"What's a sample?" Jerrika Karlae asks her producer, who goes by Ikey Boy, leaning over his shoulder as he flits through folders of beats and ideas for her debut EP. He explains and she laughs at herself. "Oh, like copy-paste." She laughs again, "I should write a book, like Being a Rapper for Dummies. Lots of young girls would buy that shit, I'd make a bag." She turns and adds more seriously, "He's always saying something about turning up the reverb, turning down the echo, I don't know what he's talking about. I bet a lot of girls would read a cute-ass little glossary book. They'd read that and be like, shit, I can be a rapper too."
She may not know the terminology, but she's pretty sure she knows what sounds good, what will work in the strip club, what the scene kids will vogue too, and what people are most curious about: her public, tumultuous engagement with the crown prince of Atlanta rap, Young Thug. Which, to her, is anyone's business, as long as they're willing to hear her side.
Minutes after we're introduced, she asks me, "You know a girl who stayed with me for a year, one of my closest friends, slept with my boyfriend?"
Karlae was five minutes early for her 9:30 PM slot at Billboard Studios on the outskirts of Atlanta, carpooling with her maternal aunt Tamika and her uncle's girlfriend, Sue, wearing a pair of knit cowboy boots with a sliver of a kitten heel she curses routinely ("Pardon my language"). Though she originally amassed an Instagram following for her talent with makeup and an ever-changing, immaculate weave, tonight she has close-cropped natural hair bleached blonde and boxy, translucent orange sunglasses.
"This is me all the time," she says, gesturing head-to-toe at her second-skin leather pants, a white polo shirt tied into a crop top, a Dior choker, a diamond snake curling up her right ear and pearlescent-white acrylics. "I'm real, but I'm jazzy."
Actually, she's beautiful. More beautiful even, than she appears on Instagram (where she has just shy of 900,000 followers), because she's ecstatic over just about every word out of anyone's mouth. Sue suggests she add a third verse to "I Fuck U," a song she wrote when she was mad at Young Thug — a faster one, so people can twerk to it. "That's a great idea," she nods, bobbing over to the computer to make sure Ikey is listening. She should do a remix of the Playboi Carti song "Poke it Out," someone says idly. She can't remember what song that is at the moment, but that's a great idea, too. She should change this one word to "pussy," the last time she says the chorus on this other song, someone else pipes in. Amazing idea.
Karlae wanders around the room—which is all white leather and purple accent lighting—holding a blunt she offers around as often as she hits it herself. She laughs with her mouth open, always searching for an eye to catch. She high-fives me at least three times. She argues amicably with her aunt about what to order for dinner, and pizza arrives for everyone at 11:30.
Although it's basically impossible to imagine Young Thug—the guy who once told GQ that he has "No feelings. Not at all." —being enchanted by anyone, maybe that's just anyone with fewer watts than Karlae emits, which is about as bright as if charm were a physical substance you could put in a nuclear reactor.
Phone in one hand, she tries to pour Hennessy into a tall styrofoam cup with the other and knocks the cup over, startling herself. "I was trying to pour one for you," she tells me, blushing and wincing while someone rushes to grab a paper towel. "It's never done that to me before." She smiles like the physics of cups are a real spicy secret, just between us.
The sound booth has three candles and one white leather armchair; the window is blacked out with paper. She decides we should just sit on opposite arms of the chair instead of hunting for another, and prefaces it all with a "Girl, I'm gonna be so real with you."
Karlae was born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is how she explains her light drawl.She moved to Atlanta with her mom—rap management staple Nekia Hauser—when she was 10 years old, and has been around rappers for most of her life. That's how she met almost everyone she knows, she says, and that's how she met Young Thug, in Gucci Mane's studio in 2014, when her mom was managing Young Scooter. It was pretty much love at first sight. He proposed by posting a photo of a set of engagement rings on Instagram in April 2015, and their stars rose at the same time.
Young Thug has put out a dozen wildly popular mixtapes since the summer they met, and recently landed his first number one single. The swimwear line Karlaelaunched in the summer of 2014—with $7,000 of seed money her mother set aside after a particularly profitable year managing Young Scooter—became a steadier source of income once she was a famous rapper's girlfriend. It was a huge free marketing bump. She's blunt about that, and says she rushed to launch a cosmetics line in 2016 because she felt insecure about her status as her own person, an entrepreneur. (It was a brief panic—the inventory for Karlae Cosmetics is still sitting in her garage.)
She makes frequent reference to being a Virgo, which makes her unfailingly loyal, and unlikely to "start shit," but very likely to finish it. Thug—or "Jeff"—is a Leo (fun, arrogant). They're highly compatible signs, not that she likes "horoscope stereotypes."
Still, a big spat between the two is at least part of the reason why we're sitting here talking about her music at all.
On the 2017 commercial mixtape Beautiful Thugger Girls, Thug wrote a Bright Eyes-sampling love song for Jerrika, and shouted her out on several other tracks, referencing her business acumen ("She was popular way before me"), her body ("I'm lovin' every single curve about you"), and her charming rage ("Every eyeball that look at me she wanna kill it.") He also wrote a song called "Relationships," a Future collaboration about struggling to winnow down a long list of side chicks.
"It pissed me off so bad," Karlae says of the track. "All his music before that era was so love-based, because we were just so in love. It kind of evolved into something different and I couldn't understand. I was just like, uh, I hate this fucking song."
Furious and inspired, she cut a remix, with uncorrected vocals and first-draft lyrics, and sent it to him, fuming. It wasn't bad, she says, but it wasn't good. No one will be hearing it, but they'll still hear plenty about her relationship if they care to listen.
"Do you know how many people want to hear my pain?" she asks.
She's really asking. Do I have a rough estimate? We're talking business. She's looking forward to the streaming numbers, driven by gob-smacked boys who'll ask—her voice drops into a bro-y imitation—"Did you hear what she said Thug did?"
She also expects to reach, of course, women, who don't have enough idols of their own in rap. "I know for a fact that I'm gonna inspire some girls," she says. "The girls who look up to me, they're gonna be like 'Damn, you got songs about getting your heart broken and you go with this rich guy and he's obsessed with you but he just can't walk straight and narrow.' It's women who can relate to that. It's real life."
"I know for a fact that I'm gonna inspire some girls [...] The girls who look up to me, they're gonna be like 'Damn, you got songs about getting your heart broken' [...] It's women who can relate to that. It's real life."
Since hers is a thoroughly modern love story born of the digital age, I don't have to ask any follow-up questions as so much of what's happened has been public. Last September, Thug wished his fiancée a happy birthday, writing on Twitter, "I hope u live ten times longer [than] everybody on earth!!" Less than three weeks later, he made headlines across the hip-hop blogosphere for a starkly different sentiment: "Bitch u going die OnGod." Karlae had declared herself single on Instagram after finding proof of Thug's infidelity, then launched into an Instagram Stories feud with aspiring model Amy Luciani, the former friend she mentioned right after we shook hands. It wasn't the first time Thug and Karlae had broken up, but it was certainly the most vicious fallout, and every beat played out on the internet, for millions of followers to see and comment on.
Karlae took the brunt of that, of Young Thug's fans failing to understand—or neglecting to even try—that real life is not a music video and true feelings are more complicated than a hook on even the most limber track. "People feel like, we love this star, we're gonna die for this star, and sometimes it puts the woman in a hard position," she explains. "Sometimes… shit, am I allowed to be sad?"
They got back together after Thug entreated on his Instagram Story, wandering around a private tarmac, "Everybody please tell her to give me one more chance," then showed up at her house and covered the floor in tens of thousands of dollar bills.
When Karlae told Young Thug she was making music, he told her she needed to get over her issue with "Relationships"—it was just a song. He didn't believe her creative drive was coming from any place else. So she flew to LA and recorded again, coming back with a new track called "Drippin," which YSL up-and-comer Gunna has promised her a verse for.
"I just wanted it to be so perfect because I know he's so good. He really is. I had to step outside of myself, and be like, bro." She's not mad about "Relationships" anymore because now she's an artist herself. She gets it. And she's done convincing him. "He loves it," she says. "He's like, 'I'm so proud of you.'"
Still, there are other people Karlae has to sway. Producers and artists she wants to work with often tell her they need to clear it with Young Thug first, out of respect. She worries that peers will think he's writing her songs or laying the tracks for her, when in reality she'd rather die than show him something unfinished. She doesn't want to be perceived as getting a free pass, and she doesn't want to be called "some girl" who woke up one day and tried to be a rapper for no reason. She wants it on record that the only person who didn't ask any of these questions was Queens-born Atlanta transplant Rich the Kid, whose debut album this April had a Kendrick Lamar co-sign but received middling reviews and plenty of charges of infantile misogyny—"I want you to put this in there. "He was so real, he wasn't like, 'Man your music might suck.' He did it, he took a chance, and the song came out really good."
The first the public heard from Karlae the artist—a song released under the name Karlae—was a feature on Thug's Slime Language, released on his 27th birthday. She recorded the hook and her verse for "U Ain't Slime Enough" alone, then sent it to Thug and his labelmate Duke to add verses. "I took a lot of pride in it, because I was like, damn, I made something that these dudes want to really get on." Kylie Jenner, who has spent the last few years solidifying a reputation as the foremost hip-hop trend forecaster on Snapchat (just for kicks!), gave it a stamp of approval on Instagram, from inside a Ferrari, which Karlae loved.
In June, when The Fader reported that "YSL's First Lady" was in the studio Karlae was elated. It was just a 200-word news post, but it took her seriously. At the same time, she never said she was signed to her fiancé's label, and in fact she isn't. She's been paying for all this studio time herself, taking meetings with labels but getting ready to release the EP independently if she has to. And she doesn't feel comfortable with the title First Lady.
"I am... as far as YSL the brand, and Thug, slime, slatt, all of that good stuff, it's not really one First Lady because his sisters are on his label. They've actually been recording way longer than I have. You can think of First Lady as a guy's chick, I guess, but I don't wanna take that. It's more than one female holding it down.
If she's putting together a dream team to collaborate with, it's mostly comprised of women. She loves Bhad Bhabie ("She made right of her wrongs"). She loves SZA ("She's so dope. I just like female artists that's like, real"). And she loves Nicki Minaj, whose recent sort of flimsy diss about Young Thug wearing dresses and speaking with a lisp didn't bother her at all. "I'm a woman first. How can I sit here like 'Oh! Huh? She said my fiancé's name!' when I'm listening to her to feel empowered? She's speaking life into people." That's what she wants to do, too, so she'll go to bat for Nicki anytime.
"I have a song that I have a feeling Beyoncé would like," she says. "I don't know whether I'm gonna work with her ever in my dreams, and I'm okay with that. I'm okay just listening to her fucking epic-ass music and looking at her. But I really think she would listen to it and catch a vibe."
The EP isn't named yet, but her best friend suggests calling it The Unexpected. "She's so over-the-top," Karlae laughs. "I'm like, I better be spittin' some Jay-Z level bars to call it that." She has 17 songs done or nearly-done, though she'll only release six for now. She plays me clips of nearly all of them, and each time a new one starts, it starts louder, and in each pause between tracks she stops dancing, turns around to check my face and squeals, "Look at her, she loves it!"
The songs are bubbly and cool, with a mix that feels a bit manic—a trap-infused tribute to strip club and Atlanta landmark, Magic City, an ode to opiates featuring 19-year-old Mike WiLL Made-It signee Rico Pressley ("His voice sounds like a flute"), rap-pop songs and a couple of Young Thug duets about how fun it is to be rich, hot, and in love. On her catchiest club song, she professes to ride him "like a bike," pronouncing the word like "yikes!" as if the center of the noun is an ice pick. Her ballads are reminiscent of the melodramatic side of The Pinkprint—she also wants a heartbreak song with Nicki—but there's something undeniably charming about everything she plays.
She's got a raspy, eager singing voice with a Southern lilt, a taffy-mouthed talky rap style that sounds sort of like if Kesha only ever listened to early Chance the Rapper, and a roster of screeches, cracks, and cartoony snarls that sound like Thug but also the way Beyoncé punctuates sentences now—like on "APESHIT," which is playing in the studio at 12:30, when Karlae's uncle wanders in with a takeout box of crab legs.
Karlae grew up in a world of already-minted success and was trusted to run a business when she was 20-years-old—it's a sharp contrast to Young Thug pre-fame, growing up in the housing projects of Atlanta. The people around him in most of his early magazine profiles strongly implied that he would be lucky to make it to 30 without being murdered, or starving himself to death on gummy worms and lean. At the same time, it's unlikely anyone ever asked him what made him think he should bother trying to rap. Or if they did, "they" weren't half the internet.
When Karlae finally hops in the booth to record something new, around 1 AM, I can barely hear her. She's piecing together a hook, requesting feedback from the engineer between each take. He's saying over and over that it's all her, it's all "fire," and he's just moving things around. She doesn't seem convinced, and asks to do it again.
"I just want them to take me seriously," she says after helping some friends who showed up take selfies in the studio. "I can't wait for people to hear my music so they can be like, 'That's not a joke.'"
Editor's note: A previous version of this article ran on September 10, 2018.