Maria Kelly’s name is in lights. The first thing you notice as the DMV artist walks across the room is “RICCCO”—long for her rap alias Rico Nasty—scrolling across her dark platform boots in LED bulbs. It's a bold move, and there are far worse ways to make an entrance.
Rico Nasty isn’t a household name but she aspires to be, if her choice in footwear is anything to go by. Her biggest hits to date, like 2016’s “iCarly” and “Hey Arnold,” and this year's "Poppin'," sound like Nickelodeon slime dragged through the lean-infused streets of Atlanta before taking a pit stop in Chicago’s drill country. The songs are catchy and forceful, and introduced the world to Rico’s penchant for crafting half-sung, half-yelled bars she calls “yinging.”
What you quickly notice in conversation with Rico is a distinct split between her personas, which she alludes to in the interview. Tacobella is the name given to the saccharine and vulnerable side of Maria. For brief flashes, she shows pride when talking about her father, opens up about the difficulties of being a rapper on the rise, and connecting with UPS women over Fenty Beauty by Rihanna. It is this character that is front and center on the excellent 2017 project, Tales of Tacobella.
However, lurking below the surface is Rico Nasty. Confident, brash, and ready for war at a moment’s notice, she is a rapper's rapper. It isn’t hard to see that this is the side that crafted “Poppin,” one of her biggest hits to date (and was featured in season 2 of HBO’s Insecure). It's at her most aggressive that Rico's most unique flows come into play; she modulates her voice at a moment's notice to go from sweet to raspy and guttural—think Nicki Minaj with a hint of DMX, but over bubblegum beats.
During her headlining New York show at Baby’s All Right, both versions of these women came together for a blistering performance. By the end of the night Rico asked an adoring crowd what song she should play again, and in unison, the crowd screamed “Poppin.” She then beckoned to the crowd, and a sea of women rushed the stage to perform her soon-to-be hit alongside her. Rico joined Snapchat videos soundtracked by the infectious words, “I’m a poppin ass bitch let me remind ya.” For a moment, Rico Nasty did what very few rappers know how to do: make every single fan feel like a star.
Where did the name Rico Nasty come from?
The name Rico Nasty came from Instagram. I never had a cool name to call myself, so I just mixed my ethnicity, the fact that I’m Puerto Rican, with a random ass word pretty much like everybody else does and then I got Rico Nasty.
What was it like growing up in the DMV?
It was almost like you felt trapped, because the world is so big and when you’re raised in the same place it’s like you see everybody else doing the same shit, and you wanna level up and shit. But everyone else around you ain’t leveling up, so you just be feeling like trapped. The people around you are stopping you from succeeding, cause nobody else wants to be like a famous rapper or anything. They want to be like a famous shopper with plugs or something.
When did you first know you wanted to rap?
When I first knew that I wanted to rap I was seven years old and I lost the talent show. It was like spoken word or something. My mom made me do it. It was a Langston Hughes poem. The girl that came on after me, she wound up winning. She was a singer.
Were you mad?
Hell yeah, I was mad. But not visibly mad, just like internally disappointed in myself, because I felt like I could rock that stage. I could’ve done that better than she did. So then I got into more poetry. Then I got to high school, and I was like fuck it I’m just gonna do music.
Your rapping style is a blend of pure rapping, but then you have a melodic component. When did you first start honing that?
I feel like the melodic component really just comes from Tacobella. That’s like the alter-ego, the softer side. I only say that because I didn’t unlock all that singing type of stuff and harmony and melodic type shit until I created the name Tacobella. Rico Nasty’s always been the one that’s a rapper, a real rapper. She like give you some hot as bars, but she’s not going to sing for you. So you know to create the perfect blend of sugar trap I had to find something soft. I had to find a soft medium. And I think that worked a lot better than anything else that I’ve learned recently in music, like layering and not being afraid to hit those notes, and some people might think that you can’t sing, but fuck it, feels nice, feels right.
On the “Once Upon a Time” the intro to Tales of Tacobella, you rap “Couldn’t go out she’s scared to show skin/haters sending shots, but all them hoes missed.” Why or what part of you was afraid to show skin and be vulnerable?
I don’t want to publicly say this, cause motherfuckers will take like your deepest fear and flip that shit and like really use it against you. So my deepest fear wasn’t me being insecure, but definitely, in getting older now that I’m 20 years old, you see girls showing titties all the time. Titties, titties, titties, titties, and I don’t got my titties out. You’re not looked at as the average girl. You’re looked at as like boring or whatever the fucking case may be in this generation’s weird-ass explicit need for nudity everywhere. I don’t know what that is, but that’s what I meant by that. Like “couldn’t go out, I’m scared to show skin,” cause I know if I go to the club in a hoodie and jeans, it’s not lit. You can’t do that.
Then your dad was a rapper. I was doing research...
Oh fuck! Get out of here. Yeah, he’s a rapper.
What was his name?
I don’t want to tell you! (Laughs)
Is his music out there?
His music is out there. I don’t want to tell you.
But he went on tour with Jadakiss right? So when you’re in New York, you’re not going to try to hit Jadakiss up?
I’m not gonna hit Jadakiss. I never got to meet Jadakiss. At least, I don’t think so. Maybe I was on the tour bus as a little baby, but I doubt it. His name is Beware.
On a scale of 1 to 10, what would you grade your dad’s rapping?
My fucking dad is like the best rapper alive.
But could you beat him?
Fuck no. (Laughs) Hell yeah I could beat him. From what standpoint are we talking about? If we’re talking about like delivery, oh I’d fucking murder him. Delivery wise I go crazy with delivery. If we’re talking about bars...neck and neck. Neck and neck with the shit. Cause I’m like an Eminem type shit when I’m going bars and he’s like J. Cole type shit when he going bars. So it’s like the same, but completely different.
Were you nervous the first time you showed him a song or rap you wrote?
The first time my dad ever heard my mixtape it was Summer’s Eve, and he was fresh out of jail. And he’d be in jail for like damn near two years. He couldn’t hear the tape in jail and shit. So when he came out the first thing he ever heard was my music and he fucking cried and I was like, “Dad, don’t cry,” and then I cried. He was so proud. He was like, “I can’t believe while I was gone, this wasn’t something that I had to instill in you. It was something that you just had. I didn’t have to coach you. I didn’t have to find you a studio. You just had the hunger to go and record like any artist."
I think from then on he respected my craft so much, before it was like, “What’s with all this fucking ‘Yeah,’ what’s with that. Stop that shit. That’s that young shit." And now it’s like I find the perfect blend to still catch your ear, but keep the shit that the young people want to hear. So he fucks with it now, more than ever, because I’m more comfortable with myself. I take criticism better now.
Where did the inspiration for “Poppin” come from?
[Laughs] Come on! Y’all know it’s a diss goddammit! No, it’s not a diss. It actually just came from bitches feeling like, you’re just fed up. Fed up with niggas, fed up with bitches and you just have to like, it’s like the shit you put on your phone, “It’s a fucking reminder.” You need to listen to “Poppin” in the morning, when you brushing your teeth and you looking in the mirror. I know you’re not a bitch, but you can say, nigga. You know switch it out. I’m a poppin ass nigga. You gonna feel that shit. You gonna be like, “Damn it’s a great day today. I feel productive. I feel like I’m gonna go do some shit today! Fuck that!” That’s why I made the song, cause I wanted somebody to feel like, I wanted someone to be going through something with someone or somebodies, get on their phone, see everyone talking shit, and you can’t say nothing, because you’re better than that, you’re bigger than them, you got more followers than them. You’re fucking helpless for real, for real. You can’t do nothing. You just got to sit there. You put that song on. It’s almost like all that trolls all that is irrelevant. You just feeling yourself. You just feeling you.
Did you know it was going to be on HBO’s Insecure?
I was told it was gonna be some type of sync. I said “great.” And then I think I was mad about something, or like smoking, so I was just like “Oh, cool.” Then a day before the shit happened I think I was just like, “Hmmm I like this show Insecure.” We were fake binge watching it. I kept watching it. Then my manager had to tell me, “You know ‘Poppin’ bout to be on there?” I was like, “OK.” Like everything else, I have to believe it when I see it. I was like, “Ok I’m sure it is gonna be on there. Like what the fuck ever,” and then, sure enough, it was on there.
One of your biggest songs is “Hey Arnold” what do you feel about Nickelodeon bringing the show back this November?
Look man, these motherfuckers got endless money. If I could do a voiceover or something, call my line.
Hell yeah! I'll do a wild ass character or something. Even the one that breathes. Remember the guy that’s like…Rico starts to impersonate Brainy from Hey Arnold! Like I’ll be him. Fuck it! Let me be a part of it. That would be wicked, but I don’t feel to wrong about it. How do you feel about...I’ll interview you. How do you feel about them adding a new Powerpuff girl, and you know she looks exactly like me?
That was my follow-up question.
I’m just saying they stole my whole persona.
It seems like you are moving away from that. In the beginning, you had the “Hey Arnold” and “iCarly” stuff and it got people hooked, but your new music isn’t really in that lane. Its matured a little bit more. It’s a different side of you.
Its matured and I think I’ve gotten a lot lonelier. I think I’ve gotten a lot lonelier since I first started making music; like “iCarly” and “Hey Arnold” you see what I’m surrounded by...people. All these miscellaneous people, people I’m not even friends with now. People who, shit motherfuckers saying they snitches. That’s why I don’t have people in my videos. That’s why I don’t have no friends. These my friends right here (points to her manager and friend), because of that right there.
You had an amazing tweet about opening your package of Fenty beauty with your delivery woman. Can you explain that story?
My hair stylist was at my house and literally my phone had said that the package had left from my nearest delivery station or whatever. So I was outside smoking a J and I’m like “OK bitch, pull up on me bitch.” Like I was waiting for her ass at the door. I was not playing. So we was sitting outside, and as soon as the little UPS truck pulled up, I was waving that bitch down and everything. Then she was like, "Maria I know I got a package from Fenty," and she was like, “Oh my gosh you got the new package from Fenty.” I love when people are just naturally happy people.
So we open it together, and the funniest shit was, I said, “oh my god I’m about to go beat my face.” And me and my hairstylist and the post lady all said, “Don’t work at MAC, but I beat a bitch face,” which is the first line in my Tay-K remix. I don’t even think she even knew it was me, because I didn’t have makeup on. It was so fluid. She was like, “Don’t work at MAC, but I beat a bitch face.” I was shocked. I was literally shocked. She looked like she had to be like 32, a grown-ass woman, and she knew that song. Out of all songs to sing. She could of sang “wild, wild, wild.” You could have sang some Rihanna shit. You’re opening her makeup, but you sang that. It wasn’t forced and it was fucking beautiful.
What can fans expect from Sugar Trap 2?
Don’t expect me to sing a lot.
So it’s more in the vein of “Poppin’?”
Don’t expect me to be like yell-singing. What is that? Yinging. Yelling and singing, yinging. Yeah a bitch be yinging like shit on the track. So not a lot of that. And its kinda less melodies as far as beats and more...that shit's hard. It’s hard. Tales of Tacobella is a little sphere, like a little globe, that you can like rub and shit. But I feel like this is like a porcupine head. It’s like you want to touch it and take it places and show people, but it’s not safe.
What made you go in that direction?
I got tired of people saying I sounded like Yachty. I feel like for females I started that wave y’all like of singing and trap rapping, because that was my brand, “sugar trap.” That was what I thought my sound was and 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. It’s just good and bad put together, and for Sugar Trap 2, I wanted to mix that, that good, that bad, that dark, and that light. Cause Tales of Tacobella was so light and so happy, and so positive. And everything before that was so light, so happy, so positive. But the more trolls and hate you get, it’s like your music it changes with you. Definitely, grew up a lot more this year than I ever have. I feel like I’m 25 lowkey. Old as fuck mentally.