Can the Mainstream Catch Up to Rico Nasty?

When the rapper Rico Nasty talks about falling in love at first sight, she doesn’t mean with an individual, but with a feeling. She’s talking about her first time on a real stage, and not even as a performer, but as a hanger-on in the wings. Still, that night, everything was moving in dreamy slow motion.

Nasty, now 23, had cautiously started releasing songs on SoundCloud around the time she finished high school in 2015, but she was still bashful about her dreams of becoming a rapper when the upstart teen sensation Lil Yachty invited her to a show.

Even back then, when she was just Maria Kelly, a teenager from the Palmer Park neighborhood of Prince George’s County, Md., Nasty was a charismatic cutup, and she’d caught Yachty’s attention with her high jinks on Vine and Twitter. But standing up there behind him — “like a groupie, HA-HA!” she recalled recently — as the crowd went insane, something clicked for her.

“I was like, bruh, I want to do this,” she said over Zoom. “Watching how everybody took care of him, I thought, I need to live this life. Like, this needs to be me! I need people to be moving out the way — Rico’s coming through, Rico’s coming to the stage. This is my destiny!”

She took a video of the crowd that night on her phone, and while at work as a receptionist at a hospital, she watched it over and over again, in between listening to beats and tapping out lyrics. In fact, she was on her phone so much that she got fired from that job. But Nasty used her final paycheck of about $300 to make a music video called “iCarly,” a bouncy nursery rhyme of illicit thrills named after a Nickelodeon show, and it was that three-minute bomb of magnetism that would prove to be her breakout.

A year later, she sold out the very same Maryland venue that Lil Yachty had: “How crazy is that?”

Six mixtapes and some years on, Rico Nasty is set to release her major label debut, “Nightmare Vacation,” on Dec. 4, via Atlantic Records. Combining her sugary, singsong side and the bruising, discordant, mosh-pit scream-rap that she’s made her signature on recent viral hits, the album seeks to take advantage of a path for female rappers — and Black pop stars — that’s never been wider or more for the taking, from Doja Cat and Tierra Whack to Lizzo, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.

“We in cahoots,” Nasty said of the seemingly endless bounty of supportive female artists bubbling up online. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere. It’s not a phase.” She credited herself with showing that “you don’t have to dress a certain way and you don’t have to sound a certain way to be a female rapper,” but noted that “there are so many other women that have broken boundaries in their own way.”

On the sharpest of her new songs, like “OHFR?” and “iPhone” — both produced by Dylan Brady of the brash, futuristic pop disrupters 100 gecs — Nasty fuses her two dominant sonic impulses, sounding like she’s gurgling glass shards with a wicked smile. An anime freak and student of N.O.R.E. and Joan Jett, Nicki Minaj and the Smiths, Tyler, the Creator and Avril Lavigne, Nasty is a master shape-shifter and pop culture collagist, attracting so many self-identified outsiders with her lovably abrasive and profane confidence that she may very well build a new mainstream coalition.

“Think about what the front row at a Rico Nasty concert looks like,” the producer Kenny Beats, a close collaborator, said in an interview. “It’s literally any type of person who identifies any type of way, who might not feel like they fit in at the average Spotify Rap Caviar, Jingle Ball concert. This is a group of people who are sick of taking crap, feeling different or feeling like they’re weird, and they come to a Rico concert and say, ‘I’m about to scream my face off.’”

The relationship between Nasty and her most devoted followers has gotten so extreme that they frequently profess their love through requests for violence — “step on my neck, throw me through a wall,” she rattled off — culminating in her fielding (and fulfilling) constant demands that she smack them in the face. “Then they started asking me to spit in their mouth,” Nasty shrugged, adding that she immortalized one such concert moment on a T-shirt. “I always ask, ‘Are you OK at home?’” she said with a shrug.

But Nasty’s proficiency with accepting extreme fandom and fostering connection has proved to be one her best marketing tactics, and it comes from the fact that she lived the other side as a self-professed teenage stan, or superfan, of artists like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. “To survive stan culture, you have to understand stan culture — you have to have been a stan,” she said. “If anything, it makes me want to open up more.”

The smacking, in particular, stems from Nasty’s most popular song, “Smack a Bitch,” which was released in January 2018, but will be included on “Nightmare Vacation” as a bonus track and in a new remixed version featuring ppcocaine, Sukihana and Rubi Rose, a fresh micro-generation of raw female rappers.

Kenny Beats remembered first meeting Nasty in the studio on one of her first big trips to Los Angeles, as a room full of producers were trying and failing to meet her standards the night the song was created. After recording over one of his premade instrumentals, Nasty “looked so over it,” the producer said, and left the vocal booth with a request: “Can you make heavy metal?”

He whipped up a lurching, loud beat on the spot that was only about 10 percent done when Nasty said, “OK, that’s it, give me it like that,” Kenny Beats recalled, expressing his astonishment that it would become her defining song so far. (The video for the track was so slapdash that his name was misspelled as “Kenndy Beats.”) “She just does anything and everything,” he said.

The songwriter Jozzy said that Nasty also “wanted to learn” in the studio, taking direction to expand her ability to freestyle melodies, in addition to confrontation raps. “She doesn’t think she’s a singer, but she really is,” Jozzy said.

Brady of 100 gecs also praised Nasty’s punk attitude and willingness to experiment, pointing to her interest in pitch-shifting her vocals on “iPhone,” which they completed in two hours during their first time working together. “She came in with this school Trapper Keeper and opened it up and it was full of like 100 pre-rolled joints, so I knew it was going to be a crazy session,” he said.

In person, Nasty is wiry and electric, but also decidedly low maintenance given the elaborateness of her makeup and outfits. (“I can never be typical,” she once rapped. “Don’t come out the house unless I’m wearin’ something whimsical.”) At two promotional photo shoots this month, she hit enough poses in three minutes to last most people a lifetime, while remaining all business — provided your business is being quirky and cool. “That looks like an acid trip,” she said, checking the images in real time. “I love it.”

Nasty credits her drive and work ethic to having a child as a teenager. “Being a mother taught me to go get some money,” she said. “Once you become a mom, it’s just like, ‘OK, strategy. How are we going to pay for this?’ You do what’s necessary, and sometimes you get creative.”

By the time her son was 6 months old, she was charging $75 for guest verses online. “Rapping was the only thing I saw real results from,” she said.

Her cartoon personas and exaggerated bravado also stem from necessity. The night her son was conceived, she explained in an online documentary about her rise, Nasty’s boyfriend passed away from an asthma attack. His death sent her into a suicidal depression, until she found out that she was pregnant — at about seven months. In the tough period that followed, her mother pushed her to get a life plan together, and Nasty vowed that she would be featured by the rap magazine XXL, which went on to name her to one of its coveted Freshman spots in 2019.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has interrupted her steady rise, presenting challenges both emotional and financial. During a recent trip to New York she said that she got so used to people “telling me I’m beautiful every day that I got a little depressed,” adding, “it’s hard to feel famous when you’re just walking past your dog every day. Notice me! Tell me to spit on you!”

But she quickly realized that given the myriad miseries in the world right now, it was selfish to center her career, even if the life of a touring musician wasn’t as secure as it may appear from the outside.

“When coronavirus hit, it was like that Mister Krabs meme,” with regards to money, Nasty said, referring to a photo of a perplexed “SpongeBob SquarePants” character. “I could go to Rodeo and spend everything in my bank accounts in 30 minutes.” Without concerts, she has survived by selling her extra clothes, merchandise and a makeup collaboration, in addition to once again doing features for a fee that’s healthier than in her early days.

She’s also had to manage expectations when it comes to her long-awaited debut album, and whether or not it will catapult her into a new echelon. “When I first signed, I got a little depressed about that type of stuff,” she admitted. “‘Why isn’t it happening? What about me? What am I doing wrong? I have to be No. 1!’”

“But if you look at the history of this, it’s all about who lasts,” Nasty said, openly wrestling with the extent of her ambition — or at least admitting it. “Let me not run away from that, because I tend to run away from owning what it is. I definitely do feel like this is my — I hate when people do this — but it’s my time.”

“I do want to be ‘can’t walk around’ famous,” she said. “That’s what I want to be. I want to be ‘swarming my hotel’ famous. I want to be all that, I definitely do. And I think that I’m on my way.”