‘Nightmare Vacation’: Rico Nasty’s Debut Album Brings Real Rage To Hip-Hop Beats

Rico Nasty comes in hot. Listening to “Candy,” the first song from her studio debut “Nightmare Vacation,” the Maryland native’s music emanates a febrile energy that fills your ears and knocks you off guard. The recording itself feels overmic’d and blown out in the same way as a vintage Beastie Boys track, or a punk band’s DIY recording session, too loud and aggressive for the recording to be contained. It’s an audacious way to start an album, but it’s also a good litmus test to determine if you can handle her particularly idiosyncratic style in what is rapidly becoming a crowded landscape of formidable female MCs. 

Although it covers subject matter similar to recent releases by Kash Doll, Saweetie, Cardi B and most recently Megan Thee Stallion, “Nightmare Vacation” is markedly different in aim and execution, a coming out party for a trap princess who wants to commemorate the occasion at Burning Man instead of Bergdorf’s. Evidenced by her string of successful mixtapes and feature appearances on tracks by Doja Cat, XXXTentacion and others, she’s more than capable of focusing her forceful charm into a sweeter musical confection — in fact, she literally trademarked it with the term “sugar trap.” But even if the wild and unpredictable sound of these tracks may not generate quite as much airplay as the come-ons of her contemporaries, it’s a worthy sacrifice for music that has more personality and takes more risks.

Packing two versions of her breakthrough 2018 song “Smack A Bitch” onto the end of an album that manages to feel overstuffed at 39 minutes, “Nightmare Vacation” paints a picture across 16 cuts where her biggest problems come from the ankle biters — male and female — that obstruct her success. Meanwhile, the first official single “iPhone” sets expectations with a unapologetic, confrontational musical and lyrical tone: her vocals are pitched pixie-high over synthetic drum beats that seem to fray at the edges as she dances on a not so delicate edge between wanting to have her man around and then explaining why he’ll have to settle for the table scraps of her attention (“I’m important, can’t be seen with just anybody”). The second single “Own It” continues this theme as she navigates a night at the club where “girls in Vuitton” both hate her and envy her, and she owns them all.

The tracks are all danceable, but they don’t feel like they’re made for that purpose; there’s something rueful about her delivery that turns her boasting into a different kind of self-actualization than the rappers who try to fake it until they make it. Though she’s only 23, Rico has been rapping since 2014, when she was in tenth grade; consequently, there’s precision behind her maximalist style that follows rap luminaries like DMX and Sticky Fingaz, packaged in a dayglo look that combines punk rock and hip-hop with a Harajuku girl’s fearless creativity. There’s something telling about recording a song like “Don’t Like Me” with Don Toliver and Gucci Mane, that’s very close to the kind of pleasant, meandering trap musicality that you hear everywhere on the radio right now, and she and producer Buddah Bless decide to dial in on the phrase “these bitches don’t like me” over and over and over. It’s not just that it’s part of the chorus; she’s wallowing in animosity her haters have for her and spitting it back in their faces with her success.

Listening to tracks like “Check Me Out,” where her kewpie doll voice lowers to a growl, there’s an aggressiveness, and a rush — in just a minute and 43 seconds, she rips through two verses and repeats the chorus about 25 times. Odd as it sounds, there’s something charming about the fact that this isn’t always fun to listen to; where Megan’s recent album “Good News” is an ideal soundtrack for a group of girlfriends primping for a night at the club, “Nightmare Vacation” provides a follow up for when they’re in the back seat of an Uber, recounting with incredulity how one of their exes had the audacity to show up too and start some shit with his next girl. It’s raw and a little bit ugly, the cathartic expression of someone whose sense of liberation has waited so long that it’s got to come at someone else’s expense. 

It will be interesting to see if songs like the bumping “Back & Forth,” featuring a verse by Amine that would have been performed by a smoothie like Fabolous 15 years earlier, manage to penetrate the surface of this caustic musical sea and deceive uninitiated listeners into thinking she’s a clone of Kash Doll or Nicki Minaj, other female rappers with slightly more humor but much less rage in their hearts. Particularly when they’re followed by material like “Girl Scouts,” which sounds like producer Daytrip drove through a windchime factory with a Range Rover, the more commercial songs cannot help but recede a bit, overpowered by her malevolent declarations “Bitches at your door like Girl Scouts / I pull up with the chopper, then I air it out.”

“Let It Out” is probably the album’s centerpiece, with a message that will likely prove relatable to a lot of her fans — and is direct enough to appeal to listeners who don’t know her at all, and probably many that don’t even listen to hip-hop. It’s a skillful primal scream that doesn’t feel calculated, building to the explosion she’s encouraging the person on the other end of the speaker to have as well. And ultimately, that’s not just what distinguishes Rico from other rappers climbing the charts right now, it’s what actually makes her compelling to listen to: they might be confessing their feelings or giving fans a vicarious outlet for their fabulous lifestyles, but she’s bringing you along for the ride, and telling you from the outset it’s gonna be bumpy. In which case, “Nightmare Vacation” may not quite be all-purpose entertainment, but it’s got a definite point of view, and connecting with that will always be more intriguing than pleasing everybody. 

Nightmare Vacation” releases Dec. 4 on Apple Music.