rico doubles down on her strengths in all areas, delivering a mainstream debut—a final formal introduction—that captures each of her neon essences without much filler. She carved out the sugar trap, she owns the sugar trap, and now everyone knows Rico Nasty as the definitive queen of the sugar trap. 

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