As City Girls, Jatavia “J. T.” Johnson and Caresha “Yung Miami” Brownlee have rapidly risen to both critical and commercial success with cheeky, libidinous raps that place them in the pantheon of female artists resisting the genre’s ubiquitous misogyny. They join a long lineage of female rappers flipping the most basic expectation of women in hip-hop—that they be sex objects—into a quantifiable asset. Before Miami’s City Girls, there were New York’s Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. There was Chicago’s Shawnna. There was Philly’s Eve.
The first prominent female rap duo since Salt-n-Pepa, City Girls are hyper-observant and shamelessly enterprising. “If you pay attention to male lyrics,” J. T. says before the documentary’s introduction of the Basic Instinct clip, “when they fuck a bitch for free, they make fun of them.” If sex sells, then City Girls demand their cut of the profit. With their glitzy braggadocio, Yung Miami and J. T. subvert the dominance of rap’s stingy, swaggering male artists. They snatch money back with bedazzled acrylics.
The South Florida–bred rappers first gained national attention with August 2017’s “Fuck Dat Nigga,” a boastful banger that paid homage to two of their home state’s most notably transgressive female rappers. The single sampled “My Neck My Back,” the legendary 2001 cunnilingus paean from fellow Floridian lyricist Khia. The sequin-studded video, which City Girls filmed after signing as the first female artists on the star-making label Quality Control Music, features the Miami legend Trina. “The City Girls remind me so much of myself,” the veteran rapper (and friend of Yung Miami’s family) says in Point Blank Period. “As a woman, you have to have so much boss in you, and so much determination, and so much willpower, and so much confidence that you really don’t give a shit about what anybody else thinks.”
The 305’s own “Baddest Bitch” also lent a verse to “Run Them Bands Up,” an April 2018 single on which City Girls sampled—and upended—Juvenile’s 1998 party-catalyzing anthem, “Back That Azz Up.” The widely circulated track, and its attendant Trina co-sign, introduced the duo’s lascivious lyricism and brash delivery to new listeners ahead of their debut tape. “City Girls done took over, y’all broke ass niggas move over,” Yung Miami rapped on the single’s intro. “You got the money?”
That same fiscal motivation reverberated throughout the duo’s stunningly bold and confident debut. PERIOD was a 16-track dedication to the singular power of unabashed, weaponized femininity. The record didn’t question the premise of transactional relationships so much as it celebrated the ways that women could also benefit from them. City Girls insisted on the aforementioned “Millionaire Dick.” They demanded to know “Where the Bag At,” turning “I need a nigga who gon’ swipe them Visas” into a pithy catchphrase on the same track that saw them flipping Lil Wayne, Remy Ma, and Curren$y’s 2006 hit “Where Da Cash At.” The pair issued threats with cavalier condescension; the first proper lyric of PERIOD is literally “Bitch, don’t make me put my wig in a rubber band.” On the instructional “How to Pimp a Nigga,” they addressed their female listeners directly: “You will never go broke, just listen to me (pay attention),” J. T. promised. “You gotta let these niggas know what you need (money).”
On the duo’s latest offering, aptly titled Girl Code, the stakes are significantly higher. In the months since PERIOD was released, the rappers have experienced tremendous career boons—such as a massively profile-boosting feature on Drake’s mega-viral “In My Feelings”—and a substantial setback. At the end of June, the 25-year-old J. T. turned herself in to police on charges of credit-card fraud stemming from 2016 and 2017 purchases. (She had previously been out on bond.) Girl Code opens with a call from J. T., who is slated to be imprisoned until March 2020. “We gon’ fuck the game up when I come home,” she promises on the track’s interlude, and Yung Miami echoes her drive over haunting keys: “I’ma hold this shit down for my sister.”
Composed largely of tracks the two recorded before J. T.’s incarceration, Girl Code is a continuation of the salaciously empowering catalog City Girls established with PERIOD. “If you a broke boy, stay the fuck out my way,” they rap on the brassy Castro Beats–produced “Broke Boy,” before J. T. absolutely ethers an unnamed man by calling him a “Damn, baby, where my hug? ass nigga.” With the success of PERIOD under their crystal-studded belts, the once-reluctant rappers amp up the bravado.
The 13-track, 34-minute record is bolstered by distinctly South Florida production from the likes of Baby Blue Whoaaaa (formerly of the R&B group Pretty Ricky), Audio Jones, and The 90’s. Think marching-band horns and massive bounce, Trick Daddy and Rick Ross. Luckily, J. T. and Yung Miami’s biting raps echo the punch of Girl Code’s beats. On tracks such as “Trap Star” and “Act Up,” the artists extol the virtues of their lyrical and sexual prowess (on the latter, J. T. raps, “I make it clap like he got the right answer”). “Clout Chasin,” a natural follow-up to PERIOD’s threat-laced “Runnin,” is the musical equivalent of an unexpected uppercut.
Where PERIOD largely shunned features and slow jams, Girl Code finds City Girls willing to both loosen up their flows and share the mic. With “Panties an Bra” and “On the Low,” the rappers channel an approximation of romance. The Atlanta crooner Jacquees, a pint-size prince of lusty R&B, joins them on “Give It a Try.” His earnest entreaties—“I’ve never felt the feelings that I’m feeling for you”—contrast with the women’s reluctance to entertain men for anything beyond transactional trysts. “I’m a city bitch, I don’t know what love like,” J. T. admits before course-correcting: “You can’t handle a bitch badder than a temper tantrum.” Their Quality Control labelmate, the prolific rapper Lil Baby, drawls something of a masculine rebuttal on “Season.”
Still, the primary collaboration driving the project is the one between J. T. and Yung Miami. On “What We Doin’,” they chronicle every stage of a girls’ night out. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a pregame dance session in the mirror. Their back-and-forth is as dynamic as ever, the banter at once teasing and supportive.
But with J. T. detained, the 24-year-old Yung Miami has had to do the bulk of the duo’s promotion on her own in recent months. (The tape itself is also notably Yung Miami–heavy.) In the lead-up to Girl Code, she attracted fans’ ire repeatedly—first, after a series of homophobic and anti-Haitian tweets resurfaced, and then again after she posted a mealymouthed apology to Instagram. The tweets were particularly galling given the duo’s aesthetic influences: “Millionaire Dick” features footage of several women clad in black leather, twirling long, green braided ponytails—a visual that bears an uncanny similarity to the trans artist and DJ Juliana Huxtable. The videos for both “Not Ya Main,” one of PERIOD’s singles, and the titular track borrow heavily from West Indian cultural production; there is no Miami without Haitians.
Even amid these indiscretions, Yung Miami has managed to rally the duo’s most ardent fans, partly with the help of an Instagram challenge pegged to the (Trinidadian and Dominican American) Cardi B–assisted single “Twerk.” Like “Swerve,” the tape’s hypnotic final track, “Twerk” is both a bop and a directive. It samples the New Orleans rapper Choppa’s 2002 hit “Choppa Style,” a BET mainstay on which he searched for “a slim, fine woman with some twerk with her.” Here, though, the women call the shots. Cardi is characteristically ostentatious, her verse nodding to the time she spent dancing in strip clubs before gaining fame as an artist: “This sound like Cardi took the stage / This sound like Cardi with the braids.”
City Girls have repeatedly spoken about the Bronx rapper’s impact on their music, and about the inspiration they drew from watching her establish a place in their industry largely through the appeal of her online persona. “Cardi opened the door for a lot of normal girls to feel like they could be rappers, you know. I love Cardi for that,” J. T. said in an interview with Rap-Up magazine before her incarceration. “I watched Cardi from being that girl in her bed to being on [the] Met Gala.”
The immediacy of social media has indeed helped demystify—and in some cases, diminish—the barriers that keep female artists out of hip-hop. As Mic culture reporter Natelegé Whaley wrote earlier this month, it’s allowed artists “to build communities of devoted fans via viral covers and freestyles [and] been especially helpful to female artists, like Cardi B, who are sidestepping the idea that co-signs from an established male artist or crew are necessary for them to be ushered into the spotlight.”
Though shout-outs from artists such as Drake and their male labelmates (including Cardi’s husband, the Migos rapper Offset) have helped bring City Girls to new audiences, their most vocal fans remain women who appreciate the rappers’ knack for demanding reciprocity from both the industry and individual men. There is, after all, something deliciously satisfying about hearing women acknowledge the urgency of their own needs. Even if it’s not revolutionary, it still feels good. Girl Code harnesses that perhaps-guilty pleasure without apology.
Like the 23-year-old Pimp C–inspired Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion and the 27-year-old Bronx MC Maliibu Miitch, City Girls are young but studied. They have seen how the industry—and the world—takes from women, often without offering recompense. They know the struggles of their forerunners, and how rare lucrative opportunities can be for women both in the music industry and beyond. J. T. and Yung Miami recognize the improbability of their stature, but their music isn’t concerned with polite gratitude. With its audacious insistence on restitution, financial and otherwise, Girl Code is brazen and refreshing. If sexism isn’t subtle, why should City Girls have to be?
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