Anyone familiar with the hip-hop trends of the past decade, and especially the last few years, is familiar with the rise and dominance of quote-unquote “punk rap” — a hip-hop trend that, much like the rock movement that began in the 1970s, emphasizes bucking some of hip-hop’s traditional norms in favor of free expression and personal preference.
Oddly enough, part of what makes artists of this trend so interesting — or so despicable, depending on what side of the fence you’re on — is their dedication to being their authentic selves and their “IDGAF” mentality. They don’t mind not playing by the rules, and they don’t care if they rub a few people the wrong way. It’s why Lil Yachty wasn’t afraid to call Biggie Smalls “overrated,” and why Lil Uzi Vert wasn’t afraid to say that golden-era rap beats sounded “old” — honest (albeit slightly blasphemous) sentiments that show that they won’t even pretend to capitulate to the expectations of the masses.
DMV-based rapper Rico Nasty is a young disciple of this movement. She has taken pride in her unflinching individuality and her obvious nonconformity to some of hip-hop’s female archetypes — she rocks eccentric hairstyles, her voice is raspy, she’s averted to rapping about sex, and her musical influences favor rock more than they do rap.
Over the past couple of years, Rico, who was born Maria Kelly, has cultivated a genre of trap music called “sugar trap”: a bubbly, cartoony style of trap music cut from the same cloth as Lil Yachty’s “bubblegum trap,” which she has evolved to reflect both her maturity in recent years and her dichotomous emotions. In an interview with Complex in 2017, Rico described sugar trap as “good and bad put together”, referring to the fact that the light, good-natured atmosphere of her early mixtapes has given way to angst and aggression, as her increased profile has exposed her to an increasing number of critics and detractors.
In this redefined “sugar trap,” Kelly channels these dual personalities into alter egos that span the extremes of the psychological spectrum, with her main persona floating in between. This evolution first appeared on the 2017 mixtape Sugar Trap 2, and on Nasty, her label-debut mixtape, Rico progresses this sound even more with the most mature, polished, fleshed-out, hard-hitting music she has made to date.
Nasty opens with the song “Bitch I’m Nasty,” in which Rico wastes no time introducing listeners to this reinvigorated flavor of trap. Her lyrics are cockier and more impolite than they’ve ever been, and it sounds like she’s baffled by her own insolence, as she literally tries to calm herself down in the middle of a bar — only for the brash alter ego Trap Lavigne to reply “BITCH I’M CHARGED UP!”
And these charged-up, grungy tracks dominate Nasty and end up being some of the mixtape’s most brilliant moments. On the following song, “Countin’ Up,” producer Kenny Beats flips N.O.R.E.’s Neptunes-produced track “Superthug” and creates the perfect backdrop for Rico’s quotable boasts and threats (“Talk tough, like a bottle top, we twist your top off”). Rico’s flow switches up a few times as she gloats, but somehow it always seems perfectly in-stride with the bassy synthline.
On “Rage” Rico unleashes the full might of Trap Lavigne and goes heavy-metal. Driven by reverberating sub-bass and metal-tinged synths (courtesy of the amazing Kenny Beats, once again), and littered with ad-libs of her screaming in the background, Rico absolutely UNLEASHES onto the track. Her raspy rap voice morphs into a borderline growl as she bellows across the hostile beat, chugging out some of the most aggressive rhymes on the entire project (“You a fuckin’ donkey, Imma let this choppa pin yo tail”).
And Trap Lavigne reigns supreme on other outstanding mixtape cuts such as “Trust Issues,” a menacing trap song about her growing cynicism; “In the Air,” a fun, upbeat, catchy trap anthem produced by hip-hop’s current wonderboy Tay Keith; and “Transformer,” a Lex Luger-composed track in which Rico Nasty and Lil Gnar villainously relay their “bad attitudes.”
Despite the heavy presence of Rico’s truculent alter-ego, Rico’s sweeter, happier alter ego Tacobella does make some appearances. “Hockey” has Rico’s melodious persona coming up with new ways to describe iced-out jewelry (“My neck, my wrist, my teeth on hockey”), and “Won’t Change” and “Why Oh Why” are prototypical sugar trap tunes that sound like they’d fit right into the tracklist of her 2017 mixtape Tacobella. Despite their saccharine nature, these songs, in terms of quality and potency, don’t necessarily hold up against Rico’s more aggressive tracks.
And if Sugar Trap 2 and Nasty were indicative of anything, it’s that the prevalence of the incredibly lighthearted, upbeat Tacobella, in Rico’s music (and perhaps in her life), is in the process of tapering off. It’s a fact she actually makes clear on the song “Why Oh Why” (“They keep on askin’ where the old me at / For the last time, she ain’t never comin’ back”). Rico has found a more unique, more mature sound that I’m not sure she wants to abandon so quickly.
Nevertheless, Rico Nasty rarely missteps on her major label debut Nasty, coming through with, undoubtedly, the best music she’s ever made and some of the hardest hitting music of any album released this year. It will be interesting to see what “big moves” Rico will be making and how her sound will develop on future releases. With the backing of a major label, her continued collaboration with producers like Kenny Beats, and her continued maturation into a complete artist and person, we might see that “sugar” give way to the “trap.”