by Skye Jalal
The cover of Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats’ 2019 collaborative project, Anger Management, was inspired by the cover of Arthur Janov’s 1971 book, The Primal Scream. The book cover features a bald white man with a shrunken chin in front of a blue background. With his eyes closed as if he is mid-meditation, bursting out from his forehead is a mouth, red-lipped and screaming.
Behind the cover, the book details the experiences of patients going through Janov’s newly developed therapeutic practice. Primal therapy is the process of healing ‘primal pains’ or early childhood trauma, which Janov associates as the root cause of all adult neuroses. The practice attempts to recreate the physical surroundings of childhood, then encourages its patients to experience emotional release within them. Janov details placing his patients in re-constructed nurseries, playrooms, and classrooms settings to induce memories of where their ‘primal pains’ originate. He then works with patients to release that trauma through physical and emotional valves: crying, convulsions, shaking, singing, and most notably, the primal scream.
Describing his very first primal therapy patient, Janov writes, “The writhing gave way to small convulsions, and finally, he released a piercing scream that rattled the walls of my office. The entire episode lasted only a few minutes, and neither Danny nor I had any idea what had happened. All he could say afterwards was: ‘I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel!’”
The cultural image of primal therapy is very much rooted in this kind of story- the intense display of emotion, followed more importantly by a sense of calm and clarity gained afterwards. Anger is important to the practice, but only as a means to an end, something that leads you to the more desirable and virtuous state of calm.
Much of the discussion of Anger Management follows a similar story-telling. Even the title itself can evoke a particular idea, that anger is something to be managed- that is, lassoed and tamed. Kenny Beats tweeted upon the release of the project, likening the progression of rage in the work to a “temper-tantrum”, saying that it “Starts off panicked. Thinks it Out … finishes calm.” It is true that the EP follows an emotional arc, ending much more subdued than it begins. However, it’s interesting how this transition is moralized. When written about, the final songs are often characterized with words such as “maturity”, “insight”, “intimacy”, and “greater perspective”, in comparison to their earlier counterparts. Why does the different tone of these latter songs seem to give them greater respectability?
Unlike the Primal Scream, on the cover of Anger Management, Rico’s eyes are open, staring straight at the viewer through false lashes. The image is more defiant, lacking the meditating resolution suggested by the 1971 cover. This opens up a different conversation of how rage operates in the work, asking the question of how Rico Nasty is really thinking about managing anger.
The EP opens with the sound of a computerized voice, asking the listener:
“Hey, you there?
Aren't you tired of the same old thing?
At every day, every minute, every second
From there, Anger Management comes out swinging. The starting track, “Cold” has a beat that sounds as if it was made to blow out the speakers of your Honda Accord. Rico’s voice grates from the beginning, culminating in the chorus, “None of these bitches cold as me, me! ME!” It’s one thing to listen to her scream. It's another to imagine her doing it; to think of the space she takes up, the ways her body would have to contort and expand to produce this sound, doing everything and making every shape a black woman is not supposed to. From there, the work slows down in pace, maintaining that same vitality. “Relative” is the point in the EP with the biggest downturn in energy, and this is where many writers claim the piece becomes “introspective.” By the eighth track, Rico is at her calmest, but even then, her screams still haven’t disappeared. They’ve only moved to the background.
In the essay “Killing Rage”, bell hooks unpacks the issue of black rage. To hooks, rage is not an unfortunate byproduct or necessary evil, but a justified emotion and essential to black resistance. As an example, hooks writes about evaluations of Malcolm X’s legacy, and the apologetic or reductionist tone often used in reference to his rage, “Overall, contemporary reassessments of Malcolm X’s political career tend to deflect away from “killing rage.” Yet it seems that Malcolm X’s passionate ethical commitment to justice served as the catalyst for his rage.”
hooks’ discussion of Malcolm X explains a cultural desire to minimize the rage of black figures, to assess their success as in spite of it. hooks counters this narrative by detailing the revelatory impact that rage had on her own life and activism, “Confronting my rage, witnessing the way it moved me to grow and change, I understood intimately that it had the potential not only to destroy, but also to construct.” To hooks, rage is a life force, one that Rico Nasty also understands. Rico raps on the track, “Sellout”, “the expression anger is a form of rejuvenation.” Not the expelling of anger. Not the getting rid of anger. Not the feeling of clarity gained afterwards. The expression of anger on its own is a form of rejuvenation.
Rico’s more impassioned tracks have a lot more behind them than just the spectacle of her screaming. The themes of the project- reclamation of power, demanding what you deserve, female pleasure, empowering women to live their lives in spite of male opinions, ignoring your onlookers- are all speaking to a very specific audience. Rico isn’t defined by her identity, but these themes present a work very much made by a black woman for other black women. Considering this rage in context of the rager and her audience, Rico’s work comes into clearer view.
hooks also writes about how the life force of anger is categorically denied to black people, and black women in particular. Detailing a racist incident with a white man on an airplane, she writes “‘I felt a ‘killing rage.’ I wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with the gun I wished I had in my purse. And as I watched his pain, I would say to him tenderly “racism hurts.” With no outlet, my rage turned to overwhelming grief and I began to weep, covering my face with my hands.” This moment of hooks’ fantasized violence, highlights both the black condition which breeds a thirst for violence, and the inability to act upon it. Rico Nasty’s description of a racialized incident while in conversation with Complex Magazine, follows a similar pattern, “In that moment, I felt like getting out of the car. I felt like escalating the situation. Shit, I even felt like telling my man to run the n****a over with the car. But then I start thinking how fucked up that shit is, because nine times out of 10, the police get called on us, not knowing what happened, and not knowing that he's the one disrespecting us. And all this over a parking spot. That shit really made me want to cry, because anytime black people try to stick up for themselves, that shit always escalates and fucks up their lives. They're either in police custody and they don't give a fuck about you, or they do whatever they want to hurt you or have you get shot. It fucks with your head.”
For an artist whose work is so defined by its performance of rage, it's disconcerting to observe them unable to fully express that rage in the situations most deserving of it. Both anecdotes speak to a conundrum black women often find themselves in, unable to express rage in the moments that matter most, and having the few chances they do have reduced to “temper tantrums”. Rico’s rage, at the very least, has just as much perspective as her quieter moments. At the most, it's her work at its most powerful. In “Sellout”, Rico continues:
“People hate you 'cause you're different and focused
People hated me so I flipped it
And turned my emotions to something y'all could sing to
'Cause some of y'all have been through the same shit I've been through”
There’s an understanding of the power her rage has to her audience. Rico Nasty’s rage is the performance of an emotion much of her audience doesn’t have access to, that she at times doesn’t even have access to herself. Giving her audience access to this life-force, even by proxy, is an extremely powerful act.
Visual artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz coined the term, “destructivism” to explain the artist’s relationship to violence. In a 2013 video recording from Ortiz’s piano destruction concert series, he stands in a gallery with a piano before him and an ax in his hand. He doesn’t begin by slamming the ax into the piano. Instead, he glides the blade gently along the inside of the instrument, touching the inner strings normally covered by the piano body, allowing new parts to be seen and heard. Ana Cristina Perry spoke in conversation with Ortiz about this series, “It’s not just about the destruction of this elite object, it’s also about thinking of what other sounds can emerge from it.” Ortiz replied, “Exactly, to become familiar with the sounds of sacrifice.”
Anger Management makes its own audience familiar with these sacrificial sounds. Rico Nasty’s work is centered around this idea proposed by Ortiz, creating destruction within her own positionality, and through that giving life to new ideas and ways of being. With noise, space, and anger, she processes the everyday rage that comprises being a black woman- from having to repress yourself in exchange for survival, to “being compared to bitches you’re better than”. She then offers her audience an outlet to do the same. Anger Management is not the story of anger stowed away, it’s the story of anger embraced fully in all its expansive emotional texture. It deserves respect in its entirety.