The announcement for the release date of Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats' album Anger Management arrived with a bang. The excitement for the music was already there, but the project's cover art lit a fuse. On the front, an airbrushed Rico stares, her IRL intensity perfectly captured, as a screaming mouth emerges from a gynecological orifice on her forehead. For the project's tracklisting, a screaming Rico detaches her jaw and seems ready to eat all her words. Who was behind it?
That would be Keith Rankin. His connection to the 21-year-old rap star is an unexpected one, thanks to his career as a musician and visual artist: since 2010, Rankin has curated a catalog of challenging underground electronic music through his label Orange Milk Records, co-founded with Seth Graham. The roster sports brain-bending releases from NMESH, Kate NV, and Foodman, as well as Rankin's alias Giant Claw. Rankin is both one of the label's most acclaimed artists and the shepherd of its visual aesthetic, imbuing each release with his unique mode of glossy surrealism. Over email, Rankin spoke about transitioning that vision to one of hip-hop's brightest stars.
How did this collaboration come about? Did you speak at all with Rico or Kenny?
Dom Glover, the creative director for the album, emailed me. I think he saw one of my shitty tutorial videos on YouTube. He was the person I mainly talked to, relaying notes or comments from Rico, Kenny, and the label.
What was your starting point for the cover? And, how do you usually get going on a piece of art for an album cover?
Dom came in with the concept based on some old Primal Scream book covers. As soon as I saw that idea I had a pretty clear image of what it should be, just a straight up view of Rico’s face with the gradient background. Usually the process is more painful and there’s trial and error finding a delicate composition, but sometimes a symmetrical face just does more. Dom also suggested the feel of the text which I thought worked perfectly.
What was the process of creating it like?
It starts by getting together reference photos, then I use the pen and airbrush tool in Photoshop in a similar way to physical airbrush techniques, where you cut out a shape, like a stencil, and paint inside it to get a crisp edge. Then you can make smooth color transitions inside or outside the stencil by using a brush with less opacity. Hopefully that makes sense to people using Photoshop, it’s actually pretty basic, but it still took me years to look how I wanted.
Improvisation, cut-ups, and editing are very important to your musical practice. Is it the same for your visual art, or different?
When I first started making covers for Orange Milk I would do actual cut and paste collages. After a while that felt limiting, so I started recreating specific elements of the collage, and later, the whole thing from the ground up in Photoshop. I wanted to retain some of that cut-up feel while also having a uniform look or texture that’s hard to get when you’re taking images from a bunch of different sources. I’d say it’s actually a pretty similar evolution to my Giant Claw music, transitioning from sample-heavy composition to more notation.
The mouth on Rico’s forehead makes me think of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. Was it an inspiration? Did you pull from any other sources when making this one?
People are also connecting it to King Crimson’s first album cover and a character from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, which is funny, but any reference was subconscious. The only direct inspirations were the Primal Scream covers I mentioned. It’s amazing how quickly lines between cultural reference points come up though, it’s very natural. I’m fine having anything I’ve worked on be in the same realm as Funkadelic and Jojo.
The project’s back art, with Rico screaming, feels like a new and more cartoonish side to your art. I love it. Did this piece of work feel like new territory for you?
I think a more cartoonish look comes through when I veer further away from a reference photo, when I draw something pen and paper it looks more like that. Also to be honest I couldn’t put as much detail into the back cover as the front because my hard drive died in the middle of making it, so I had to keep telling everyone, “Uhh I’ll get that over in a few days when I get my computer fixed." But I really like how it turned out too, so maybe a slightly more loose feel benefits me.
Who are some artists living or dead you’d love to do covers for?
My mind went to R&B artists who typically have photos on their cover, like Ella Mai or SZA. I think it’s fun to take someone's likeness and drop it into a more stylized environment. Who else... I don’t know, Rebecca Black, Hailee Steinfeld, if she’s gonna keep doing music. Perfume or K-pop artists like SHINee and AOA. I’m not thinking of more underground artists cause it’s less of a stretch.
Does Orange Milk Records have a mandate? How do you select your artists?
It just has to be something me or my label partner Seth Graham feel connected to. Sometimes you can sense when love or dedication was put into music. Of course, your intuition can be wrong, but if I catch a glimpse of that, it’s really attractive when an artist is throwing all their energy into a style that hasn’t been field tested or widely accepted yet.
It’s safe to say that this cover has introduced you to a whole new audience. What Orange Milk Records projects would you recommend to a 17-year-old aggro-rap fan?
I think the Bath Consolidated album that’s about to come out — it starts more calmly then becomes full on aggro by the end. Also, Machine Girl shares some elusive vibe with Rico, in my mind. For beat-heavy stuff I’d say the EQ Why and Traxman album we did last year and anything by Honnda or Diamond Soul. For 17-year-olds, I think there’s a lot of gateway drug type of music on Orange Milk, but there’s also full on drug if you wanna keep going further.