Maria Kelly loves roller coasters, but none at California’s Disneyland have impressed her so far. The rides at the Happiest Place On Earth are designed to be broadly enjoyed by the park’s youngest visitors and their grandparents, which means they’re rarely intense enough for anyone with a high threshold for thrills. Neither the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad nor the Matterhorn Bobsleds appear to move her, and she’s disappointed to find Splash Mountain closed for the day.
As the Southern California heat intensifies, her long, pastel blue and green wig and her outfit — a safety cone-orange tube top and matching capris, with black and white checkered stripes down the side, all made of synthetic fabric — are getting uncomfortable. It’s one of many colorful wigs that have made her recognizable as the rapper Rico Nasty, although here, among European tourists posing with Disney characters, she doesn’t risk much recognition — not yet, anyway.
The inconveniences stack up and Rico is ready to cut the field trip short. But then we round a corner and her mouth drops open. “Oh my god,” she says. “It’s Tinker Bell.” And suddenly, Rico and her crew — comprised of her boyfriend/manager, Malik Foxx, along with a photographer, make-up artist, three label representatives, and her longtime best friend Kelsey — are all waiting in line for a photo opportunity with Disney’s preeminent fairy.
The 21-year-old, who lives in Maryland, is in L.A. to finish up her sixth mixtape, Nasty, which she’ll release with Atlantic Records. Standing at Pixie Hollow, an “enchanted forest hideaway” with a bubbling creek running through it, she turns to Malik. “I want my house to look like this,” she says.
It’s her first time at Disneyland, but Rico Nasty’s career has always been associated with cartoon imagery and adolescent references. Her first two breakout hits, 2016’s “iCarly” and “Hey Arnold,” borrow their names, but not much else, from popular Nickelodeon shows. The video for “iCarly,” which features Rico and her friends dancing and waving toy guns in suburban streets and backyards, helped her cultivate her current fanbase, a fervent audience that obsessively catalogs her rapidly changing hairstyles and punk rock wardrobe.
Rico prefers Twitter for keeping in touch with them; while waiting in line for the bathrooms at Disneyland, she shows me a group DM she has with ten of her earliest fans called the “Sugar Trap House.” It’s named after her personal brand of bubbly, upbeat rap, and her third mixtape, Sugar Trap. “If I fuck up at this stage in my career, I don’t have the kind of fans that will disappear if I made a mistake,” she says.
Some of those fans have been with her since she was 15. Since then, she’s released five tapes, including 2017’s Tales of Tacobella and Sugar Trap 2. These last two projects were formative, not just to Rico Nasty, but to Tacobella, a softer musical alter-ego that she embodies for more emotional moments. These days, however, she’s adopted a darker look — spiky black hair, fishnet stockings, studded cuffs — and introduced herself to her fans as Trap Lavigne, a version of Rico Nasty who is a little bit more punk. In early July, she will release Nasty, a mixtape she hopes will connect with a broader mainstream audience. But now that her life is changing, which Rico will they get?
Rico was born in D.C., and spent a few childhood years in New York and Virginia, but she’s lived most of her life in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Statistically, P.G. County is home to the wealthiest black-majority neighborhoods in the country, with a median household income of $75,000. Maria and her mom, however, lived right outside of those developments, in the less affluent Palmer Park.
When she was in sixth grade, her parents enrolled her in a boarding school in Baltimore, in the hopes of providing her a better education than the one her school district offered. A bus would pick her up from a local rec center every week and return her to spend weekends at home. After three years, when she was 14, a boy named Martinez invited her outside to smoke weed. She was so young, she says, she didn’t even know how to use a lighter. The pair got caught at a bus stop. They weren’t even stoned yet — “and that was the worst part about it,” she says — but she was expelled and sent back to a public school near home.
“I was a wild-ass bitch. Like, imagine my 14-year-old. I wish Cam fucking would,” she tells me, talking about her son, now 2 years old. “I would take his weed so fast, like, Who do you fucking think you are, you little shit? You think this shit is a game? Your brain cells are my brain cells.”
Returning from Baltimore, Rico felt different — “the weird one out the pack,” she says. Her new schoolmates, many of whom she’d known since elementary school, treated her with disdain. “They remembered when I left. And they was just like… ‘So you’re from Baltimore, now?’ And I’m like, ‘Bitch, I’m from the same spot.’ My mom did not move. We were still living in the fucking hood… That hard-ass switch from boarding school to a school in P.G. County, that shit was crazy as hell. They talked different. They dressed different.”
That, she says, is when Maria Kelly became Rico Nasty: “I started doing shit the way I like to do it ‘cause I got tired of waiting on everybody else to do shit for me.”
“If I fuck up at this stage in my careers, I don’t have the kind of fans that will disappear if I made a mistake.”
The cover of Rico’s first mixtape, 2014’s Summer’s Eve, is an old baby photo of her and her father. Her black hair is cut like a curly halo around her head, with a close-lipped smile and an expression in her eyes that hints at mischief. Her father is smiling broadly, bending down from outside the frame. Back then, he was a rapper by the name of Beware who once toured with Jadakiss, a fact Rico acknowledges with some reticence in interviews.
“I used to think that he played a very big role [in my career] because he was a rapper,” she says. “But as I get older, I’ve realized that he was just my dad.” He went to prison when she was 15 — for one year, then sent back for an additional two — so he wasn’t really around to be a mentor. In one 2014 Instagram video, captioned “Lol my dad’s home,” Rico records herself on selfie mode, smiling. “My dad’s listening to my tape, y’all,” she says, and then films her father sitting behind her, on his phone.
Upon his release, he wasn’t much involved in her rap ambitions. Instead, Rico relied on her musician friends for occasional invitations to the studio. “I used to beg them for studio time… I used to be so pressed, like, ‘We gotta go to the studio! Make sure I’m there!’ And these niggas would really have sessions without me,” she says. She began to realize they didn’t want to have a girl around. But if she harbored insecurities about being accepted at 15, the songs on Summer’s Eve mask them with braggadocio. “You broke bitches is tragic / I got good hair and wet pussy, make a nigga disappear like magic,” she raps on one track, “Chickens.”
It was hostility from men that gave Rico her stage name. She used to wear a lanyard around her neck that read “Puerto Rico,” an embellishment acknowledging her ethnic heritage. One day, in the 10th grade, a boy, attributing a bad odor to her, teased her as she was walking away. He yelled: “Rico nasty!” On the bus home from school that day, she changed her Instagram name to Rico Nasty.
Rico has had the same Instagram account since high school, rendering her profile a historical document of her life and career trajectory. “When I started rapping, I was like, I’ma change my name before I become famous. And that didn’t happen. I didn’t have time,” she says, laughing.
Early on, her posts were mostly photos of sketches and paintings she was working on: Picasso-inspired images of women with eyes where their nipples should be or with their chests ripped violently open to reveal a black void. There were screenshots of music she was listening to — The Beatles’ Abbey Road, which in 2013, she described as her favorite album. There were pictures of her then-boyfriend, Brandon, her son’s father, who died in 2015, before she knew she was pregnant. And there were selfies of Maria Kelly, capturing her evolution, as a regular teenager and as a rapidly ascending artist.
“I’ve been Rico since 10th grade,” she says. “And a lot of shit comes with being Rico. Her life is a lot different than Maria’s. Maria was afraid of everything. Like, afraid of the dumbest shit. Like roller coasters.”
Hours after leaving Disneyland, Rico, in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled tightly around her face, is sitting on a table, crouched over a laptop. She’s searching for a YouTube channel hosted by a 6-year-old vlogger named Ryan and his father.
Basically, it’s an unboxing channel — but for children’s toys. Cameron is obsessed with Ryan’s videos, says Rico, but it’s pretty clear she enjoys watching them too. “Ryan is the best kid ever,” she says, providing running commentary on the video, once she finds it. “That’s his dad. That is so cool. I wish my dad would do that.” And then, finally: “The whole family is so cute. They be playing pranks on the mom.”
That Rico Nasty is a mother is a fact that would be easily forgotten were she not so endearingly fond of talking about her son. At one point, she looks around and seems surprised to realize that, despite being the youngest person among four label representatives and an audio engineer, she’s the only parent in the room. “I can’t believe I’m talking to y’all and none of y’all have kids,” she says. “Y’all, that shit is fucking lit.”
Cameron, who will turn 3 this November, is a Sagittarius, like Rico’s father. Rico is a Taurus, like her mother. Her parents, divorced now, “can’t stand” each other, she says. “Taurus and Sagittarius do not get along. Catch me in five years debating something with Cam.” She already senses fundamental differences between his personality and her own: “I would throw all the toys on the ground, like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s fun time.’ And what will Cam do? Line them bitches up. In order, one by one, all of them. Each and every fish, duck, whatever the fuck,” she says. “He’s so weird.”
Rico had Cameron when she was 18, after she graduated from high school. His father died unexpectedly months earlier, of a severe asthma attack. It’s a tragedy that she doesn’t like to talk about; Brandon was her best friend before he was her boyfriend, and that’s how she refers to him when she speaks about him now. Two of her tattoos — a crescent moon and star behind her right ear and the words “Keep Thy Heart” in cursive on her left hand — are tattoos he used to have, too.
When Brandon died, Rico suddenly felt very alone, a feeling that only intensified with the condolences she received from her schoolmates. “I had to look [people] in their faces and say, ‘Yeah, thanks,’ when people would say ‘Sorry for your loss,’ like they knew what it felt like,” she says. “It made me cringe. I wish you were sorry for my loss. I wish you felt this.”
On last year’s Tales of Tacobella, her fourth project, Rico included a song named after Brandon that samples “A Thousand Miles,” Vanessa Carlton’s millennial heartbreak classic. “They say time heals pain / But mine still ain’t gone,” she sings on the chorus, in a rare moment of public vulnerability. “I have to be happy. I have a little person around me,” she says. “I can’t be here looking at Cam, like, ‘Oh my god, you look like your daddy, I can’t do shit for the rest of the day.’”
Rico met Malik, her current boyfriend, several months into her pregnancy. He DMed her on Twitter, and they began flirting back and forth. When he asked her out, she had to finally tell him that she was pregnant. On their first date, Malik felt Cameron kick inside Rico. “Malik jumped so fast,” she remembers.
As Rico’s career started to pick up, Malik became her manager too. She quit her day job as the front desk receptionist at a hospital; he started buying production equipment. He’s the only father figure that Cameron has ever known, although it’s not entirely clear to Rico what Cameron knows about his mother’s career. “When he sees [my music videos], he says, ‘Mama,’” she explains, “but I don’t think he knows that screaming-ass voice is me.” She does, however, know that his favorite song is “Key Lime OG,” one of the more successful singles off her last mixtape, Sugar Trap 2.
“When I started rapping, I was like, I’ma change my name before I become famous. And that didn’t happen. I didn’t have time.”
In March, someone tweeted, “my friend just told me Rico Nasty left her $5 onna $136 bill,” tagging Rico in the tweet. A year ago, that kind of post would have flown entirely under the radar. But over the past several months, Rico has amassed a larger audience, and not all of them are unconditional fans. “rico nasty music just don’t sound the same since i found out shorty really left a 5$ tip on a bill well over $100,” one person tweeted.
Wrote another: “when ppl brag about the money they got but can’t leave a tip? lmao rico nasty rly something else.” At some point, she felt compelled to respond to the original tweet, writing, “I came there to eat not give tips.”
“I never had enough to tip, so I never really tipped,” she tells me. “I never knew how much to tip.” The situation quickly ballooned into a minor scandal, the kind that could only be produced by nascent fame. And they will likely happen with more frequency, especially as her higher profile attracts new mainstream opportunities. In late 2016, Lil Yachty hopped onto a remix of “Hey Arnold” and invited Rico to contribute a verse to “Mamacita,” a song featured on the soundtrack of The Fate of the Furious. Her single “Poppin,” a charmingly pugnacious track off Sugar Trap 2, was featured on the soundtrack of Insecure.
And she signed her Atlantic deal, a development that came with a major check and more money than Rico’s ever had to contend with in her life. When the first check arrived, all she could do was stare at it. “You get the check and it’s like, What the fuck am I supposed to with this?” she says. “I know there’s a million people who are like ‘I know what I’d do with it,’ but I’m 20 years old. I don’t have any debt, I don’t have any student loans. All I had is an apartment that I already had, a car I already had, and a kid.” So she went to Toys“R”Us, and bought Cameron a bunch of toys.
She and Malik are looking to buy a house together, eventually; maybe it will even resemble Tinker Bell’s hollow. Mostly, though, she’s been buying herself new clothes. Her hair color and cut have been changing with more frequency. One day, she shows up in that pastel wig. The next, she arrives with jet-black wavy hair that extends past her elbows. Earlier this year, she appeared to abandon her signature brightly colored wigs altogether, emerging instead with black hair gelled into aggressive spikes pointing in every direction, a look inspired by Rihanna’s PAPER photo shoot from last year. “This is always how I wanted to dress, and now I just have money,” she says. “You buy everything on that wish list, you’re gonna look kind of weird sometimes.”
She’s told interviewers that her new image is an attempt to scare off competitors, who she says have copied her looks and style. “I was wearing wigs / Think I’m moving on to braids now,” she raps on “Poppin.” “Everything I do / Bet she wanna do it too now.” But when I ask her if she still feels that way, it sounds like she’s come to terms with some of the realities of being a public persona and an artist. “When [your art] is out [there], someone might have an opinion on it, might want to steal it, might want to remix it, might want to DJ it, might want to chuckle through it,” she says. “Once that shit is out there you’re giving your song away, you’re sharing it. You can’t be so upset that people start copying, that’s a sign of success.”
So Rico changes. Her style. Her name. Her Instagram aesthetic. In someone else, this level of identity fluidity could signal inauthenticity. But for Rico, it feels like a survival instinct. Rico Nasty is brash, combative, unapologetic. Tacobella is the closest she’s ever come to “P. Diddy’ing” herself and rebranding under an entirely new name. The narrator of Tales of Tacobella is the version of Rico Nasty that she allows to express sadness. It’s not a luxury she indulges in very often. “And I walk like a thousand miles / Just to see your face and be in your arms / Since you’ve been away,” she sings on “Brandon.”
Her music has acquired a harder edge since Summer’s Eve, her vocals often coarse with anger or hostility, a stylistic twist most obvious in one of her recent singles, a Kenny Beats-produced track called “Trust Issues.” “They keep tryin’ hard to get at me but I don’t think it’s stickin’ / They only wanna beef with me because they see I’m winnin’,” she raps in the opening verse. These lyrics call to mind her recent “beefs” with rappers Bali Baby and Asian Doll, with whom an online dispute manifested into a physical altercation. As late as last summer, Rico and Asian Doll had been friends, even releasing a song together called “Amigos,” in July.
Tensions between the two were revealed when Rico began accusing Asian Doll of copying her look and style. The feud allegedly inspired Rico’s “Smack a Bitch,” in which she delivers a couplet that sums up both her pragmatism and her wry, inventive approach to making words rhyme: “‘You rap about an Audi too much’ (Shut the fuck up) / Because my Audi paid off bitch, hush! (Shut the fuck up).” Earlier this year, in a previous interview with The FADER, Rico said that she was done fighting: “My son, parents, and fans deserve better.” In recent months, she says, she’s decided to stop addressing the fallings-out altogether.
When Cardi B signed with Atlantic, she became the fourth woman rapper to join the label’s roster (joining Lizzo, Missy Elliott, and Snow Tha Product). It has since added Bhad Bhabie, Rico, and, more recently, Bronx rapper Maliibu Miitch. Atlantic does better than its counterparts. Interscope Records, which dropped Azealia Banks in 2014 over “creative differences”, only lists one other woman rapper on its public roster — Dreezy. Kodie Shane was the only woman rapper on Epic Records until they signed Lauren Sanderson last year.
But the gold rush of women rappers feels like a quicksilver moment. The industry has yet to demonstrate that it’s willing to take chances on women who don’t hew closely to a successful formula. And while record labels are signing more women rappers, it’s not clear whether they’ll allocate the resources necessary to develop them as artists. So Rico is wisely wary of a system that confers status to certain artists and withholds it from others. “Enjoy female rap right now, because once they pick their choice, it’s gone,” she says.
Growing up in P.G. County, Rico didn’t get to see much of the ocean, so, the day after Disneyland, we head to Venice Beach. She is wearing the same pastel wig but no makeup, a simple black bikini, and a denim jacket. She squeals when she discovers a group of tiny crabs in the sand — she’s not used to seeing this kind of marine life up close, and doesn’t know what to do with the moment.
Despite her valid skepticism about record labels, Rico sees advantages to being signed, especially as her growing stardom requires more resources. “I did it because I want a future,” she says. “I wanted a future outside my hometown.” She wants to move close to the beach, she tells me as we watch a group of kids expertly maneuver the rocks and swim past the waves. She wants Cameron to know what to do when he gets that close to that shore.
Set design by David Brown at Studio Browne. Photography assistance by Andres Norwood, hair by Nena Soulfly, make up by Scott x Chanel. Shot at Milk Los Angeles. Special thanks to Aaron Binaco and Jimmy Kim.