Photo: Jason Carman
Welcome To Rico Nasty's 'Nightmare Vacation'
Rico Nasty knows how to stand out. In an era filled with gray days and dark skies, she is the rainbow-bright, spiky-haired, fashion-forward loudmouth with nothing to hide and everything to gain.
Since first breaking out in 2016 with her underground hits "iCarly" and "Hey Arnold," the Maryland-born rapper has become one of the most exciting, singular voices in today's hip-hop scene. Her unique take on the genre—melodic vibes and hard-edged flows over bright, bass-rattling trap beats, a style she's trademarked as "Sugar Trap"—has helped mutate rap music into all sorts of weird shapes and sounds. Rap music is all the better for it.
On her forthcoming debut album, Nightmare Vacation, Rico bridges her raw style with mainstream ambitions. Just take "iPhone" for a ride. Produced by fellow pop weirdo Dylan Brady, one half of experimental electronic duo 100 gecs, the song is an adrenaline rush of distorted hyperpop paired with Rico's washed-out, razor-sharp rhymes. In the middle of the track, she floats into soft R&B coos that can still cut like rusty blades.
"I definitely feel like this is just a whole new vibe," Rico Nasty tells GRAMMY.com about the vision behind Nightmare Vacation. "It's a whole bunch of that overcoming, that, 'Wow, I didn't think I could do this.' And then actually do it and it sounds amazing. I look forward to that."
As she gears up to release Nightmare Vacation this fall, Rico Nasty checks in with GRAMMY.com to talk about the evolution of her sound on her debut album, the cultural connection between her music and fashion, and the new era of women-led rap music.
You found the name for your new album, Nightmare Vacation, while you were on a trip to Mexico last year. What's the significance behind the album's title?
I feel like life is dated by what a person thinks they should be. They find themselves in a "nightmare vacation." They find themselves surrounded by a bunch of the stuff that they thought they would love once they got it, but they realized that that wasn't what they wanted—it was what somebody else wanted. I felt like I dealt with a lot of that during [my trip] in Cabo, [Mexico]—just a whole lot of minding myself and growing up and realizing that can't nobody makes choices for me. I like what I like, I don't like what I don't like. I want in life what I want out of life.
I was listening to some of your older music, specifically your 2018 mixtape, Nasty, which is raw, it's hard and it's, well, pretty nasty. Nightmare Vacation has that same energy, but then you also have tracks like "Come Over" and "Loser," which show a little bit of a softer side with some R&B melodies. How would you say your sound has changed or evolved over the last couple of years, or since your last couple of releases?
I feel like I've been in the studio more than I ever have in my entire life. I was doing 72-hour sessions, even just literally experimenting and, obviously, drawing inspiration from the people that I love. I love Rihanna. I feel like she makes the best music, she has the best beats and melodies ever. I just tried to pull from my inspirations, but still keep it me, keep everything true to myself and ... everything that's been going on with my life.
You're doing something really unique and interesting with the rollout of Nightmare Vacation. With each of your announcements, you're sharing these personal letters in a series that you're calling the Nightmare Vacation Journal. Tell me about the journal series and the decision behind all of these personal letters.
I feel like before I dropped a song, I would get real nervous and I'd have all these thoughts. I get all tumbled up and emotional ... I never deal with a lot of other things. I can't really compare it to anything. Every time I drop a song, it's a process of letting go. I feel like whatever emotions I'm feeling the night before I drop those songs, I share my feelings. Whether or not they're meaningful messages or like ... I don't really know. It's just whatever comes to my mind, I feel like that's part of it. Every day, I might look back on this sh*t and say, "Why did I say that? Why did I think that? Why did I feel like that?" But it's just important to share that stuff so [my fans] know what type vibe I'm on when I'm releasing it.
In the first letter for the album's debut single, "iPhone," which you sent out in August, you wrote that you felt anxious about the announcement of Nightmare Vacation. Now that we're getting closer to the album's release, do you still feel anxious?
Yeah, I'm always anxious. I'm always anxious or excited ... I don't know what the word is. I'm always high-strung and ready for whatever ... As a child, I would never think that I would make an album, like a real album. I've toured and I've seen the world and I actually have fans—it's a dream come true. I think anybody would get anxious for sharing that with the world.
That's interesting because when I listen to your music, I don't hear a nervous or an anxious person. Your album, for example, has a track called "Own It," which is basically a self-empowerment anthem. Do you consider yourself confident?
Some days I'm confident. Some days I'm not. I feel like I'm confident when I make music.
When I hear you rapping, I feel like you very much are confident and you love yourself for who you are. How did you go about gaining that confidence? How did you learn to love yourself?
It's one of those things that I feel like, when you're born ... You have to just have an early sense of self-worth. When you're a kid, it's just certain choices that you make ... This is something small, but in high school, I was on this health kick, and I was going to the gym and I was in sports. I was serious about it. I was serious about taking care of myself. The older I've gotten, I became more aware of what it took to take care of myself. I feel like, when you strive for self-love and not perfection or all that other sh*t that you strive for, you just strive to be the best you, whatever you like. You gotta finesse it. It just makes you feel better about everything.
But like I said, you don't feel that way every day. I feel like anybody who's feeling great every day is a lunatic. You're a crazy person. There's no way everybody feels good every single day. There's no way, not one person. Everybody feel like sh*t. Some days I feel ugly. Some days I feel like the baddest person in the room. Some days I feel misunderstood. Some days I feel like everybody can relate to me ... It's up and down.
Going back to your letters and journal, it all feels very intimate. They reveal a little vulnerability, and they're written directly to your fans. What's your relationship like with your fans, the so-called Nasty Mob?
I always tell them that our relationship is one-of-a-kind because they've never given me a hard time. I've never had a situation with my fans where I'm out and they're just giving me a hard time. Everybody who I come in contact with is just respectful and polite, dressed cool as hell, and their hair is fire and their makeup is fire. They're just a really cool individual. I always say that I would probably be friends with my fans if I was just a regular person, like if I just seen them out, I'd be like, "OK. You can hang with me. Let's get lit." It's just one big gang, one big mob.
Whenever I'm in the city, I personally invite certain fans that have come out to other shows. I just feel like I watched them growing. We all met when they was like 17 and I'm, like 19. My first time away from home, they first time ever going to a show. Just that human interaction is so important, especially now with coronavirus. I've cried a couple of times about missing them, like literally missing them, their presence, the way how I can get on stage and say, "Guys, I feel terrible today. Today has been the worst day ever." And they just scream at me and throw flowers at me, throw gifts at me, get on each other's shoulders, they mosh for me. It's one-of-a-kind, the love that I have for them. They're the best fans ever, I don't care what anybody says.
Rico Nasty | Photo: Jason Carman
It sounds like your fans are really excited about Nightmare Vacation. What do you think they're going to think about the album?
I just imagine a brain that's gray, and I just imagine a colorful brain after they see the album. [They're going] to be stimulated and well-fed and well-behaved. They probably won't be as mad at me as they are now. I feel like they're going to have a lot of fun with this album ... Fun by themselves, fun going for a walk, fun in the shower, fun driving alone. You don't even need a person to listen to this album with. You don't need nobody to party with. It's the party. This is the party. Put this b*tch on and let go. This the party in your room. You don't need nobody.
Speaking of having fun, did you have fun making Nightmare Vacation?
Yeah, I had fun making every single song on his album. But you know what I didn't have fun doing? I didn't have fun learning a whole lot of stuff. Obviously, every artist, you learn so much. You learn the ins and outs, you learn the ups and downs, you learn the pauses, the, "This might not be cleared. This might get cleared." This video and these dates and features and people available. You learn so much sh*t. So it definitely takes away [from] the glory of, "Wow this is great, great studio session!"
But that is what it is. It's Nightmare Vacation, man, f**k that. Everything's good, everything's bad—it's life. But you love life, right? You don't want to die. You want to see tomorrow. You might f***ing hit the lottery tomorrow. If you died, you wouldn't see that. You wouldn't see anything.
On an artistic level, does Nightmare Vacation feel different from what you've done before?
I definitely feel like this is just a whole new vibe. I never would have thought I could make a song like "Own It." "Own It" is so smooth, it's just different. The video is so couture and so camp, and it's different. It's a whole bunch of that overcoming, that, "Wow, I didn't think I could do this." And then actually do it and it sounds amazing. I look forward to that.
As you said, your "Own It" video shows some very futuristic fashion. You've got some strong looks on there. You have your hands in fashion: You have your own unique, very colorful look and style. You're going to be appearing and walking in Rihanna's Savage X Fenty show this week. What's the connection between fashion and your music?
I feel like I would not be who I was if the music didn't match the way I dress. [Giggles.] I feel like the music has to match your style ... I don't know, it doesn't have to. Look at J. Cole. J. Cole doesn't really go deep into that fashion sh*t. But his music is crazy, and it's a great reflection of him. But for me, my fashion is out there with big-ass boots, crazy eyeliner, leather, spikes. You listen to my music and that's what will probably be in the room if you were laying in the bed with me. [Laughts.].
I think [fashion is] a mirror almost, and I've used it like that. I've used it like a real-life mirror of how I'm feeling. Because sometimes I dress super hardcore, and some days I dress in dresses and I just look like a girly-girl, a whole lot of pink. Fashion is just one of those things that, honestly, the first thing that made feel accepted in any industry ever. 'Cause music was a little hesitant. I remember music was like, "OK, we like her. It's cool." But fashion was really like, "Oh my God, hop out." I made a lot of friends in fashion and a lot of people that keep me inspired.
You mentioned spikes and leather, which makes me think about punk rock fashion. You've been called a rock star, a punk rock princess, a pop-punk princess. There are mosh pits at your shows. What's your relationship with rock and punk?
I am a fan of rock and punk music, but I feel like I'm really a fan of rap music. I'm a rapper, and I've used those other references, like rock, to blend with rap music. I feel like people kinda ignore that a little bit, but I love rap music. I always tell my manager and my friends, whenever they say stuff like that—it's been so many different titles for me that they're going to have to come up with my own word at this point ... There's punk, there's rock, there's hardcore.
I don't think there's anything ... It's just getting inspired from things that I've heard growing up. I might make a song that sound like that ... It's the voice and the cadence, I get, could be the rock stuff. But also, there's a lot of rockers that have had that crazy-ass voice. Obviously, the beats draw them in and that's what sticks in their head, like, "OK, she raps on this hard." There's a lot of music that people have fallen in love with that don't have anything to do with rock.
Do you believe in genres? Do you see them as an inspiration or a barrier?
I feel like genres definitely are needed ... But I don't know. This new generation, of course, we are just so obsessed with everything being our own and we being the creators of everything. I call my music "Sugar Trap." That's what I've always called it.
What is Sugar Trap?
You have the soft, beautiful, flowy vibes, melodic, but then you also have trap music like Chicago drill music, Atlanta trap music, Memphis trap music, little bit of California trap music. I mix everything. If the sound catches my ear, I mix it. So when we talk about rock, I just remember, when I made that song, I was listening to a lot of rock. I felt very alone and very alienated, so I made music to reflect that. That's why we get songs like "Rage."
Talking about rock, you've mentioned Joan Jett as a major inspiration to your music and your career. In many ways, you are now on that opposite end where you're inspiring a younger generation of rappers, artists and fans. Do you feel the weight of responsibility as a role model to your fans?
Nah, because I feel more of a weight or responsibility to be a role model towards my son. Just as long as I'm a good person to him, that's what really matters to me. Fans going to like what they like. I know some songs they don't like from me; they're allowed to feel that way. I just feel like, where I think my son is different, because they they always grow with me.
As far as the younger generation looking up to me, too, however they're inspired by me, I just want them to understand that they're their own person and they're going to live their own life. And though there might be a lot of situations that resemble one another, there's a lot of choices they're going to have to make that I ain't had to make, and things they going have to do that I ain't have to do. And they just going to have to respect the hustle. It's hard to get where I am. It's gonna be hard to get wherever they get. That's still weird having people look up to me because I take my pants off one leg at a time, and I'm just a regular person.
Your dad, who was a rapper, introduced you to hip-hop. Are you doing the same for your son? Are you introducing him to your music or rap or any other genres?
He be in the studio with me. He go places with me. He knows, he watch my music videos. He listens to his own stuff, though. It's very important that he's his own person, too, 'cause he's one-of-a-kind just by watching him make his own decisions. He listens to Aminé and Post Malone. His music choice is kinda cute. Justin Timberlake, too; he likes Justin Timberlake a lot.
But you know, he don't really listen to my stuff. He's around, he sees it. He was there for some video shoots. He was there for the "Countin Up" video shoot in New York. He's there for a lot of stuff; he's just behind the scenes, though. I definitely try to incorporate him in my life, but I ain't going to force it. He doesn't have to like music.
We are having a major cultural moment in hip-hop: Women are dominating rap, a genre that's always been very male-driven. You have Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion on top. Does it feel like we're in a new era where women are the new leaders in rap?
Yeah. It's kinda weird watching it become what it is become. This is what the next 10 years is going to look like. I feel like people like women's music more. [Laughs.] I don't know how to say that. A woman's voice, it is what it is. Whether it's rap or whatever it is, the confidence that women give other women, it's unmatched ... I feel like the world needs women's music to heal as well. The early 2000s had so much women's music and girls were so powerful, and the world just felt better. I'm praying for that.
There's a lot of momentum happening for women rappers right now. Where would you like it to go and what needs to happen to take it there?
Well, it's already in a great direction. Obviously, I would wish that people would stop being so judgemental. But it's one of those things where, just like everything else, if you just put it in their face enough, they'll get the point. They'll get it. They'll care. Just like there's a lot of male rappers who talk about certain things, and people just get their point. That's their life. That's what they do. Just give it, like I said, five years and it'll be what it is ... This is the new era of music: women rapping.
In order to make it happen, we just need ... I don't even know what to say. Women already supporting each other. We already cool. We already text each other when great sh*t happens for one another and we're like, "Oh my God, that's crazy!" We are all watching this unfold.