Ice Spice’s Red Hot Rise: The Rapper on Being a ‘Marketing F—ing Genius,’ Her Debut Album and Becoming BFFs With Taylor Swift & Nicki Minaj

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Only a year ago, a 22-year-old budding rapper from the Bronx named Isis Naija Gaston attended her first MTV Video Music Awards as a friend’s plus-one. She’d just released what would become her breakthrough single, “Munch (Feelin’ U),” a viral smash, but no one knew who she was yet. Her seat was high up in the rafters and behind the stage. “I couldn’t see nothing,” she recalls now. “I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to be part of that.’” If you don’t know who this is yet, it’s because she’s only recently been reborn as one of the biggest acts, with only two handfuls of songs to her name.

This year at the VMAs, Gaston (who goes by Ice Spice) was one of the most vivid parts of the Sept. 12 show: You couldn’t avoid seeing her, even if you didn’t watch MTV. Seated next to Taylor Swift — who’d tapped her for a remix of “Karma” that dropped in May — Ice was one of the night’s most magnetic stars, outfitted in a custom white Dolce & Gabbana lace cutout dress that nodded to Britney Spears’ 2003 VMA fit by way of Madonna. She wasn’t dressed like that because she remembered the girl-on-girl kiss that remains the long-running show’s most indelible moment (she was only three), but rather because she Googled “VMA outfits” for inspiration. Memes of the new besties — Ice Spice and Tay — dominated social media, thanks in part to a camera that was fixed on Swift the entire night.

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The spotlight burned brightest when Ice took home the fan-voted award for best new artist, a moment when she cried onstage, thanking her fan base, affectionately known as Munchkins. “I was trying to hold my tears back,” Ice says. “It was so hard. But I’m just so grateful, so blessed, so excited. I’m going to keep it in my studio for inspiration.” She ended her acceptance speech with a pronouncement: “Shout-out the Bronx. Period!”

Ice Spice Varety Cover Story
Ice Spice Varety Cover Story

The day after the VMAs, Ice is one subway transfer away from her native Bronx, understandably drained. She’s seated in a white leather chair in an empty photo studio, her legs tucked beneath her and her signature orange ’fro complementing a fluorescent-pink hoodie. She’s Balenciaga’d down to the socks and sporting a modest diamond-encrusted cross chain, using this rare moment of respite to reflect on the whiplash of becoming New York’s — and, arguably, the world’s — hottest new rapper in a head-spinningly short time.

“A lot of people have thrown that in my face — like ‘Oh, I’ve never seen anything happen so quickly. She needs to be studied,’ or ‘She’s a plant,’” Ice says. “I just let people believe whatever they want to believe, to be honest. I don’t really mind all the rumors. At first I did, but now I’m at a point where I understand that just comes with this lifestyle.”

That lifestyle has included hanging out with one of the most powerful women on Earth.

“I relate to Ice in many ways, but I think her dedication and focus is what blew me away from the very start,” Swift writes in an email to Variety. “She’s extremely professional without being cold. Playful and fun without ever taking her eye off the prize. She knows what is and isn’t ‘her’ and sets those boundaries with grace. She studies the industry and other artists’ careers but is very clear about charting her own definitive, original path. It’s her ability to carefully find that balance that impresses the hell out of me.”

When asked about being seatmates with Swift, Ice says, “That’s my sis. We was talking about a bunch of things. She’s so funny. We was sipping on a little something something. Just chatting, vibing.” She explains that they met after she watched Swift’s 2020 documentary, “Miss Americana,” and was impressed by how the pop star handled herself.

Ice Spice Varety Cover Story
Ice Spice Varety Cover Story

“What I took away from Taylor’s documentary is you really do need to work hard, and not everything is going to be as easy as it seems,” Ice says. “And my manager heard me talking about that and had reached out to her team, and then they had a song for me.”

OK, so maybe some things are easy.

In the last year, Ice, now 23, has been navigating the turbulence of her rocket ride to superstardom. Her “Like ..?” EP was released in January, followed by an expanded deluxe edition in April, setting the stage for career-propelling collabs on smash singles like PinkPantheress’ “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” and “Princess Diana” with Nicki Minaj, which respectively peaked at No. 3 and 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Diana” made history: It marked the first time that a track co-billed by two women topped the Hot Rap Songs chart since it launched 34 years ago. Her second collaboration with Minaj, “Barbie World,” hit No. 7 on the Hot 100 and soundtracked the closing credits of the summer’s biggest blockbuster, starring Margot Robbie.

But one of her favorite songs that she’s released is “Deli,” an ass-shaking reminder that she is, in fact, still Isis from the Bronx. “That song really turned me up,” Ice says. “And my favorite music video was ‘Deli.’ We filmed it in Harlem in a deli. You know I love me a deli. And it was just a bunch of my homegirls. So it was a vibe.” (For the record, her favorite deli order is “Turkey, lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese on a roll. Cold. With a little bit of mayonnaise. And some chips, probably. I put the chips in the sandwich.”)

Ice knows where she came from and wears her hometown stripes proud. So it was appropriate to feel miffed when a podcaster dissed her about moving on from her roots. “They were like, ‘Nah, Spice’s past New York.’ And I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ I’m born and raised in the Bronx. How am I past anything? That doesn’t make sense to me. Bitch, just because I spent $100,000 in Chanel doesn’t mean I’m no longer from New York. Like, hello?”

Ice is the unlikely torchbearer of New York drill, a male-dominated subgenre of rap music that originated in Chicago in the 2010s. It’s punctuated by skittering, percussive 808 beats and aggro lyrics, and has produced stars including Fivio Foreign and the late Pop Smoke.

Ice Spice Varety Cover Story
Ice Spice Varety Cover Story

She decisively has her own strain of the genre. Her songs, which coast on cherry syrup melodies pummeled by jackhammer drums, teeter between supple meditations on relationships and raunchy, peacock displays of self-assurance. The drill scene, which took a detour to the U.K. before recentering in the Big Apple, is testosterone-filled. That Ice not only stood out from her male peers but now looms above them suggests that softening the edge of drill may have been a key ingredient in her ascent.

“I just think people find me relatable, because I look like a regular girl from the Bronx,” she says, puffing on a vape in that leather chair. In the video for “Munch (Feelin’ U),” which has 50 million views on YouTube, she wears cutoff jean shorts and a lime-green tube top. Today she says, “My best friend from high school just sent me a video from mad years ago and was like, ‘Oh, remember this day?’ I literally have a little curly Afro and a tube top on. I’m like, wow, my brand been the same.”

Her singular style is part of the draw — “I’m not a regular artist,” she proclaims on “Deli” — and she’s keen to develop it into a brand. She explains that she arrived late to the interview because she’d made an impromptu stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts, with which she just partnered for one of her first major deals. (“I’m not a huge coffee person,” she says while relating this story.) Wearing an 80-carat diamond Eliantte necklace that reads “Munchkins,” she sampled her freshly released Ice Spice Munchkins Drink, a milkshake-like blend that sippers are encouraged to top with doughnut holes. She instructs actor Ben Affleck to do just that in a commercial that debuted during the MTV Video Music Awards.

Even with brand deals calling, she’s discernibly picky about which moves she makes. Much of it boils down to self-care, and ensuring she isn’t stretched too thin. “I feel like when you feel the best about yourself, you’re going to work the best and perform best,” she says, clutching a bottle of water. “I’ve been doing a lot of just working out, eating healthy, sleeping, just resting and getting my brain together so that I can make the best music.”

This would explain why her discography hasn’t significantly grown since she put out her debut single, “Bully Freestyle,” in March 2021. On Spotify, for instance, there are only 20 songs available to stream that include Ice on them. It isn’t just that less is more — it’s about delivering quality while continuing to court intrigue.

That magnetism has pulled in fans like Swift.

“Working with someone new in the studio,” Swift continues in her email, “you immediately get a window into their creative process. She showed up with her verse not only written but had recorded and sent me a vocal pass beforehand just to make sure we were on the same page. Recording, she was quick and laser focused, but intuitive and decisive and knew when she had it nailed.”

Ice Spice Varety Cover Story
Ice Spice Varety Cover Story

Ice’s marketing acumen and determination can be traced back to her days in the Bronx, growing up on West Fordham Road and Davidson Avenue. Born on the first day of the millennium, Ice is the oldest of five siblings and had a firsthand education in rap music in the birthplace of hip-hop. Her father, Joseph Gaston, was an underground MC whose stage name she declines to provide. (“You couldn’t find it for a reason — he’s such a private person, and that’s not even his lifestyle anymore.”) Today, he’s in real estate. But around the house, he put her on to hometown heroes like Jadakiss, 50 Cent and Jay-Z, and would take her along for trips to the studio. The first songs she ever memorized were Minaj’s “I Get Crazy” and “Itty Bitty Piggy,” two dizzying, now-canonical anthems.

“I remember being on the schoolyard, and girls was going crazy to that. So I was like, ‘Wait — I need to get in tune. What is this?’” recalls Ice, citing Minaj’s “Come on a Cone” as another favorite. She lights up when talking about Minaj, flashing her perfect white teeth. “Nicki said, ‘When I’m sitting with Anna [Wintour], I’m really sitting with Anna.’ And I felt that, because I went to the Met Gala this year. I was like, ‘Yeah, bitch, when I’m sitting with Anna, I’m really sitting with Anna.’”

Long before she could apply any given Minaj lyric to her day-to-day, Ice wrote poetry but was shy about sharing her propensity for rapping. She graduated from high school in 2018, and it was when she met her friend and now-producer RiotUSA at SUNY Purchase that things clicked. (She dropped out after her first year.) Her stage name came from a finsta — a term for a user’s alt Instagram page — that she had when she was 14. Together, they began crafting her sound, flipping sped-up samples of Martin Garrix and Zedd for drill anthems like “Name of Love” and “No Clarity.”

Ironically, it wasn’t her music that made her a viral star. It was when she posted a TikTok of herself doing the “Buss It” challenge — a popular trend (involving a sudden change of clothes and some twerking) set to rapper Erica Banks’ 2020 hit. Getting the internet’s attention has been a constant in her career, and even today, she isn’t above responding to the haters. For instance, on X, one user recently suggested that she needed an “everyday stylist.” “Apply today!” responded Ice, posting a picture of a Dunkin’ Donuts job application.

“People be trying to act like I’m dumb, and I’m just like, I’m a marketing fucking genius,” she says, letting out a laugh that fills the room. “I feel like that just comes from being from New York, having to be quick on your feet, having to be witty and having a fast comeback. Having so many siblings and cousins just gave me that smartass mouth that I have and being able to react quickly. I think people with a smartass mouth make for good marketers.”

It makes sense, then, that the independently released “Munch (Feelin’ U)” kindled a fire. Fans were instantly attracted to her swagger. Each line is accented by her signature buzzwords “grah” and “like.” (“How can I lose if I’m already chose? Like,” she raps on “Bikini Bottom.”) The lyrics are crafted with precision, and each bar has the potential to caption Instagram posts from selfies to put-downs. (She often quotes her lyrics under pictures she posts on her IG page, which has nearly 10 million followers.) Amid the fervor, she held off on signing to a label until striking a joint deal with 10K Projects and Capitol Records last fall, leveraging her red-hot momentum to retain ownership of her masters and publishing.

Now, her label regularly feels the Ice Spice burn. “I would say I receive beats, session ideas, questions for Ice more than any artist that I work with. It’s an inundation on a daily basis,” says Jeremy Vuernick, president of A&R at Capitol, who chalks her success up to that intangible “It” factor. “It’s one of those things that’s super hard to describe, but I refer to it sometimes as gravity — where you sit down in a room and you’re pulled directly to that artist. All the air is sucked out when they walk in the room, and your eyes are drawn.”

You could feel it when Ice came into the studio today, heads turning as she walked to her chair. She’s equal parts confident and braggadocious, and is quick to point the barrel at her rivals (“If I was bitches, I’d hate me a lot,” she quips on the fang-baring “In Ha Mood”). It comes with the territory of being a leader of the new female rap renaissance. In recent years, since Minaj debuted, a league of women have been at the forefront of hip-hop, including Megan Thee Stallion, Latto and City Girls. Ice understands the value in fending off her peers, always in a playful yet mildly contentious way. She credits her father for instilling a competitive spirit, and views hip-hop culture almost as a sport.

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 12: (L-R) Ice Spice and Taylor Swift are seen during the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center on September 12, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for MTV)
Ice Spice and Taylor Swift at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards

“It is a competition at the end of the day. People want to be all ‘I’m a girl’s girl,’ but then behind the scenes being bitches,” she says. “Basically, we here, the girls, are doing amazing. I’m excited to see it. I feel like the competition is what keeps us all excited because I think we all secretly enjoy competing and seeing who put that shit on better and who’s gon’ get the most views. I can be transparent, and I know the competition is checking on me too, which is why it’s OK to say that. Because it’s like, ‘Yeah, girl, I’m watching you and I know you watching me.’ And boys are watching too, because they be secretly haters.” She adds, “But everybody today is competing with everybody no matter if you a boy, girl, nonbinary, whatever it is. You still checking in on your competition. That’s in every industry.”

She has largely avoided publicity issues, namely by following her own advice on “Deli”: “Too much to lose, so I cannot react.” But she did find herself embroiled in a controversy — not by her own hand — when Matty Healy, lead singer of the 1975 (who briefly dated Swift earlier this year), appeared on the podcast “The Adam Friedland Show” in February. The hosts made racist comments about Ice, who is of Dominican and Nigerian descent, and mimicked her, using stereotypical accents. “Yeah, that’s what Ice Spice is like,” said Healy, who also referred to her as “dumb” while recalling the time he tried to message her on Instagram. A backlash ensued, the podcast was removed from streaming services and Healy apologized onstage two months later during a show in New Zealand.

Ice, who has been a fan of the 1975 since she was a teenager — and still is — didn’t respond. “When I had heard that little podcast or whatever, I was so confused. Because I heard ‘chubby Chinese lady’ or some shit like that, and I’m like, ‘Huh? What does that even mean?’ First of all, I’m thick. What do you mean Chinese? What? But then they apologized or whatever. And the whole time, I didn’t really care. But that’s funny because I saw him at the Jean Paul Gaultier party a couple days ago, and he was like, ‘Hey, you OK?’ and I’m like, ‘Of course.’ He apologized to me a bunch of times. We’re good.”

Operating on the razor’s edge of pop superstardom can be overwhelming, which is why everything Ice does is intentional. She keeps her circle small. Her manager James Rosemond Jr., who also manages Riot, often plays what Ice calls “the bad guy” by “politely” filtering out the flood of requests she receives. She met her photographer at Purchase and got connected to her lawyer through someone there as well.

“I like the core people to be my producer and manager,” she says. “Any type of obstacles we face we try to get over, because I don’t want to start over with somebody. And I kind of look up to people like Taylor working with Jack Antonoff, and Billie Eilish with her brother, Finneas. People like that, it’s super cool to me when there’s a team and there’s some consistency there.”

Today, Riot is by her side, as always. He interrupts to give her his water and hand her a vape. He was the first person she hugged when she was announced as best new artist at the VMAs and is usually pictured just slightly in frame in Instagram selfies from parties, most recently at New York Fashion Week, where she posed with Doechii and Doja Cat.

Ice is applying that close-to-the-hip ethos to her debut album, which she plans to record before year’s end. The lineup won’t be star-heavy: Riot will be prominently featured in the credits, and listeners can expect to hear additional production from A Lau. Ice is stacking up on beats and sounds, as she plans to co-produce some of the tracks.

In the year since releasing “Munch (Feelin’ U),” Ice hasn’t slowed down, even if her output often comes in a trickle. She’s about to move again — it’s not uncommon for recording artists in her position to rarely stay in any one place for long. “The truth is, I’m everywhere. I’m constantly moving,” she says and sighs. “I’m always moving because people are starting to notice me a lot, and things get weird and creepy really quickly. But I mostly be staying in hotel rooms; that’s really where I live.”

Still, amid the chaos of her rising star, she finds moments to pinch herself. “Sometimes I just wake up and I’m like, ‘I’ma text Taylor’ or ‘I’ma text Nicki.’ And then they be answering and I’m like, ‘Wow, that really makes me feel like that girl, for real,’” she says. “Them supporting me and just encouraging me gives me all the motivation I need.”

Tiana DeNicola contributed to this story.

Lighting Director: Evadne Gonzalez; Styling: Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo / A-Frame Agency; Makeup: Karina Milan/ The Wall Group; Look 1 (cover): Vintage corset: Vivienne Westwood; Skirt: Vetements; Bracelets: Jennifer Fisher; Look 2 (black top): Top and shoes: Area; Jorts: With Jean; Shoes: Area/Sergio Rossi: Bracelets: Mega mega; Look 3 (nude corset top with green shorts): Vintage corset: Dolce & Gabanna; Shorts and boots: Dion Lee; Bracelets: Jennifer Fisher

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