Snapshots of the Many Megan Thee Stallions

On “Shots Fired,” the song that kicks opens Megan Thee Stallion’s new album “Good News,” the 25-year-old Texas M.C. unleashes such a sustained and eviscerating torrent of ridicule toward a man that she says assaulted her that it (almost) feels like an act of violence.

In under three minutes, locked into a relentless flow, Megan makes a vivid mockery of this unnamed man (presumed to be Tory Lanez, the rapper charged for shooting her in the feet): his height (“shrimp, stay in your place”), the caliber of his gun, his internet presence, his bank account and, perhaps most hilariously, his birthday (“I just thought it was another Thursday.”) Occasionally, deep in the mix, Megan’s gleeful cackles ring out.

Like all of Megan’s music, “Shots Fired” is a provocative invitation to consider what it means when a woman wields sexual, economic and artistic power in a world designed and defined by men. Listening to it for the first time, an oft-repeated quote sometimes attributed to Margaret Atwood came to mind: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” Such is her power: For three fleeting minutes, Megan very nearly makes these possibilities seem equally threatening.

Produced by Buddah Bless, “Shots Fired” borrows, and speeds up, the beat from “Who Shot Ya?,” the Notorious B.I.G.’s famous 1995 Tupac diss track. And though none of the following 16 songs match the specificity of its fury, it is, aesthetically, a fitting scene-setter: “Good News,” like the strong run of mixtapes that preceded it, draws on the precision-cut bars and braggadocious charisma of the ’90s gangsta rap that Megan grew up on, updating it for the era of read receipts and strategically declined FaceTime calls.

Though it’s being billed as her debut studio album, “Good News” is Megan’s second full-length (last summer’s “Fever” was considered her “debut mixtape”) and also her second release of 2020. In early March, she put out the brisk 24-minute “Suga,” an EP largely focused on Megan’s lyrical dexterity and, on songs like “Ain’t Equal” and “Crying in the Car,” some of the challenges she’d faced since rising to prominence, like loneliness, fake friends and the tragic sudden death of her mother.

The EP’s highlight was “Savage,” a sumptuously confident song of self. It produced one of the pandemic’s first viral TikTok dance challenges and, even more impressively, a remix that fellow Houstonian Beyoncé lovingly embroidered with sultry backing vocals and some of her sharpest rapping to date. (This week it picked up three of Megan’s four Grammy nominations.)

Rather rapidly, Megan has achieved a level of pop stardom without quite going pop: Her biggest successes, like “Savage” and the Cardi B duet “WAP,” have eschewed formulaic hooks and instead doubled down on hard rapping and gleeful, uncompromising raunch. Save for the glaring misfire “Don’t Rock Me to Sleep” — a sleek, synth-kissed tune that finds Megan rapping in a sing-songy voice, sounding bored with the midtempo beat — “Good News” wisely avoids attempts to sand down the edges of her sound.

Just listening to Megan find her footing atop a kinetic beat on “Good News,” like the one Lil Ju provides on “Body,” gives off a secondhand thrill. Her exhortations are often ecstatic: “If you in love with your body, bitch, take off your clothes!” she hollers on “Work That,” a libidinous bop produced by her idol-turned-frequent-collaborator Juicy J. (The Southern rap of Juicy’s Three 6 Mafia and early Cash Money Records is her other prominent ’90s touchstone.)

In her songs, videos and expert Instagram presence, Megan preaches to her fellow “hotties” a doctrine of self-love through body positivity and unabashed celebrations of female sexual pleasure. Megan may cut a singular figure — standing 5’10”, as she reminds in several of her songs — but the radical power of her music is in the contagious confidence it inspires in all sorts of bodies. “People say I’m full of myself,” she raps on the lively Young Thug collaboration “Don’t Stop.” “You’re right, and I ain’t even made it to dessert.”

If anything, “Good News” could have used more of that Megan-featuring-Megan singularity. It sometimes gets stymied by high-profile but ultimately unnecessary features, a recurring major-label-debut cliché. Guests like SZA, on the winning throwback “Freaky Girls,” or the Los Angeles duo City Girls on the rowdy “Do It on the Tip” fare better, though, than most of their male counterparts. On the lopsided “Movie,” Lil Durk’s sensual imagination sounds vague and uninspired next to Megan’s. The dancehall star Popcaan similarly breaks the show-don’t-tell rule during an awkward hook that finds him crooning, quite literally, “Sexuallll innnnnntercourse.”

One of the album’s most compelling moments comes on “Circles,” when Megan briefly lets down the armor of her impenetrable Hot Girl persona: “Bullet wounds, backstabs, mama died, still sad,” she raps. “My clothes fit tight, but my heart need a seamstress.”

That’s a double-take moment, though it’s delivered almost as an aside. A few other striking lines pass too quickly, when Megan flashes glimpses of a personhood much more richly dimensional than the supernaturally empowered avatar that dominates the rest of “Good News.”

In “Shots Fired,” Megan offers an allusion to the Breonna Taylor case, deftly connecting her own experience of gun violence to the larger systemic injustices faced by Black women (and recalling a forceful op-ed she recently wrote for The New York Times). In a much lighter moment, Megan commands her man to please her while she’s busy watching anime and makes a reference to the manga “Naruto,” casually flexing her low-key geek bona fides.

Megan Thee Stallion clearly contains multitudes upon multitudes, and toggled between so many this year: the candid exhumation of her personal trauma on social media, the courage to make political statements about race and gender on “Saturday Night Live,” the bold and carefree erotic bliss she embodies in her music videos. They haven’t all found effective ways into her music — yet. “Good News” proves Megan’s prodigious talent, but it also suggests that, with a bit more digging, this gem could emit an even more prismatic shine.

Megan Thee Stallion
“Good News”
(1501 Certified/300 Entertainment)

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