In a vacuum, the loosely connected movement known as SoundCloud rap would be one of the most exciting things to happen in music in a long time. Here we have a genuine explosion of youthful excitement, a generational insurgency that’s throwing out whatever received wisdom it’s been handed down from older folks. It’s fast and nasty and dirty and cheap. It barely ever overlaps with the established rap A-list, though that’s starting to change. Three 6 Mafia, quite possibly my favorite rap group of all time, are its spiritual godfathers. It pulls in influences from all over the map — metal and hardcore and neo-soul and indie rock and emo. It’s switched rap’s lyrical focus, turning it toward matters of depression and anxiety.
A lot of SoundCloud rap is bad, but that’s not disqualifying. Every big insurgent alienate-the-adults movement in pop-music history has included plenty of bad music — or, at least, plenty of music that sounded bad, at the time, to anyone who was too old to properly process it. Kids are passionate about this music, and that matters more. They’re moshing at rap shows. That’s been happening since at least 1993, when Onyx came out with “Slam.” But pits at rap shows in the ’90s never felt dangerous. If you see the videos from SoundCloud rap shows today, the kids there are really going in. And it’s a genuinely ground-up thing: A whole lot of kids who didn’t like what they were hearing started making what they wanted to hear themselves and found vast audiences without any sort of record-label machine behind them. They left all of us grown-ups scrambling to catch up. That’s exciting.
Or: That should be exciting. But there are too many troubling things happening with SoundCloud rap, things that make it impossible to wholeheartedly embrace. Too many of these young rap stars are beating up women, or sexually assaulting women, and the culture surrounding the music seems to either embrace that sort of thing or ignore it. The murder of XXXTentacion, still the biggest star that SoundCloud rap has produced, was sudden and shocking and tragic and sad, but it doesn’t erase or redeem the abuse he committed when he was alive. And still-alive peers like Kodak Black, Tekashi 6ix9ine, Rich The Kid, Famous Dex, and Trippie Redd have been accused of heinous things.
The drugs are an issue, too. The culture around SoundCloud-rap glorifies and romanticizes sending yourself into a state of total numb oblivion, and we’ve already seen the overdose death of Lil Peep, another of SoundCloud rap’s leading lights. As exciting as the music might be, it’s got some very serious fucking issues. And maybe that why I’ve fallen so completely and immediately for Rico Nasty — not because her existence changes the dynamics of SoundCloud rap, exactly, but because any genre that can produce a Rico Nasty has something going for it.
Rico Nasty is Maria Kelly, a 21-year-old Maryland rapper who has picked the exact right moment to level up and become special. She’s had a hell of a life — father in and out of prison, stints at schools around her state. She became a mother at 18, and her baby’s father died of a catastrophic asthma attack before her son was born. That’s a lot to process. And listening to Rico’s music, you can’t help but get the sense that she’s doing it in public, in front of us, channeling whatever rage and depression and frustration she might be feeling into these hard, convulsive, forbidding songs.
Rico has different speeds. She can make soft, fluttery music, singing over blippy bedroom-pop recordings. But she’s better in primal-rage mode, snarling hard over lo-fi facepunch beats and projecting enormous personality. She’s a great rapper in the classical sense. She rides beats, says fly shit, and has the sort of voice that you can pick out immediately. But she’s also built for these times. She’s absorbed as much nu-metal as her SoundCloud rap peers, and she knows how to get maximum pathos from doing voice-distorted howling over processed, programmed guitars. You hear her, and you want to flip tables over. Her music has power.
Rico Nasty has been releasing music for about four years, cranking out new mixtapes steadily. That whole time, she’s been refining and expanding her sound, figuring out new things to do with her voice. She’s been growing, too. Her YouTube videos regularly do millions of views, and when XXL unveiled its newest roster of Freshmen, people were (rightly) pissed that she was not among them. She’s got a major-label deal now (with Atlantic). And it feels like her whole ascendance has been building up to Nasty, the mixtape that she released a couple of weeks ago. Nasty has moments of quiet sensitivity, but it focuses on the raw, angry side of her sound. It’s one of the strongest, most immediate rap albums that 2018 has given us thus far, and it’s a huge leap beyond anything she’s done up until now.
Rico raps about beating up women more than any of her male peers do. Her music is as violent and chaotic and anti-social as that of her peers. It’s not like she’s a non-problematic alternative to all the young SoundCloud rap pirates running around. The mere fact that she’s a woman — a mother, even — makes her perspective rarer and more interesting than those of most of her male peers. But you shouldn’t listen to Rico Nasty because she’s a woman. You should listen to her because she’s an extremely fucking good rapper, one who seems like she’s only going to get better.
1. Freddie Gibbs – “Death Row” (Feat. 03 Greedo)
Trust ’90s-style G-rap anachronism Freddie Gibbs to make the connection that nobody else made: With his deranged nasal honk, 03 Greedo sounds a whole lot like some distant descendant of Eazy-E. And it’s a testament to N.W.A’s enduring power that a “Boyz-N-The-Hood” interpolation can still slap this hard in 2018.
2. Benny – “Vader” (Feat. Westside Gunn)
Last week, we lost Leon White, the Super Bowl-winning lineman and recurring Boy Meets World guest star. Many of us will always fondly remember White as Big Van Vader, the masked 300-pound pro-wrestling monster who tore his way through Japan and then WCW. (We don’t need to talk about his WWF run.) Vader was extremely good at beating the shit out of people. So maybe it’s fitting to hear two Buffalo rappers paying him tribute by rapping about killing people.
3. D-Lo – “Thugged Out” (Feat. 03 Greedo & OMB Peezy)
Hard, chirpy post-hyphy given a whole new dimension by Greedo’s warped, miasmic post-blues wailing. If Greedo sounded like Eazy-E on “Death Row,” he sounds something like Lil Wayne circa “Duffle Bag Boy” here.
4. Nocando – “True Autumn”
A veteran of the Los Angeles underground comes back hard and purposeful, determined not to be ignored. So pay attention.
5. G Herbo – “Swervo”
Herbo, the gruff young prince of Chicago rap, has a whole collaborative project coming out with Atlanta producer Southside. And while I’d prefer to hear Herbo make something definitively Chicago than messing around with with Atlanta trap, I’ll take anything that sounds this hard.