What does it take to become
a 21st century rap star?
Ask Rico Nasty.

Two summers ago, Rico Nasty was a teenage loudmouth from the Maryland suburbs, generating buzz on YouTube for spitting surly, rainbow-tinted rhymes. Now, after signing a deal with Atlantic Records, the 21-year-old singer is on her way to becoming one of the brightest voices in rap music. How did she come this far this fast?

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Editor’s note: This story contains strong language.

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RemyAllure/YouTube, Rico Nasty/YouTube

In the digital age, rap fame requires more than a hit song. Today’s rising stars are expected to win fans in every corner of the Internet — through photos on Instagram, songs on SoundCloud, videos on YouTube and live performances out on the road.

So far, Rico has been a natural, hopscotching from platform to platform, always making sure that her image remains as wild as her sound. “They gotta match,” she says matter-of-factly. “That’s how you become an icon.”

I. The look

Before she was posing for magazines, she was shopping at Hot Topic.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“I like surprising people. That shock value is crazy. Putting spikes in your hair, [people] be looking at you like you’re crazy. So you get to see who’s open-minded and who isn’t.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“I like surprising people. That shock value is crazy. Putting spikes in your hair, [people] be looking at you like you’re crazy. So you get to see who’s open-minded and who isn’t.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“I like surprising people. That shock value is crazy. Putting spikes in your hair, [people] be looking at you like you’re crazy. So you get to see who’s open-minded and who isn’t.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“I like surprising people. That shock value is crazy. Putting spikes in your hair, [people] be looking at you like you’re crazy. So you get to see who’s open-minded and who isn’t.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Rico says she forged her retina-goosing sense of style as a teenager roaming the shopping malls of Prince George’s County, specifically in the aisles of Hot Topic: “I’d like to say I was very fashionable on my mom’s budget.” Now, her budget is bigger, her wardrobe is louder, and her hair seems to change color — and shape — roughly every 72 hours.

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II. The sound

She raps in sneers and jeers, but her rhymes always ooze melody.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“Writing music is easy for me right now because it’s still new. I know a lot of people get writer’s block, but for me there are just so many ideas.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“Writing music is easy for me right now because it’s still new. I know a lot of people get writer’s block, but for me there are just so many ideas.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“Writing music is easy for me right now because it’s still new. I know a lot of people get writer’s block, but for me there are just so many ideas.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“Writing music is easy for me right now because it’s still new. I know a lot of people get writer’s block, but for me there are just so many ideas.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Rico’s boisterous new mixtape, “Nasty,” makes it clear that she has plenty to say (about her dreams, her detractors and her pet peeves) and plenty of ways to say it (in snarls, coos and shouts). But even when she veers toward abandon, you can still hear the discipline in her approach. Many rappers opt to work in the studio from scratch, but “I show up with at least five songs anytime I go into the studio,” Rico says. And once she steps into the recording booth, even stranger ideas tend to bloom.

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III. The videos

Rico Nasty shines on camera.

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Does she ever get nervous when the camera starts to roll?

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

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Rico Nasty/YouTube

“That’s my favorite part. I like anything in front of a camera better than performing a show.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“That’s my favorite part. I like anything in front of a camera better than performing a show.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“That’s my favorite part. I like anything in front of a camera better than performing a show.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Rico’s music videos aren’t as outrageous as her songs, but they come pretty close, giving the rapper an opportunity to express her inner wild styles with flailing arms, stomping sneakers and rolling eyeballs. She obviously didn’t make her name on YouTube by looking bored.

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IV. On the road

She isn’t shy, but stepping on stage is harder than it looks.

Rico Nasty/YouTube

“It’s that interaction, that real-world relationship... [My fans] get to see the person who they’re giving their money to. They get to see if this is the real deal.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“It’s that interaction, that real-world relationship... [My fans] get to see the person who they’re giving their money to. They get to see if this is the real deal.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

“It’s that interaction, that real-world relationship... [My fans] get to see the person who they’re giving their money to. They get to see if this is the real deal.”

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Rico says that much of her climb toward fame has felt easy, but the stage is different. “It’s nerve-racking,” she says. Maybe because she knows the stakes. A live performance is an opportunity to transmit those mysterious energies that can’t be communicated with a stylish pose on Instagram or a musical tantrum on YouTube.

For a soon-to-be rap star, it’s the next frontier.

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Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post