Some stars revel in a sense of mystery, but Flo Milli is taking it to another level: when the 22-year-old rapper Zoom calls NME (off-camera, naturally), it’s on the condition that we don’t ask where she is, or what she’s up to. In a world where oversharing is the new normal and celebrities seem almost like superhumans, the Mobile, Alabama star, who’s become one of the most revered women in rap today, wants to live her life as closely to normalcy as possible – and who can blame her?
“I don’t know why people think that celebrities aren’t normal,” Flo Milli interjects after we note the ways in which some fans treat famouses as though they’re beyond human. “We still are normal people. We have feelings and emotions and stuff. They think that celebrities are robots or something.”
Having churned out a Billboard-charting debut mixtape in 2020’s critically acclaimed ‘Ho, Why Is You Here?’, the rapper has also amassed a massive cult following that has remained loyal despite the relatively low profile she’s maintained in the past couple of years. With its upbeat, thrilling music ready for the club, her debut mixtape was our huge, energetic first meet with a unique artist. But with her buoyant, recently released track ‘PBC (Pretty Black Cute)’ – which is perfect for a great ball or voguing session – the artist born Tamia Carter heralded her red-hot return to the scene.
Carter is remaining tight-lipped about her upcoming next full-length project, which is currently in the final stages of production. She does, though, reveal that it’s all about versatility, a fact derived from her “beat selections” and “just the whole vibe of it all”. She adds: “This mixtape is going to be more mature so you can see that side of me… I can’t say too much – I don’t want to give too much away and you can’t enjoy the surprise later.”
Flo Mill burst onto the rap scene with her 2019 viral track ‘Beef FloMix’, its juvenile relentlessness and chiming synths ensuring Gold-certification was guaranteed. Early in her career, Carter was pegged as one of the leading ladies among the rapping talent that emerged from the SoundCloud world.
This was a time when most of SoundCloud’s initial big stars, such as Ski Mask The Slump God and Juice WRLD, had already transcended the platform to rise to the top of the Billboard charts, proved that Gen-Z’s D.I.Y nature represented the way forward for the music world. With ambitious artists flooding the app in the hope of finding similar success, Milli’s take on Ethereal and Playboi Carti’s 2015 track ‘Beef’ stood out as diamond in a pile of musical rubble.
Flo found the song’s instant success “really shocking… I didn’t expect it. Once it hit Spotify’s Top Viral 50, I was like, ‘Woah!’ But it was okay. I never expected that song to go crazy like that. I mean, I would have been more conscious on that song if I knew. I knew about the Playboi Carti songs for years, and had been listening to it for years, but I had found the beat on YouTube again. I started rapping and put it out”. Carter makes it sound simple, but it took serious skill to reappropriate the boastful hood anthem and make it her own.
After those initial SoundCloud stars found success in the mid-2010s, many believed that the SoundCloud pop-manufacturing bubble had burst, but Carter proved that great talent could still push through, even if she points out that the zeitgeist has moved elsewhere.
“I feel like it might have died down because a lot of my other stuff hasn’t picked up the same,” she says, “but every couple of years we have something new society gravitates to – and [now] that seems to be TikTok. I feel like, in my high school years, SoundCloud was where we found all the lit songs, all the lit rappers, but it might not hold the same weight anymore.” Yet she remains loyal to the platform that launched her: “I love SoundCloud, though, and how you get to post whatever you want when you want. I’m not gonna not like SoundCloud”.
“I was able to get my emotions out by rapping, instead of fighting them”
The song’s success was cemented by its ability to soundtrack a whole era of memes. A couple of years ago, ‘spam pages’ would have been a must in your Instagram follow list. To inject some fun onto your small screen, you’d follow popular Instagram accounts whose sole purpose was to post poor quality screen-recordings of funny, meaningless, or seminal videos. This form of culture birthed the spontaneity harnessed on the world’s favourite app right now, TikTok, where Flo Milli became a huge star after ‘Beef FloMix’ spawned a dance craze.
For a while, between 2018 and 2019, ‘Beef (Flo Mix)’ soundtracked many such videos – such as a clip from popular Disney Channel original TV series That’s So Raven, where the protagonist played by Raven Symone cranks up her radio and dances in her jammies to a dubbed over cut of ‘Beef (Flo Mix)’.
“That’s when I noticed it started blowing up,” Milli says of the clip, which she spotted while studying for a degree in Business Administration at Clark Atlanta University. “I literally woke up one day in college and was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’.” But Flo never doubted her abilities to be more than just a viral meme: “I’m just a firm believer in my talent and I knew, once it got a little buzz, it wasn’t gonna die down.”
Unfortunately, having come to the SoundCloud stratosphere relatively late, Flo Milli had to battle not only for visibility as a female rapper, but also for her own individuality after multiple comparisons to other SoundCloud originals such as Maryland’s punk-rap goddess Rico Nasty and the bubbly cartoony Bali Baby. Comparison is a curse for a rising artist; how does Carter feel about people trying to tether her success to other rappers who came before her?
“I don’t have to explain myself to people who don’t pay my bills”
“I don’t feel no way because I know who I am,” she insists, “so I wouldn’t say anything to [those naysayers] because I don’t have to explain myself to people that I don’t know, people who don’t pay my bills. So that’s why that’s never bothered me. Anybody that knew or knows me, knows that I’ve had haters since high school, and before the fame. So I’ve never cared about that type of shit. I knew what this comes with and what I signed up for.”
She might be a big Nicki Minaj fan, but Flo doesn’t share her hero’s love of rapping via a persona. When you listen to Flo Milli, what you’re singing may not be strictly true, but it’s all real life to Carter: “Nothing is a persona because if you listen to a song, you’ll hear exactly what I am feeling. The story behind me rapping was me trying to express myself through high school. Bitches didn’t like me – that’s fine – and I started rapping. That’s how I was able to get my emotions out instead of fighting them. I got it out the classy way.
“I knew the power of words, and that’s probably the reason why I do what I do because, at the end of the day, you can hate on me, but when you get in that car and hear the radio, you ain’t got no motherfucking choice but to hear me on the radio. When you’re in that club, you’re going to hear my voice. I don’t have to say anything at all.”
From ‘Beef (Flo Mix)’ to ‘Ho, Why Is You Here?’, Flo Milli has always exuded exuberant spunkiness and self-confidence, which means her songs are perfect feel-good anthems. She says that her debut mixtape was “an excellent introduction” to her musically, but explains there’s definitely more of Flo Milli that we haven’t unlocked yet: “Around the time, ‘Ho, Why Is You Here?’ came out, this life was moving kinda fast and I feel like I didn’t get to put as much as I wanted into it. That’s what I do on this [upcoming] project. ‘Ho, Why Is You Here?’ showed a little bit of what I do, but I want to show you guys 100 per cent of what I do.
“I am always trying to reinvent myself. Once I’m done with something, I move on”
“I’m always shooting for bigger, so if I had a goal then, it’s bigger now. I try not to focus on the stuff I have already done because I am always trying to reinvent myself, and once I’m done with something, I move on to the next because I can’t be married to something. I have to keep coming up with new stuff”.
‘PBC (Pretty Black Cute)’ offers glimpses of that reinvention. Here the 22-year-old has moved on from simple, frivolous tunes to turn up to, instead turning a song with heavier emphasis on empowerment as she tells her fans to “get in their bag” and “sashay away” with a tune inspired by the glamour of New York Fashion Week – which coincided with its late February release – as well as American Black History Month. “That’s the reason I make music,” Flo Milli reveals. “I make music to make people happy. I want them to feel something. I’m trying to tap into everything because not every song has to be a happy song, and I’m realising that now.”
Growing up in Alabama, Tamia Carter was in a prime position to benefit from the fact that America’s South has become an epicentre of contemporary rap, the area’s rich twang juxtaposed against the grit of New York and the laid-back nature of Cali rap. She’s currently studying the South’s rich history, and a typical Flo Milli track – if there is such a thing – expertly blends ’00s hip-hop nostalgia with today’s trap feels: “I was very consuming as a kid. I was exposed to all different genres, and explorative because I wasn’t just locked into Alabama. We don’t even have a music scene like that”.
When she was around 12-years-old, Milli had headed her own rap trio, Pink Mafia, which she also disbanded when she was 14. She wrote songs with two of her other rap-wannabe friends, which eventually sparked her love for working alone: “I like to work alone because I’m such an independent thinker. But I’m glad that I went through that to know that’s not what I want. Also, it taught me who I am, because out of everybody — this is no shade to anyone — I’m the one who wanted it the most. It taught me that you gotta keep going, regardless of the support of your friends. You still have to.”
But Milli isn’t against an impromptu collaboration with an underdog — before this interview, Carter had an all-day video shoot with a newcomer whose identity she’s keeping top secret. She’ll always put that aside to make music with promising acts, she explains: “I know how it is being a new artist. I know how it feels and how overwhelmingly anxious it can be to have a certain life one day and then the next day, your life is completely different. People are looking at you with different intentions and all types of stuff, so I want to be that gravity for them because that’s what I wanted as a new artist. I want to treat them how I want to be treated, so, with their hunger, that motivates me to work with them.”
“I want to see myself do everything I want to do, and hope that inspires others”
She’s also enjoyed the support of her fellow peers, as the latest collection of women in the rap mainstream have been banding together to support one another. For example, when her debut mixtape came out, stars such as former NME cover star Rico Nasty, as well as Georgia’s Latto, posted her mixtape online. “It’s lovely getting the support that’s genuine, and what’s needed,” she says. “People only see the end result; they see when the make-up’s done, they see when the video is shot. They don’t see what artists go through to get to that point. So getting the support of your peers, and they respect what you’re doing? It’s important for us to support each other.”
To the wider world, though, despite Flo Milli happily helping out other new artists, her fans feel like she deserves a lot more recognition than she’s already received. ‘Ho, Why Is You Here?’ might have been critically acclaimed and it breaking into the Billboard 200 was no doubt impressive, but even then it only reached Number 78. Her vocally online fans scream that she deserves to be celebrated more widely, but Flo wants to remind them that it’ll come in due course.
“I see that,” she says of the tweets and online discourse pleading for her mainstream recognition, “and I don’t take offence to any of it because I know what I have done and what I haven’t done. I’m not sitting here trying to get pity, or crying on the internet, talking ‘bout, ‘Y’all don’t do me good’, because I don’t give a fuck. What has happened has happened, and what’s meant to happen will happen, and it will happen in divine timing.”
She might revel in a sense of mystery, declining to reveal her current location, but in conversation Flo Milli seems like a bubbly 22-year-old who simply made it after years of chasing a dream that many told her was dead. In other words: she’s no super-robot that churns out pop-trap hits ready for any party. Once she’s at the top of her game, Milli hopes that her achievement will help others to see that their goals are attainable.
“I’d love to leave a legacy of inspiration,” she says. “I want to see myself do everything I want to do and hope that inspires others to follow suit. The fact that I did what I said I wanted to do and reached all my goals, and I inspired people? That’s what I came here to do.”
Flo Milli’s latest single ‘PBC (Pretty Black Cute)’ is out now.