Flo Milli Is Here for More Than a Moment

Flo Milli Is Here for More Than a Moment

Story by Nicolas-Tyrell Scott / Fashion direction and styling by Misa Hylton / Photography by CanonNov 02, 2020

From the start, 2020 has felt like a pivotal turning point for America. Ahead of what could be the most consequential election in our lifetimes, many of us are starting to re-think our behaviors, question old assumptions and challenge longstanding institutions. Through it all, there are plenty of reasons to feel inspired.

Highlighting compelling people in pop culture, politics and the arts, PAPER will examine America in all of its splendor, grit and complexity, and search for the stories that give us hope, compel us to be better versions of ourselves and to understand America as the multi-faceted, dynamic place — and idea — that it is.

When Flo Milli was 14, she had the same goal as teenagers everywhere. "I wanted to be Instagram famous," she recalls innocently.

Manifestation is a concept that Tamia Monique Carter has clung tightly to all her life. "You can ask my mom," she says. "I'd have posters all over my bedroom walls. Everyday I'd add to or look at them." After amassing 20,000 followers during her freshman year of high school, she raised the stakes and decided she needed to make it as a musician before she turned 18. When that date passed without a chart hit, fear engulfed her. "I kept asking myself 'When is it gonna happen?'," the now-20-year-old recalls. "When I was really about to say 'F*ck this shit,' "Beef" started to blow up."

Flo Milli had a pugnacious upbringing in Prichard, Alabama. "When I'm telling you there were fights every morning, it was like a routine," she says casually. The area has a crime rate of 55.35%. Her family moved to nearby Mobile when she was eight, but she's adamant in her appreciation for her original hometown, which taught her to tune out the noise and focus on what matters. "I've had a taste of everything, the good and the bad."

Denim hair: Misa Hylton x Terrence Davidson x Diesel, Denim patchwork panty, bustle skirt and pasties: Misa Hylton x Diesel, Denim nails: Misa Hylton x Eri Ishuzu x Diesel, Earrings: Simone I. Smith

Alongside XXL Freshman Chika, Flo's one of two Alabama artists leading the modern renaissance of women in rap. In Mobile, she's the first lady. When citing the city's hip hop family tree, her knee-jerk reaction is to note the influence of her predecessor Rich Boy, whose colossal hit "Throw Some D's" as well as "Boy Looka Here" are southern rap staples. Beyond Alabama, Miami's Trina was in heavy rotation. "I really messed with Trina, she's always been around," Flo Milli says. "'5 Star' is iconic as fuck to me, seeing her with Nicki Minaj had me so excited."

Songs like "5 Star" represent a turn of a decade — the era when Flo Milli was just setting up her Instagram grid. First released in 2009, with its remix arriving in October of that year, Trina was one of few women in rap — particularly from the south — who had survived the 2000s unscathed. At the time, veteran Lil Kim was adjusting to a newer generation of hip-hop consumers and releasing music independently, with Remy Ma's breakthrough being cut short due to her highly documented prison sentence. Newcomers such as Lil Mama and Nicki Minaj were entering the mainstream, persistent in their quest to extend the lineage of women lyricists. Both Minaj and Trina stood together on not just "5 Star," but the Ludacris-fronted single "My Chick Bad" a year later, ushering in Minaj as a generational figure. Even as Dreezy, Tink, Azealia Banks and Angel Haze graced the airwaves, Minaj remained the most visible woman in hip hop for years, reigning as one of only a few of her kind to achieve mammoth success.

"It's so beautiful and refreshing that women are supporting one another again."

Flo Milli is naturally a huge fan of the Young Money/Cash Money signee. In early high school, she'd often run home to watch and recite Minaj's "Hello Good Morning" and "Monster" features. "Nicki Minaj is unmatched, she did what she had to do. In my eyes, she's accomplished. At the end of the day, who else has done what she has in the new age?"

Like Minaj, Flo is animated and exuberant; her enigmatic energy was most recently showcased during BET's "Hot New Crew" freestyle. Squatting, fanning herself and teasing the camera, she was quick to assert her star power across her 50-second slot, even gaining co-signs from Russ across social media. She assigns her confidence to her choir teacher and immediate family. "I grew up around music. My mom, sister and I would all sing in the church. When my mom did solos, the church would go wild" she laughs. "My choir teacher would also get me to do all of the plays and acting and singing. Singing and performing was in my blood — I just knew I was made for this."

Denim hair: Misa Hylton x Terrence Davidson x Diesel, Denim pasties: Misa Hylton x Diesel, Denim nails: Misa Hylton x Eri Ishuzu x Diesel, Earrings: Simone I. Smith

Illustration: Misa Hylton x Diesel

Even as she just begins to explore her strengths, Flo Milli has already proven to be a Gen Z star. Nailing her infectious "Flo Milli Shit" tag-line, she ran with the initial virality of "Beef (FloMix)" and hasn't stopped yet. With its drowsy, pacified melody, the song has proven hypnotic, pulling listeners into Milli's sphere. It's perfectly suited to TikTok, but actually pre-dates the popular app with its trap sound. One of Playboi Carti and Etheral's Soundcloud loosies, "Beef" was originally released in 2015. When it appeared on her YouTube recommended algorithm, fate pushed Flo Milli to put pen to paper, and quickly.

"I was [initially] like 'whatever,' but something told me to write to it," she shrugs. "I put some verses on Instagram, and everyone told me to get to the studio and record." Having little experience of forming full songs at the time, she persevered, heading to a local studio weeks later to complete her "FloMix" edition.

The single also sees Flo Milli co-signing pre-teen stars, linking back to one of the entertainer's former check-points. "I wanted to be on 106 & Park when I released music," she says wistfully. The BET-housed show was canceled by the end of 2014, rendering the star's former milestone as unattainable long before the release of "Beef." She decided to do the next best thing, by crediting the 106 & Park regulars OMG Girlz towards the latter-half of her first verse.

Having successfully navigated the digital realm with "Beef"'s pep-rally-sounding follow up "In The Party," (63 million streams and counting), Flo Milli yearned to introduce herself to the masses and craft her RCA debut in a more holistic way. In her own words: "I had to catch up, I was famous [at that point]." She remained tunnel-visioned in Atlanta, dedicating weeks to building a sound which best represented her.

Beaded hair: Misa Hylton x Terrence Davidson, Gold crown and denim wings: Misa Hylton x Diesel, Denim nails: Misa Hylton x Eri Ishizu x Diesel, Anklet: Misa Hylton x Martine Ali

Illustration: Misa Hylton x Diesel

Despite a wide-array of producers, including the infamous J White Did It and Whoismike, the resulting Ho, why is you here ? is sonically bound together by its keyboard heavy, ominous-trap foundations. On "Mood Everyday" the keyboard is used to dramatically command listeners' attention, ensuring they submit to Flo Milli's impending supremacy. On "Pockets Bigger" they sit in the background of a more dominant bassline, simply amplifying Flo Milli's braggadocious run-on bars. "I absolutely love my stuff to have a southern twang to it, [pianos and keyboards] are a part of that." she says.

Ho, why is you here? visually delivers too, with Flo Milli borrowing from the '80s and '90s. Her stance can almost instantly be likened to Lil Kim's Hard Coresquat, AKA one of the most iconic album covers in the history of women in rap. Flo says this was a happy accident: "I've heard [the Lil Kim] suggestion before, but it was inspired by a movie." Once she's googled the image for reference moments later, she circles back to her initial claims. "Wow, I look so much like her, you can include that," she laughs. The Ho, why is you here? artwork, by Danasia Sutton, actually channels the 1997 Halle Berry comedy B.A.P.S., acronymic for Black American Princess. "It was dope to dip into the past and really show homage to eras of the past. I love nostalgia."

Beaded hair: Misa Hylton x Terrence Davidson, Gold crown: Misa Hylton x Diesel

Upon its July 24 unveiling, Ho, why is you here ? finally gave the 20-year-old the virality she'd craved in high school. Within hours, she'd entered Apple Music's Top 10 US chart and climbed inside the first five pop trends on Twitter. Then there was her Spotify-backed Times Square visual. Sitting with her left leg perched in the air, the billboard advertised that it's Tamia Monique Carter's world now, and we're all just living in it. Her stans — loosely labelled the Flo Militants — were joined by industry heavyweights like Cardi and Rico Nasty. But it was Missy Elliott's acknowledgement that left Flo Milli speechless.

"It's so beautiful and refreshing that women are supporting one another again," she gushes. "It was gone for a minute, but someone from that original time shouting me out felt super special."

"I'm not gonna bash Black men, but what I am gonna say is that everyone knows there's an imbalance when it comes to Black women and the issues that we face."

Of course, female empowerment dominates on Ho, why is you here?. The most obvious case-in-point is in "Weak," but even further-afield on "Send The Addy," you still find the rapper issuing a warning about men and empty promises. "Why you taking his word and you know he be lying?" she asks a collective female audience.

"Ho, why is you here? is me reminding women of their power and worth," she says. "[Putting women first] is just naturally me, it's my attitude. I don't take shit from men, and I let people know that." Her attitude merges with that of City Girls and Megan Thee Stallion, and it's much-needed in a world where Cardi B's "WAP" is met with sexist criticism from the likes of Cee Lo Green. There's still a clear double standard that echoes throughout hip-hop and the music world at large. As Meg wrote for the New York Times, it often "seems as if the male-dominated ecosystem can handle only one female rapper at a time."

Arm cuffs, jeans and platforms: Misa Hylton x Diesel, Necklace: Misa Hylton x Martine Ali x Rory Rockmore, Anklet: Misa Hylton x Martine Ali, Earrings: Simone I. Smith, Body pant: Ezra D. Ferguson

Illustration: Misa Hylton x Diesel

Flo Milli is well aware of these patriarchal dynamics. "I'm gonna keep it real with you," she begins. "I'm not gonna bash Black men, but what I am gonna say is that everyone knows there's an imbalance when it comes to Black women and the issues that we face [both inside and outside of music]. 2020 has shown us in so many ways how real and serious an issue this all is for us."

These aren't just empty words for Flo Milli, who has also used her new position of influence to express support for the late Breonna Taylor's family, and helping organize Black Lives Matter protests in Mobile. Taking a look at her Stories a week after our call, the artist's tags are filled with girls and women, mothers and daughters.

"Change needs to happen, we are still out here fighting," she continues. "I don't know if you've ever heard of it but it's the one to five ratio. For every one bad encounter you have with a significant other, you need to have five other good ones to balance it out. We need to take this and uplift one another and focus on loving each other. Love wins at the end of the day."

Arm cuffs and jeans: Misa Hylton x Diesel, Body pant: Ezra D. Ferguson

The Flo Milli moment is just getting started. Posting about her recent studio session with super-producer Kenny Beats last month, she noted that she was "FOCUSED." The session felt like a breakthrough. "He taught me so much, to come out of myself more. I can't explain everything but I left those days feeling different."

It's also worth noting that Flo Milli is ready to embrace her vocal abilities as she ascends higher. Assisting Warner's Savannah Cristina on "F'd Up," Flo's light and airy voice proved its potential for future hooks on her own material. She sees Cardi B's "Be Careful" as a contemporary example of a healthy rap-to-melody ratio. "I most definitely can see myself even doing full on singing songs," she says.

While the world waits to hear her next phase, she's assured that this moment — her present — feels different to anything she's ever experienced before. "I'm digging deep into parts of me that I didn't even know were there. I'm looking to elevate, experiment and grow."

Denim hair: Misa Hylton x Terrence Davidson x Diesel, Denim patchwork panty, bustle skirt and pasties: Misa Hylton x Diesel, Denim nails: Misa Hylton x Eri Ishuzu x Diesel, Earrings: Simone I. Smith

Stream Flo Milli's Ho, why is you here ? album, below.

The inspiration behind PAPER's Flo Milli shoot originates at a pivotal time in the world as Black women reclaim our power and demand justice in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. The relentless attempts to diminish the Black woman led me to create a fashion story that celebrates the power that lives inside of the Black woman through the lens of hip hop, my favorite lens.

"The Raptress Archetype," as I call it, has served as an artistic source of empowerment and freedom for all women. She is royal yet relatable because she creates space for truth, sexual expression, strength and authenticity. She unapologetically communicates many of the things we feel and experience, and she gives voice to it. She shares her experience and perspective from within her world to the outside world through music. Her platform gives witness to the fact that she is a creator, she is art in motion.

These looks embrace the Goddess frequency of Isis and Eve, while combining cultural staples in the hip hop community: Bamboo earrings, extravagant nails and intricately coiffed hair. She is the Architect. Exhibiting the universe in Flo's fro, the Eve on her custom Diesel and the classic updo hairstyle complete with barrel curls — all in patchwork denim — is a beautiful reminder, on some Flo Milli ish, that we been that bitch.

Denim is so distinctly American and the fabric of society and culture. Over 60 pieces of upcycled DIESEL denim were used in the execution of my custom designs for Flo Milli's PAPER "America" cover shoot. We must all do what we can towards sustainability. —Misa Hylton

Fashion direction and styling: Misa Hylton
Photography: Canon
Hair: Terrence Davidson
Makeup: Christopher Dixon
Nails: Eri Ishizu
Assistant fashion director: Jenna Tyson
Styling assistants: Opal Campbell, Misa Hylton Fashion Academy Styling Team
Photography Assistant: Keith Taylor
Hair Assistant: Charm Amour, Derricka Traylor