In this, the year of our ‘WAP,’ raunch rap doyennes City Girls return to stake their claim

Parked outside of the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, 27-year-old Jatavia “JT” Johnson — one half of the Miami-born rap duo City Girls — sits inside a black Escalade, donning her finest gold-rimmed Fendi sunglasses for a Zoom call. Meanwhile, her partner in hip-hop, Caresha “Yung Miami” Brownlee, also 27, dials in from her home in South Florida. On the mend from a breast augmentation, she keeps it low-key in a black silk bonnet and T-shirt, but she’s got enough fire to roast JT’s off-and-on lover, hip-hop star Lil Uzi Vert.

Sitting next to JT, Uzi recites the lyrics to the City Girls’ boisterous new single, “Pussy Talk,” into the phone. The track just got a fresh remix by Quavo, Lil Wayne and Jack Harlow — and in this moment, Uzi. “Boy, this pussy talk English, Spanish and French,” he raps at top volume.

“Uzi, sit down,” says Yung Miami sternly. “Some people are trying to work!”

Uzi flashes a bejeweled grin into the camera. “But it’s so sexy when she’s working!” he says of JT — who promptly mutes the call and shoves him out of the car. She slams the door, adjusts her Fendi shades and smiles. “OK, what’s the question?”

The past nine months of COVID-19 forced the City Girls to quarantine separately most days, apart from the occasional songwriting session or live performance. When they first began work on their 2020 LP, “City on Lock,” JT had recently escaped a lockdown of a different kind, having completed serving a 15-month sentence in federal prison, followed by a few months at an Atlanta halfway house, on charges of credit card fraud. When JT was finally a free woman, in March, Yung Miami welcomed her back with a $52,000 custom gold chain and diamond-encrusted pendant that read “CITY GIRLS.” A week later, the pandemic was in full effect.

“That was my one week!” marvels JT. “I went on a boat in Miami and had the time of my life.”

The pair first met as freewheeling Miami middle schoolers, frequenting teen nightclubs and eventually strip clubs before they even finished high school. But together they shared big dreams of following in the footsteps of Lil Kim — “She never goes out of style,” says Yung Miami — as well as South Florida bad-girl MCs like Trina and Jacki-O. “When I rap, I flow like Jacki-O,” says JT. “Trina’s sexiness, her straightforwardness, is so Miami. She’s like me and Caresha.”

Much like their foremothers, City Girls aim playfully withering barbs at broke suitors and fake friends over Miami Bass-influenced 808 beats. They were discovered after Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P.” Thomas, co-founders of Quality Control Music, heard about them while out to lunch in Miami; a model-waitress, Ari Lopez, recounted the girls’ live rap set at a local strip club.

“We signed the City Girls knowing that JT was going to prison,” Thomas tells The Times. “That’s how much we believed in them. She was already sentenced. We got lawyers to help get [the] judge to agree to extend time to turn herself in. … The judge actually granted her enough time to put a record together.”

The City Girls released their debut mixtape, “Period,” on Quality Control and rapidly generated buzz beyond Miami’s hip-hop underground. Their career really took off in June 2018, when they appeared uncredited on Drake’s 305-flavored bounce track, “In My Feelings,” which eventually hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Just days before JT began her prison sentence, they wrote and recorded their full-length debut, “Girl Code,” which was released later that year.

“[Prison] was a blessing and a curse,” says JT, who was kept abreast of all City Girls progress in brief video chats with Yung Miami. “Not being able to enjoy the moment was the bad part, but [it became] a career booster to keep [interest] going.”

Yung Miami spent the rest of the year in overdrive, filming City Girls videos by herself; in the memorably chaotic clip for “Act Up,” she’s flanked by an entourage of year-round spring breakers, mouthing every verse with a hard-earned party-girl grit. Although Yung Miami could have used the time apart to release some solo material, she says it would have violated the real-life girl code that she and JT had established from the time they were tweens.

“We was real friends before all of this,” says Yung Miami. “We’re more like sisters. I knew that I had to keep the group alive, go out to shows and make sure everything stay afloat. It wasn’t a group member going to jail, it was my sister was going to jail.”

It was while holding down the fort for JT that Yung Miami learned she was pregnant with her soon-to-be daughter, Summer Miami (she also has a young son, Jai). In “Yung Miami’s Secret,” the first episode of the duo’s new YouTube docuseries, the rapper recalls her anxiety when breaking the news to the executives at Quality Control.

“Normally when you get pregnant, you get laid off,” says Yung Miami. “But things is different now. Cardi B had a baby, Nicki Minaj had a baby. You can have a baby and keep your career. People love seeing you have a baby and going back to work.”

“I’m very proud of Miami,” says Thomas. “And you see, all these women are bossing up right now. Women are going harder than some of the guys.”

It’s not lost on the City Girls that their ascent has been accompanied by a remarkable cultural shift, precipitated by a new class of charismatic, sometimes outlandish young women in rap, among them the chameleonic L.A. native Doja Cat, ’Bama trap star Flo Milli and Houston powerhouse Megan Thee Stallion. The latter’s brazenly sex-positive anthem with Cardi B, “WAP,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, bringing hip-hop’s woman power to a fever pitch. “2020 is about female empowerment,” declares Yung Miami.

“It used to be only Nicki Minaj up there,” adds JT. “She was competing with pop stars because there were no other female rappers. Then when Cardi came around, a normal girl from the strip club, it motivated us to feel like we could do that too. Then, when [Quality Control] signed us, other record labels thought, ‘Hey, this s— could work!’”

The mainstreaming of this wave became apparent when the two saw Sasha Obama in a now-deleted TikTok video, rapping along to their 2020 collaboration with Moneybagg Yo, “Said Sum.” Yet the criticism aimed at Obama online, particularly from conservative critics, gave JT pause. “I didn’t [like] her privacy being invaded,” she says. “A lot of people [were] reposting it like, ‘Look at Obama daughter! This, that, and the third,’ they made it a big deal.”

City Girls, who have already started writing their next album, remain optimistic that the culture will continue to evolve, especially after a presidential election that divided some of hip-hop’s biggest stars. “Ever since Donald Trump became president, the racism was real bold, real loud,” Yung Miami muses.

“People used to be so sneaky with the racism,” replies JT, who, despite being unable to vote after being charged with a felony, urged her followers on social media to cast theirs. “I hope that [Biden] steps up and does what he needs to do for this country.

“Of course I think about taxes,” adds Yung Miami, “but that’s not as important as all the other stuff going on in the world.

“After COVID and everything, it’s just a blessing to be relevant.”

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