Up for a Grammy for best new artist, Ice Spice is keeping her cool

Up for a Grammy for best new artist, Ice Spice is keeping her cool

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Sometimes, when the right metaphysical frequencies align, new kinds of art emerge to answer specific questions that no one had ever thought to ask, like: What if the Mona Lisa smile was rap music? Voilà, our cruel world is improved by the materialization of Ice Spice, a 24-year-old from the Bronx who raps with vivid nonchalance, delivering a rhyming interior monologue that everyone can suddenly hear, communicating broadly but with telepathic intimacy. Is anyone still surprised she’s a pop star? The moment she’s in your ears, she’s in your head.

It’s where she wants to be. In her lyrics, Ice Spice haunts her romantic admirers and needles her anonymous enemies without leaving any of her feelings open to interpretation. She wants her words to be entirely legible, and while her fidelity to rhyme can sometimes be strict, the music remains cool and loose because her voice is a perpetual sigh. “If you ain’t a baddie, can’t sit with me,” she raps on her breakout single, “Munch (Feelin’ U),” all of those airy nya-nya syllables racing out of her mouth as if sliding through the vent when the AC is cranked. In interviews, Ice Spice says all of these jabs and brags are meant to be “cute” in service of a “vibe,” positing wit as an atmosphere but also modestly downplaying her craft, which in itself involves downplaying everything.

For instance, last week, with all the pomp of Grammy night fast approaching — where Ice Spice is nominated for best new artist — she dropped a new single titled “Think U The S— (Fart),” which only seemed like a bratty gesture of expectation adjustment until Ice Spice started rapping in her expert sang-froid, making it surprisingly easy to imagine some fabulous Hollywood star ripping open an envelope at next year’s Grammy ceremony: “And the winner is … ‘Think U The S— (Fart)!’” The song was co-produced by her go-to collaborator, RiotUSA, and together the duo have spent the past three years practicing consistency, coherence, loyalty and judiciousness. Their songs are refreshingly succinct, averaging around two minutes apiece, and if you don’t count the remixes, you can listen to roughly every track Ice Spice has made public in less than an hour. Dismiss her brevity as cuteness and vibes, but her concision feels like an artful rejoinder to our daily data glut. Combine that with the quiet interiority of her rapping, and she very much sounds like the most significant pop star to emerge since the pandemic, a reorienting period in American life when our deprivation at least may have helped us better understand the quiet inside our minds.

With no hope of ever truly understanding what goes on inside the minds of wealthy record label executives, there has been a reported micro-panic over the music industry’s faltering ability to create new stars. Some of it might have to do with an A-list that refuses to recede. Beyoncé is 42 years old and seems more popular than ever. Drake’s fame has proved similarly indestructible. And while it’s hard to imagine Taylor Swift owning an even greater pie slice of our cultural mindshare, it’s also impossible to imagine she won’t find a way to make it happen in the days, months, years, decades ahead. Is there any room for new voices in a world like this?

End of carousel

The Ice Spice story says yes — which should make her a front-runner for best new artist at the 66th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. But let’s not forget that stars like her aren’t made so much as found, and to a degree, left alone. Ice Spice is from a real place (the Bronx), with a deep lineage (it’s rap’s birthplace), and she’s working in a fresh idiom (the New York drill sound, popularized by Pop Smoke, Sheff G and others). En route from TikTok to the pop charts, Ice Spice refused to forfeit her style — a style forged in community.

Which means when she’s invited to rap on a remix of Taylor Swift’s “Karma,” or to anchor the soundtrack of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” blockbuster alongside Nicki Minaj and Aqua, she doesn’t sound too far from where she was on her first single, “Bully Freestyle,” way back in early 2021. Plus, maintaining that cool in these extremely strange, profoundly rarefied creative zones can’t be easy, either. Over here, she’s duetting with one of the most famous humans alive. Over there, she’s making a musical commercial for a big movie that’s an even bigger commercial for a small plastic toy.

In fact, the first voice you hear as the credits roll at the end of Gerwig’s “Barbie” belongs to Ice Spice: “And I’m bad like the Barbie.” Try not to miss the first word in that line. “And.” It’s as if, instead of being recruited to make this weird, planet-eating “Barbie World” song, she’s been here all along. Maybe this is just Ice Spice being cool and unknowable again. Or maybe it should give us pause. In the movie, Barbie is an idea that becomes a person. In this song, is a person becoming an idea? No matter how everything shakes out in Barbieland, on the pop charts or at the Grammys, the mind we want to keep reading is from the Bronx.

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