The Genre-Defying Rage of Rico Nasty

The Maryland rapper’s new project, Anger Management, is a collaboration with the producer Kenny Beats that continues an electrifying repertoire.

The rapper Rico Nasty’s energy is contagious, and her concerts feel like one giant mosh pit. (Amy Harris / AP)

The rapper Rico Nasty begins her latest project, Anger Management, with a scream. For fans of the eclectic Maryland-raised artist, that yell conjures a feeling akin to the pleasant stomach churn of a roller-coaster climb: When Rico shouts “KENNY!,” the name of her longtime producer, you know electrifying chaos is about to ensue.

Rico metabolizes life’s frustrations by raging about them—and invites her audience to do the same. Anger Management is Rico’s first tape released entirely as a collaborative project with the DJ and producer Kenny Beats, but the two have already established a signature sound, one that spans a wide range of influences, particularly punk and heavy metal. The 21-year-old rapper has been a prolific musician since she was in high school, and her work showcases not just her own tremendous range but also the limitless sonic possibility within rap as a genre: For every subdued “Sugar Trap,” there’s an amped-up “Smack a Bitch.”

Kenny helped shape two of the defining tracks of Rico’s massively successful 2018 tape, Nasty. Both “Rage” and “Trust Issues” are metal-inflected anthems of suspicion and fury, and Kenny’s production lends Rico’s missives an eerie, knocking quality. The rapper channels her anger with a menacing wail, her throat scratching and her face often contorting when she performs. Anyone who’s seen her live can attest to her dynamism onstage; Rico’s energy is contagious, and her concerts feel like one giant mosh pit. When the rapper shouts that she loves “bad bitches who be ragin’,” it’s hard not to believe her.

Anger Management’s greatest thrill is how seamlessly it continues the trajectory of Nasty without sounding gimmicky. The new Kenny Beats collaboration is a compact project: nine tracks in just 18 minutes. But it’s packed with a broad array of musical flourishes, clever wordplay, and cross-medium samples. And, fittingly, there’s no shortage of rage-fueled bangers: It’s the kind of tape that makes you feel as if you can run through a wall.

On the first track, “Cold,” Rico is characteristically weary—“It be the same thing, just on a different day”—and confident: “She can try but she don’t compete / When I pull up, you know it’s me / Ain’t none of these bitches cold as me / Cross you just like a rosary.” On “Big Titties,” she brags about the notoriously raucous energy of her shows, where she’s almost always “signin’ on some”—well—“big titties.”

Anger Management finds the irreverent artist, who grew an early fanbase with tracks named for the shows “Hey Arnold” and “iCarly,” sampling a very different television series. “Cheat Code” (featuring the “Harlem Shake” producer Baauer) begins with a quote from the VH1 reality series Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta that will be immediately recognizable to the show’s largely black audience. (The scene it’s from quickly turned into a ubiquitous meme.) Then the beat drops suddenly and Rico raps over a ricochet of percussion: “People keep tryna test my gangster / Pull up on your block with a mask like Jason.” As the song progresses with a symphony of screams, she sounds equal parts charming and terrifying.

Born Maria Kelly to a Puerto Rican mother and an African American father, Rico drew her stage name from a moment of teenage hostility. The artist, who in high school frequently wore a lanyard around her neck that read Puerto Rico, changed her Instagram name to “Rico Nasty” after a boy shouted the phrase at her in an attempt to comment on her body odor. It’s that kind of audacious response to adversity that animates much of her music and makes her raps so compelling.

Rico’s rage is multidirectional and genre-bending: On Anger Management, she takes aim at her own haters, to be sure, but also at others, including a certain Trump-supporting athlete (“Take the air out you, Tom Brady”). And “Hatin,” which samples Jay-Z’s braggadocious “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” is perhaps the record’s most direct dismissal of sneering men. Rico is, after all, one of still-too-few prominent women in the stubbornly male-dominated rap industry. So on “Hatin,” she flips Jay’s hook and addresses her female listeners directly: “If you got your own shit, you ain’t ever gotta listen to him, girl / Niggas be hatin’ on bitches.”

Rico raps with the kind of force—and regards her fans with the kind of enthusiasm—that invites listeners to imagine themselves wielding her lyrics, not targeted by them. Her music lends itself to any number of pump-up situations, such as strenuous workouts or pre-party dances in front of the mirror.

The artist’s openness and raw emotionality make her moments of triumph all the more satisfying to hear. On “Cheat Code,” for example, she tracks her success using amusingly specific metrics of luxury: “No more motel, eatin’ on oxtail.” How gloriously serene.