On a cold, damp afternoon earlier this month, Ice Spice didn’t want to be recognized, so she covered her signature bounty of red curls with a wig of long blonde tresses, and wrapped that wig in a pink scarf. After a quick stop at her dentist in Bushwick to get her veneers adjusted, the rising hip-hop star hopped in a black SUV to head up to the area around Fordham Road in the Bronx where she grew up.
At first, she was muted on the ride, pulling a makeup case out of a pink Von Dutch bag and applying foundation, mascara and lip liner while playing a string of sentimental songs by the Atlanta R&B singer Mariah the Scientist from her phone through the car’s stereo.
But by the time the SUV crossed over into the Bronx, Ice Spice — wearing a black Prada fleece, black Balenciaga tights and black Uggs, her long nails painted in an exaggerated French manicure — had livened up, playing her latest single, “In Ha Mood,” on repeat, and rapping along with quiet force:
“Oh, they mad ’cause I keep making bops/Oh, she mad ’cause I’m taking her spot/If I was bitches, I’d hate me a lot.”
These are the sort of coolly but directly confident verses that have made Ice Spice, 23, one of the most signature voices in New York drill music, as well as an emerging pop culture touchstone, beloved both for what she says and how she comes off while saying it.
“I’m just naturally super chill and nonchalant about a lot of things,” she said. “I’ve always been that way, since I was a baby.”
On Friday, she’ll release her first EP, “Like..?” which gathers her previous singles with some new songs, all of which feel of a piece. While the sound of the Bronx drill scene she emerged from is often unrelenting and harsh, the style of her EP, she said, is “pop drill” — spacious, up-tempo and a little skittish, with careful use of melody and just the right amount of punch.
Unlike many New York drill rappers, who tend toward the antic, Ice Spice raps with equanimity: calm, controlled and almost reticent, letting each line linger ever so slightly, almost as if to draw you to her before she again pushes you away.
“She makes this thing we call sexy drill,” said Nicole Racine, founder of Talk of the Town, a media company that documents New York drill music. “Her being sexy, being feminine, not the rah-rah drill that we expect.”
Just a few months ago, Ice Spice didn’t need to hide behind decoy wigs, but that changed during one hectic week in August. First, Drake expressed admiration for her music — she posted a screenshot of his message — and then flew her along with her manager and producer, RIOTUSA (who goes by Riot), on a private jet to his annual festival in Toronto, OVO Fest.
“I probably had like $200 to my name on that trip,” Riot said, chiming in from the back seat of the SUV. “It kind of felt like the flight was like me flying into a new life.”
Ice Spice said she was “mad broke” at the time, laughing as she remembered the “fake-ass purse” she was carrying.
A few days after the event, she released “Munch (Feelin’ U),” the song that would become her true breakout, inaugurate a delicious new piece of slang and establish her signature visual identity: golden curls, bold outfits, intense eye contact.
“We slept on that record because that was the only song we had that didn’t have a sample,” said Riot, whose father is DJ Enuff, an influential New York radio figure. At the time, the dominant sound of New York drill relied on familiar samples; earlier, they’d released “No Clarity,” based heavily on Zedd’s decade-old trance-pop hit “Clarity.”
But the originality of “Munch” turned out to be a blessing — a hit reliant upon an older hit can feel contingent, saying less about the new artist than about the durability of the older one. “I’m happy the first song that ever really blew up for me like that was an original song, with an original word,” Ice Spice said. “I’m just so proud of that.”
The response, fueled by social media, was instant. “I remember the week ‘Munch’ came out, I had went to the mall, right?” Ice Spice said, characteristically unperturbed. “And a bunch of kids started running up to me like, ‘Yo, are you the “Munch” girl?’ And like, taking pictures of me and recording me.”
Before stopping at New Capitol diner for an M&M cookie, she popped by St. James Park, where the “Munch” video was filmed, hoping to use the bathroom — it was locked — and quipped, “They should name it Munch Park.”
In the wake of the success of “Munch,” Ice Spice signed to 10K Projects/Capitol Records, and had her first taste of financial success — “I got 2 milli for using a mic,” she posted online at one point. But riding down the blocks where she grew up, making the trip back for the first time since handing out Thanksgiving turkeys alongside fellow Bronx rapper Lil Tjay, she expressed a little exhaustion. “People won’t ask you directly, like, ‘Hey, can you buy me a house?’ I mean, they will actually,” she said. But she was even more frustrated about the things she couldn’t yet do: “It’s just weird now being at a certain place and not being able to just help everybody that you want to help.”
Born Isis Gaston to a Black father and a Dominican mother who divorced when she was still a toddler, Ice Spice has five younger half siblings. She’d written poetry and raps since childhood, and her father routinely encouraged her to freestyle with him. (“We would be walking to school and he would be trying to get me to rap about my day,” she recalled.) She didn’t begin writing full songs until 2019, inspired by the breakout wave of Brooklyn drill rappers that included Sheff G and Pop Smoke, and didn’t record any of them until 2021, after a video of her doing the #BussItChallenge gained traction and she had a brief flirtation with extreme virality.
“Once that happened I was like, Oh, if I could do it one time, I’m pretty sure I could do it again,” she said. “That’s when I knew I could be an artist.” Sensing an opportunity, she rushed to complete her first song: the squelchy, tough-talking, Brooklyn drill-esque “Bully Freestyle.” She began recording more tracks, and documenting the process, eventually releasing promo trailers for each to gin up attention and enthusiasm.
All of her released songs so far have been produced by Riot (born Ephrem Lopez Jr.). The two met when they were both studying communications at SUNY Purchase, where Ice Spice also played volleyball, as she did at the Catholic high school she attended in the Bronx.
They found a common language in drill songs that didn’t shy away from the personal, and that were lyrically emphatic, line by line. “I like to hear catchy stuff and I always be thinking like, Damn, what should I caption this? So I just started coming up with mad captions,” she said. She also found that writing personal stories came naturally. “There’s like this type of therapy to it,” she said. “It’s just like a relief whenever I complete a song.”
Before “Munch,” attention came in fits and starts, not all of it positive. “I was getting a lot of hate when I first put out my anything — content, music, whatever,” she said, but added, like a sophisticated child of the internet, “hate could take you a long way.”
Even now, she’s still something of a lightning rod. Because social media spins tizzys from even the barest scraps of information, there was prurient interest after Drake unfollowed her on Instagram after the Toronto trip. “We’re cool,” she said. “We spoke after that a couple times and we’re good. There’s no beef.” When she was being roasted for her lackluster performance at Rolling Loud in September, her first festival appearance, she “was just happy they were talking about me, really.”
But she has benefited greatly from the online attention, too. Her fandom is still settling on a name: Spice Cabinet? Spice Rack? Spice Cadets? Munchkins? And she has seamlessly been absorbed into the meme universe — split portraits of her alongside Tupac, XXXTentacion, Martin Luther King Jr. and Princess Diana float around the internet, and her lyrics (“How can I lose if I’m already chose?”) pop up in tweets and captions. She decided to record “Princess Diana,” from her new EP, after seeing memes flying around the internet late last year calling her this generation’s Princess Diana.
“Who don’t wanna be a princess?” she said quietly, as if acknowledging something that she’d already known for a while, and assumed everyone else did, too.
In perhaps the ultimate indication of pop culture absorption, Lil Nas X, the effortless channeler of virality, dressed as her in the “Munch” video for Halloween, sporting a neon tank top and a wild wig.
“The hair is definitely iconic,” she conceded. “When I was in high school, I was straightening my hair, trying to be something that I’m not. Now it’s flattering seeing a wave of Afros. I enjoy that. I feel like that’s great for Black women especially, making Afros more like just a normal staple look, you know?”
Racine, of Talk of the Town, said, “She’ll make the sexy drill mainstream, she’s just gonna open more doors.” But drill, the aesthetic that has delivered Ice Spice’s first dose of fame, may only be a convenient way station.
“She’s a pop star,” Riot said. “People say drill just to box people in.”
Ice Spice agreed that her aspirations stretch beyond that sound. “For me personally, I think I have passed that,” she said. “I do want to be a mainstream artist. I want diamond records and plaques and Grammys. So I think in order to get that, you do have to surpass just one subgenre.”
Back in the car, she scrolled through new music, both from the EP, and a verse she recorded for a remix of PinkPantheress’s “Boy’s a Liar,” which has a similar tempo to her own songs but a completely different texture. It’s her first adventure out into the world beyond drill but unlikely to be her last.
“I’ve tried Detroit beats. I’ve tried trap. I’ve tried hyperpop,” she said. She speaks Spanish, and has been chatting with the Dominican rapper Tokischa about possibly working together.
On her way home from the Bronx, she stopped at a mall in Elizabeth, N.J., so she and Riot could buy True Religion jeans for an upcoming video shoot, which would take its visual cues from the early 2010s, perhaps the last era, pre-drill, in which New York rap truly spurred national conversation. On the way, they dove into a conversation about whether New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, could ever truly fall off.
“I just feel like there’s never been a moment where it was dead,” she said. “You can name a year and I can say an artist from New York that was popping, lit, that year. We was singing them songs in the parties.”
For maybe the first time all day, she betrayed just the slightest bit of agitation: “Like, I would be mad if one day somebody refers to 2022 as when New York fell off when it’s like, ‘Hello, I’m here.’”