City Girls' Race Against the Clock: How the Duo Made Two Albums Before One Member Went to Prison
Yung Miami and the duo's management team break down their whirlwind 2018
During the many days and nights rap duo City Girls spent at Miami’s renowned Circle House studios this spring, no one ever went hungry. Lemonade and freshly baked brownies were available around the clock. An in-house chef would often whip up oxtails and rice for the duo of Caresha “Yung Miami” Brownlee, 24, and Jatavia “JT” Johnson, 26.
And when the pair of really needed to satisfy some cravings, they’d sneak away to a nearby gas station. “Me and JT would get margaritas,” Yung Miami recalls during an interview at Billboard’s offices last month, surrounded by a handful of members of her management team. “JT likes Pringles and those sour gummy worms, and I like the Hot Cheetos Puffs.” During sessions that took place from April to June of this year, Miami and JT would sometimes have so many snacks that they’d have to pause a few hours later for naps. “We were in that bitch full and tired,” Miami says with a laugh.
The scene wasn’t just another instance of the kind of music-industry excess lavished on young stars, though City Girls had plenty to celebrate in 2018: With the May release of their debut album, Period, they became the latest breakout stars of Atlanta’s Quality Control label -- home to Migos, Lil Yachty and Lil Baby -- thanks raunchy rhymes about getting laid and getting paid that drew comparisons to Lil' Kim and Trina and brought a bold new flavor to Miami’s signature jook sound. They also caught the attention of Drake, who recruited them for his smash single “In My Feelings,” which spent 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 this summer. (The duo recorded original vocals for the songs, but they are not officially credited as featured guests.)
Yet in the midst of all the growing popularity, City Girls faced a real-life battle behind the scenes. All those snacks and naps fueled the women as they worked around the clock, day after day, to meet a serious, potentially career-squashing deadline: In January, JT pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft related to credit-card fraud and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison; she surrendered herself in late June. That left only a few months to knock out a year’s worth of content -- including a whole new album, five music videos and a mini-documentary that chronicles the journey to sudden rap stardom -- that would keep the band’s momentum going in JT's absence.
At times the pace was brutal. “Coaches go hard on their players, and I treat them just like the guys,” says Pierre “Pee” Thomas, CEO of Quality Control, who runs the label with co-founder Kevin “Coach K” Kee. But their inner circle never doubted that they could pull it off: “Me and Coach K signed them knowing JT was getting time,” Pee explains, “so I think that’s called having faith.”
Knowing JT’s prison sentence was looming, City Girls recorded much of Period and its follow-up, November’s Girl Code, simultaneously. The pair knocked out more than 200 songs over the course of about two and a half months, Yung Miami estimates, often pulling multiple all-nighters back to back. It’s why Girl Code songs like the “Clout Chasin’” sound like they could be right at home amid the scrappy energy of Period -- they were born from the same creative period. (They do showcase a more vulnerable side, however, on songs like “Panties & Bra” and “On the Low,” which Miami says is her favorite from the project: “We wanted to show a different side to City Girls -- that we can switch flows and rap about something different than just pimping n-ggas.”)
If they weren’t in the studio, they were on set for filming music videos to accompany the music they had just made. There was one week in June in which they filmed five music videos -- “Not Ya Main,” “Careless,” “One of Them Nights,” “Sweet Tooth” and “Period” -- back to back. Sometimes they’d work for 22 hours straight. Miami remembers feeling daunted by their schedule. “Like, ‘When...how?’ Y’all really wanted us to wake up every day to do a music video,” she recalls, clearly exasperated. “In one of them, I had the same hair in ‘Period’ [and ‘Not Ya Main’]. They said I couldn’t have that, but I didn’t care. I didn’t feel like taking out my hair that day. I was like, ‘They won’t notice it’s the same weave. I’m not taking it out.’”
Fighting off exhaustion only made their jobs more demanding. “At the video shoots, they looked tired on camera, so we had to do the take 10 times instead of five times, because they didn’t have the energy,” says Caprie Poe, their manager. With tensions already running high, JT and Yung Miami sometimes turned on each other. On the set of “Careless,” they got into a fight "over an Instagram post, something silly," Poe recalls, that led Miami to briefly storm off and almost derailed their entire shoot. “There’s never a dull moment,” Poe says. “They’ll go from that, and the next minute they’ll be like, ‘Let me use your lip gloss.’”
And then there was the toll their busy schedule had on their loved ones, which has hardly eased up following JT’s incarceration, as Yung Miami toured on JT’s behalf with Lil Baby and assumed her role as the de facto face of the band. (A process that hasn’t been without controversy: In August, she apologized for a years-old homophobic tweet that made the rounds, then seemed to stand by her comments during an interview a few few months later. “I learned to be more careful with what I say online,” she says now.) Before coming to New York in November for more promotional obligations, Miami says, “I took my son to the fair in Miami. But I was so tired, my body wouldn’t allow me to get up. I was like, ‘I have to do this because I’m gonna be gone for a week.’ I can’t take him to school. My baby be asking, ‘Where’s my mommy at? I wanna talk to my mommy!’ When I hear him say that, it makes me tear up and get sad. I gotta spend time with my baby. It’s hard.”
Still, City Girls soldiered through recording even when they didn’t feel like it -- including the final moment’s of JT freedom. “I remember the day we left L.A after the BET Awards [in June], right before JT turned herself in,” recalls Chantel Hicks, their road manager. “She was like, ‘I’m not going to the fucking studio! I’m tired! I gotta turn myself in, I don’t wanna record.’”
JT wanted to spend time with her family while she still could; Pee and the others convinced her to make one last push to finish the album. So she entered the studio a few hours before midnight and recorded half a dozen songs before Poe picked up her at 8 a.m. the next morning. “She was dead tired,” she recalls. “I brought her to Target to get a change of clothes, then we hopped in the sprinter to go get something to eat, and then we took her to turn her in.” The Girl Code album, however, was basically done at that point. “So it was worth it,” Poe says, laughing.
It certainly seems that way: In November, Girl Code debuted at No. 31 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Chart and No. 63 on the Billboard 200. Those aren’t wildly impressive figures on their own, but considering how Period only cracked one chart following its debut -- the Heatseekers Albums Chart, where it hit No. 16 in May -- it’s a sign of their hustle starting to paying off. Following Girl Code, the duo also debuted at No. 14 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart, while their Cardi B-assisted single “Twerk” even made it to the Hot 100, peaking at No. 92.
Incarceration didn’t even stop JT from recording. She makes a cameo from prison on Girl Code opener “Free JT,” a feat that required some careful coordination through prison email service CorrLinks. “I told her, ‘Call me at 8 o’clock, I’m in the studio working on this record,’” Miami recalls. “So I went into the booth, she called me, and I pressed 5 and let her hear the record. I said, ‘I just want you to say something in between the verses to give it that authentic feel.’”
Despite their jam-packed year coming to a close, Miami doesn’t see much vacation time in her future. She hopes to someday soon take her son to the Bahamas or Jamaica, but she expects JT to get an early release as soon as January and knows that -- following a welcome-home blowout, of course -- they’ll hit the road and the studio soon after to try to make up for lost time. “The pressure’s going to get bigger with the ‘JT’s home’ headlines,” she says pensively. “I don’t know if I have time for a break. Right now we’re on our come-up.”
When that happens, City Girls won’t pick up exactly where they left off -- they’ll be fiercer. JT is hungrier than ever to get back to work, Hicks says. And she’ll return to a more assertive and confident Yung Miami, who’s continued to sharpen her skills throughout 2018, partly to challenge naysayers who’ve written her off as merely a supplier of Instagram-caption-worthy adlibs -- the colorful hypewoman to JT’s more lyrics-focused emcee. “I was never a rapper before this, I’m just now becoming an artist,” Miami says. “So when people criticize my flow and delivery, I don’t really take it in a bad way, because I’m growing.”
In some ways, this growth is exactly what Quality Control expected when they signed on to shepherd the duo’s careers. “We knew they had the potential to be where they are right now,” Pee says. “Sometimes with artists and with people, you just need somebody to believe in you and show you how to develop the talent.”
Yet members of their team also light up when they describe how far the duo has come -- and how much they accomplished in such a short time. “Yung Miami is so confident now, you can hear it in her voice and see it on stage,” Hicks says. “And when JT come home, she’s definitely going to eat that stage. It went from ‘Oh my God, we just performed’ to ‘Yeah, bitch, we did that shit!’”