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Megan Thee Stallion during a portrait session in New York.
As much as Megan Thee Stallion is known for her straightforward sex positivity, general outspokenness, and “explicit” lyrics, an intriguing part of her discography if unexplored by Meg herself is feelings she withholds and the things she doesn’t say. In the context of a tumultuous year of violence and grief — and joy — Meg’s hotly anticipated debut album, Good News, seemed to be implicitly set up to address more tamped-down emotions. And in an era when lots of music made by women rappers has been derisively and reduced to “stripper rap,” this record might’ve offered another way for listeners to consider what it truly means to bare all. For better or for worse, Good News, which came out last Friday, does not deliver wholly satisfying answers.
What we get with the Houston rapper’s debut album is more of the same — women’s empowerment, taking an operative role in one’s own pleasure, aka “driving the boat,” fun — but dialed up and concentrated further. The debut album is supposed to be the coming-of-age story in song, the record an artist has spent their whole life making, an autobiography overstuffed with too many feelings and ideas. Illmatic; Reasonable Doubt; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill; Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City; Cole World: The Sideline Story all evince this tendency. Instead, Good News feels like a baggy collection of songs that are limited in scope, even though they might have unlimited streaming potential. They explore repetitive sensory details, not sensuality, and a vague sense of “freakiness” rather than real transgression or eroticism. On this album, there are songs about sex, of course, but they don’t feel particularly sexy — “Intercourse” features a hook that repeats “sexual intercourse” over and over again. “Sugar Baby” and “Movie” focuses on women’s financial exploitation of men, and “Do It on the Tip” and “Body,” which has become a TikTok challenge, are both about bodily autonomy. But these songs feel like poor imitations of her earlier efforts.
It’s not as if any of what Meg raps about isn’t inherently interesting: Sexual agency and erotic pleasure is riveting material in her music generally, and her megawatt featured single “WAP” in particular. But on Good News, these subjects sound incredibly banal. On “Intercourse,” Meg raps, “Let you put your hook in my bumper like a repo.”
Surely there’s a more enticing metaphor for that position than one that invokes towing a car? Sometimes the ideas on offer in the album even appear contradictory to Meg’s fun-loving, woman-first persona. Popcaan, the featured artist on “Intercourse,” opens the song by crooning, “Girl, your pussy good from birth.” From birth? It’s frustrating that she relies on these cringey moments rather than pushing the envelope or even our understanding of the fuller contours of “real hot girl shit,” one of her catchphrases, or what she’s like when she’s alone, when it’s just herself and the elephants in the room. But perhaps the limited topics are the point. Maybe exploring a dynamic range of experiences is not what she’s after right now, and that’s OK. Femmes love party music too. On “Girls in the Hood,” she tells us, “I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me how to live.” Point taken. But we don’t even get a middle ground in the track between the lofty idealism that she’s come to stand for and the escapism that’s fueled her so far. Surely there is some thematic space between reclamation and “repossession” between body positivity and a featured artist making questionable metaphors about a grown woman’s pussy.
Although Meg addresses her headline-grabbing shooting in July and mentions in passing the death of her mother, the sense a listener might get from this record is one of foreclosed emotion, of someone who has shut down right when they’re poised to open up and let the world know exactly who they are. The debut album — that portal into interiority and a rapper’s beautiful subjectivity — is instead boarded over in this case, like so many other windows this year. We are frequently given a rundown of physical detail (dick size preferences, levels of vaginal lubrication, “40-inch-long black weave like Morticia”) but not much else. Cartesian dualism, which is the idea that the brain and body are separate entities, though not mentioned directly here, feels like a main theme of the project. This dynamic is best summed on the album’s best song, “Circles,” the only one besides “Shots Fired” that feels remotely revealing:
Bullet wounds, backstabs,
Mama died, still sad
At war with myself in my head,
Bitch, it’s Baghdad
New nigga tryna come around and play clean
And my clothes fit tight, but my heart need a seamstress
What’s maddening is that lyrics like these are both insightful and beautiful but frustratingly rare on this album. The record’s structure is bewildering, except to those of us who’ve ever practiced avoidance. It’s as if Meg has decided to open a door for a few minutes before opting out of letting us in or continuing to look inward, instead heading for the club, the place most of these 17 songs are probably best suited for anyway. (Though what the album lacks in introspection it makes up for in humor. An exemplary joke from “Sugar Baby”: “Thinkin’ that he Future / I’mma leave him in the past tense.”) The album’s order also mimics the narrative arc of Allison P. Davis’s recent GQ profile of Meg, which saw the rapper immediately break down, recover, and move on to other matters. “Any reluctance Megan might have felt to cover the heavy stuff so quickly in our conversation,” Davis writes, “was superseded by a need to confront it, to say her piece, and to move on to fully experiencing everything happening in her life.”
The withholding that marks Meg’s musical output has unfortunately been compounded this year. The rapper’s calendar year has already been weighted with the anniversary of her mother and grandmother’s passings, global death and decay, and marked by the mystery of her shooting in July. It’s hard not to notice that Meg’s career arc so far has been a subtle study in something approaching survivor’s guilt. And while fans have rushed to Good News for answers, how much is she really supposed to share? And at what cost?
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Megan Thee Stallion in Midtown on March 09, 2020 in New York City.
As is the case for most of us, 2020 has been incredibly difficult for Megan Thee Stallion to say the least. In March, she became embroiled in a legal battle when she sued her label, 1501 Entertainment, for what she claimed was an unfair contract. Though she earned her first No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single in the spring for the “Savage” remix featuring Beyoncé, in July, she said rapper Tory Lanez, her friend at the time, shot her. (He was later charged with the shooting.) On Tuesday, Meg was nominated for four Grammys, including Record of the Year and Best New Artist.
The contradictions that marked Meg’s year are characteristic of her journey in general. After all, her public-facing story is one of contradictions or, rather, one that exploits contradictions. She’s a woman who’s named herself a “stallion,” which is defined as “an uncastrated male horse”; she dropped her debut album in the midst of a legal battle with her record label, which is a music business veteran’s kind of issue; she severed ties with both her ex-best friend and her lover as her hit single “Savage” brought families together. And now she’s given us Good News in a year featuring so little of it.
A recurring theme of hip-hop is the triumph of barely escaped death, and it figures into the genre’s aesthetics: the champagne poured out to acknowledge the prematurely deceased before the rest is imbibed in a glitzy VIP section, the memorial chains, the airbrushed “R.I.P.” attire, the “missing you” tribute montages at the beginning of music videos. But it’s understandable why she might want to have this beat missing. Her music is largely escapist, and these wounds are still incredibly fresh. Still, when it appears that the rule of thumb for this record is “Keep that shit, playa / I don’t like getting personal,” as delivered on “Circles,” it’s hard not to feel crestfallen by the lack of analysis by a star of her talent and stature.
Just as the genre is thematically tied to a barely escaped death, it is also linked to the experience of losing loved ones before one’s career takes off. It’s a lived experience many rappers have explored in their music: the spirit of Nas’ friend Ill Will permeates his debut; “T.R.O.Y.” by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth is a formative rap dirge; Chance the Rapper’s tribute to his friend Rodney plays a significant role in Acid Rap; Lil Snupe, Meek Mill’s protégé, is the unofficial, ghostly engine of his Dream Chasers label. We’re meant to understand that the time spent grinding for the very songs we’re listening to overlaps with moments rappers’ might spend with family and loved ones, and that sacrifice makes the success bittersweet.
“I lost my mama and my granny in the same month / A bunch of bitches talking down ‘cause I’m coming up.”
Those are the opening lines of the song “Ain’t Equal,” the first track from Suga, the EP that Meg dropped in March. The record premiered a year after the death of her grandmother and Holly “HollyWood” Thomas, her mother and manager who died of a brain tumor last March. Although that song sets an interesting tone in a collection of music that advances Meg’s trademark subjects — women’s empowerment, fun, sex — and suggests a departure from her usual approach to these subjects, any mention of what must be intense grief is few and far between in the music she has released since these devastating losses.
In that couplet, she moves on to braggadocio before the listener can even digest what she’s said about her family. Just as a listener might be conjuring the trauma of that loss, and the associated imagery: the obits, the funeral dirges, the lowered caskets, the awful fact that she had to experience those rituals twice in a month, there’s a switcheroo — she redirects our imaginations toward her ascent, her chin held up, her head to the sky. And even in those lyrics, listeners must read through the lines or resist doing so out of respect for all of the prodigious writing she has shared.
Although she’s stated plainly the physical cost of her matriarchs’ deaths, we never hear how she feels about it, though maybe vocalizing sadness over such an enormous tragedy is redundant. On “Circles,” she asks: “Don’t you hate when you hold a nigga down / Then he switch up on you / Turn out to be a clown?” As in “Ain’t Equal,” she immediately moves to chest-puffing before the listener can focus on what she’s just said. Her ultimate assessment of the ordeal? “I ain’t in my feelings with it.” Then, later, she advises, “Never let a nigga see you sweat.” In fact, the plainspoken pain of Jazmine Sullivan’s heartbreak anthem “Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles),” sampled throughout the track, emotes more than Meg does.
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Megan Thee Stallion performs on Saturday Night Live on October 3, 2020
Like Breonna Taylor, Meg has become a symbol of Black womanhood in America, and her recent public overtures demonstrate her support of this framing. In an October Saturday Night Live performance, she invoked Taylor and the “Protect Black Women” movement. Later that month, she wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about her experiences this year and her hopes that Black women will be reevaluated in the public imagination. And yet, despite all of the heaviness, Meg’s music is so lighthearted and joyous, almost as if in counterpoint to the darkness she’s had to overcome. While fun, escapist fare, the album notably lacks the breadth of her other projects, such as the op-ed and the fantastical, provocative, politically outspoken live performances.
The juxtaposition between Meg’s music and her life is a bit jarring, but not surprising given her demonstrated interest in compartmentalization. Although she’s been a populist hero, the schism — where the shooting is concerned — between those who believe her version of events and someone else’s often skews according to gender; she is inspired by musical heavyweights but always reminds interviewers that her mom, who was also a rapper, is her greatest inspiration; at 25, Meg, who is hoping to finish her degree next year, has an old-school Black American reverence for a college education and a career that obviates the need for it. Meg is an artist whose music is alternately lauded and reviled for its explicitness, and yet the central event of her career, the shooting, so far is shrouded in mystery, a withholding not of her own making.
What she does is borrow from Lauryn Hill — who remains the lodestar of women’s rap music — beginning her debut with the same bravado, that same battle cry. “Shots Fired,” a direct diss directed toward Tory Lanez and Kelsey Nicole, her ex–best friend, immediately recalls “Lost Ones,” the opening salvo of Hill’s Miseducation, which is also a diss track aimed at a former lover, the musician Wyclef Jean. Where “Lost Ones” set up a record that would share admissions, express insecurities, and articulate triumph, hurt, confusion, nostalgia, and hope, Good News’ first two tracks, “Shots Fired” and “Circles,” function like clickbait. They suggest a candidness that never fully comes. The rest of the record doesn’t live up to the gusto of those early compositions, but the first two songs provide some major missing information from the puzzle. In the first, Meg seemingly alludes to gossip reports that said Kelsey Nicole was “in cahoots” with Lanez for money and detailed the argument she had with Lanez the night she was shot.
According to Meg, Lanez shot her in the foot after a night of partying in the Hollywood Hills. She’d wanted to get out of an SUV she shared with him, Nicole, and her bodyguard, but Lanez allegedly fired at her feet to prevent her from walking away. He has denied that the event happened at all, and even released an album, Daystar, in September, doubling down on the denials he’d made on Instagram and through his lawyers. In “Money Over Fallouts,” he vehemently denies that he did anything wrong, asking, “Gotta see a couple questions: how the fuck you get shot in your foot, don’t hit no bones or tendons? / How the fuck your team is trying to paint me as some whole menace?” He claims that he’s the subject of an industry-wide conspiracy perpetrated by Meg, Jay-Z, Meg’s boss at Roc Nation, her management firm, and the Illuminati. He likens himself to Chris Brown and digs deep into a well of debunked theories, claiming, “They want the downfall of every Black man.” (We never do learn who “they” are.) On the song “A Woman,” he draws a picture of Meg as an archetypal man-eater who betrayed him and turned his heart “cold.” Daystar is incoherent and devastatingly manipulative; it’s a concept album based on gaslighting.
After the shooting, months of speculation ensued in which Meg was forced to respond to Lanez’s claims from his album and his social media dispatches. She was also compelled to respond to internet trolls who combed through all of the publicly available case materials, searching for examples of her supposed deception. As Allison P. Davis laid out in her GQ feature, “In a year marked by undeniable success of Megan’s own making—the viral moments and omnipresent bops and joyous social media antics—this lone and shitty incident (that she didn’t create) has loomed persistently.”
For almost as long as hip-hop has existed, the shooting has been an origin story or at least a mythic point of reference for scores of rappers. Artists either observed the specter of ambient gun violence or street hustling and were lucky enough to live and tell about it (Nas, Jay-Z, Black Thought, among many others); they themselves survived a shooting on their ascent, an event which became a part of their musical bildungsroman (50 Cent, the Game); or were killed by gun violence (Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., XXXTentacion, Nipsey Hussle, Pop Smoke, King Von, Mo3).
The conventional thinking is that bearing witness to or experiencing violence is tragic yet — depending on who you are and what you’ve done in the lead-up to a rap career, or based on the attention you get after you become famous — not wholly unexpected. (After all, mercenaries lurk, just as fans do.) Still, to the cynical and uninitiated, that brush with death lends authenticity to the artistic endeavor; the idea is so cliché in American culture that The Sopranos even spoofed it in one episode. The shooting story is so integral to the canon of rap narratives that it’s almost as if Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” merged with the Roots’ satire of rap tropes in their hit single “What They Do.” The shooting narrative is a cultural analog to the arcade game staged by Suzan-Lori Parks in her Pulitzer Prize–winning play Topdog/Underdog, in which patrons pay to fake-assassinate a Black Lincoln impersonator. Parks’s metaphor there was the allure and repulsion of history and Black people’s oddball figuration in all of it, as well as our relationships to savior figures and gatekeepers like Lincoln. The same can be applied to this experience and motif in rap. The shooting is an unfortunate, violent encounter with either a rapper’s own history-in-lyrics or a gimmick meant to prove one’s hardiness or viability in the musical marketplace.
Knowing Meg’s devastating public history clues us into the ways that a conspiracy theory, and not just “blind item” gossip and paparazzi outside the airport, can be advanced in service of an attack on a formidable Black woman. Meg’s shooting has defied the reception of every other hip-hop artist who’s been wounded before and after her. While the minor and major details of other rap-related shootings have been discussed and even sniggered at (Biggie’s ominous Tupac diss “Who Shot Ya?” for example) the question of whether a shooting happened has never actually been conjectured to this degree, if at all. Meg’s sampling of “Who Shot Ya?” on “Shots Fired” feels like an oblique commentary on this history. Whereas some shooting stories turn to rap origin tales, others morph into conspiracy theories — like the idea that Tupac faked his own death. It’s likely that Meg understands how her shooting can turn into that kind of overwrought, wrongheaded myth, and that’s perhaps why she’s so interested in deflecting more than explaining. On “Circles,” she demands, “Shhh, cut the noise.”
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Megan Thee Stallion performs onstage at the “Red Rocks Unpaused” 3-Day Music Festival on September 2, 2020 in Morrison, Colorado.
The survivor’s guilt that has characterized Meg’s life finds new resonance in the context of Good News. It’s always been lonely at the top, but with her most recent losses — including the deaths of her mother and grandmother and the less intense but potentially grievous ending of her friendship with Nicole — you wonder if she feels even more alone now. She is the incredibly successful daughter of a mother who once rapped but never made it big. As Meg explained in her GQ profile, she is the remaining scion of a fierce matrilineal family. And now she has survived a shooting. Her brilliant contradictions might speak to her latent interest in surviving because contradiction might be the best way to carry all of yourself with you. She’s written an op-ed that delves into her shooting, recorded Instagram Lives detailing her trip to the ER and her subsequent medical imaging, posted a photo to Instagram of her bloodied foot, and yet many people still don’t believe her. She’s talked to the press and had authentic if extremely vulnerable encounters with members of the media. When Meg spoke to GQ, she ended up breaking down when talking about her mother. Who wants to be that exposed all the time, especially when you’re in the public eye?
One of Meg’s tweets from July is telling in this regard: “Black women are so unprotected & we hold so many things in to protect the feelings of others w/o considering our own,” she wrote. “It might be funny to y’all on the internet and just another messy topic for you to talk about but this is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.” She’s certainly aware of the ways that Black women in general — and Black women rappers in particular — have been so misunderstood. And perhaps she’s not alone in responding as she has to the pressure; in a 2018 review of Nicki Minaj’s Queen, Lindsay Zoladz wrote for the Ringer about Minaj’s tepid subject matter, “the searching work of a mature-minded female emcee—is ground yet to be broken.”
While I don’t entirely agree — I think that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is so “mature-minded” it debilitated its author; Jean Grae’s work, for example, has always been staggeringly probing and poignant; and Dreezy, a newer artist, magnificently goes for analysis of the self and society — her insight is generally true. But look at why: For many of these women, sharing has not often resulted in the most charitable engagement. Lauryn Hill’s faux pas, her statements to the media, to concertgoers, and on Facebook, have been misconstrued, she says. (In one letter, she explains that “what hasn’t been touched upon by the media” is the notion that “it isn’t possible to affect people in any deep and meaningful way without putting sacrificial time in.”) In 2015, Nicki Minaj infamously shut down a New York Times Magazine profile with writer Vanessa Grigoriadis after the rapper objected to questions she felt were disrespectful. She was especially offended by the writer’s phrasing of a question about whether she thrived on “drama.” (Grigoriadis later admitted her own failure in that moment.) Meg has already seen how her vulnerability has been used against her. After all, Lanez used her mother’s death as a way of defending himself on “Friends Become Strangers,” another Daystar lowlight.
And maybe the offerings from Meg, City Girls, Kash Doll, and the other women targeted by the “stripper rap” categorization feel more natural if you think of fame, like other exchanges, as inherently transactional. If rap’s popular artists have proved their mettle on being coldhearted and closed off to bullshit, then maybe the way to achieve the parity in Hill’s commercial and critical promise is to go toe-to-toe, eschewing regret and dolefulness for baguette-cut diamonds.
Women who make stripped-down music and claim they are “unbothered,” as Meg repeatedly describes herself on Good News, ideally reclaim a similar power held by their dude counterparts, who make the same references to stoicism, couching it in the velvety isolation of a strip club’s VIP section. The strip club, one of rap’s — and increasingly pop’s — stalwart proving grounds is a space that demands a kind of mental as well as physical gymnastics. It regularly requires psychological protection, the metaphorical version of the mask-wearing many of us have done this year. This music is two sides of the same coin, or, rather, two sides of the same dollar bill rained down on a dancer and then scrupulously shoveled up.
While I think labeling Meg’s — and anyone’s — work as “stripper rap” is far too simplistic, she is stylistically in the wheelhouse of the other artists criticized for that approach, and borrows the steely veneer needed to prosper in that subgenre. On “What’s New,” she sneers, “Wish I would let a ho in my business / Quit askin’ ‘bout these niggas”; the link between “no questions asked” discretion and the album’s media theme become clearer. So instead of being publicly vulnerable and shamed or mocked for her imperfect feelings (and timing) or being subjected to voyeurism, as Hill has, Meg, with Good News, has released a 17-track prepared statement from her mind, her heart’s publicist. (“If my heart broke, it’s nothin’ that my jeweler won’t fix / Put some ice on my chest just to cool my shit / And I keep me a fur ‘cause I’m a real cold bitch,” she raps on “Do It on the Tip.”) In lieu of cathartic release, we get something like a press release, ensuring a tightly controlled, “unbothered” image.
In this light, the album title is shrewd, and perhaps a play on the old adage “no news is good news.” In the wake of a devastating year, Meg has retreated on this record behind an old Hollywood PR system of her own creation; that is to say, if she’s making any news, she’ll break it herself. The rapper’s refusal to say more might be her way of modeling what she’s asked the country to do this summer: “Protect Black women.” In this case, she’s looking out for herself by keeping key feelings close to the chest. In a way, she’s saying about her feelings what media-trained entertainers have learned to reply, like gangsters parroting the Fifth Amendment: “No comment.”●