MusicWeekend

Megan Thee Stallion, a Hardcore Master of Rap

What makes this music hardcore, a term that has meant many things to many genres, is technical mastery.

Megan Thee Stallion, Fever

Megan Thee Stallion’s new mixtape is the year’s most boisterous show of precision. The Houston rapper’s Fever, out since May, celebrates exactitude, perfectly timed raps, and whirring metallic drum machines that click just right, combining old-school virtues like verbal bluntness and linearity. It’s joyfully energetic, too: startling athletic bursts of energy require calculation.

A lively rapper, with a talent for cutting lines off short like she’s decapitating flowers, Megan Thee Stallion surfaced as a freestyler and battle rap specialist through social media, where she became a star by refining her persona. As “Thee Stallion,” she’s loud, aggressive, often haughty, given to sexual boasts and demands for submission. Her flow — fast triplets that scan as both pushy and playful, punctuated by creaky-voice ad-libs that sound like she’s sticking out her tongue — captures this character’s good humor and stubborn confidence.

After years of slow, goopy, melodic radio rap that, in recent years, has become almost ambient, Megan Thee Stallion’s brand of hardcore rap has emerged as a relevant alternative. DaBaby and Blocboy JB are two other rappers who have turned toward spare, legible shows of technique. This music marks a return to traditional virtues like speed, fluency with rhyme, and sounding awake, but select stylistic developments from neoambient rap persist: comedic ad-libs, the strategic use of empty musical space and of trap keyboards as metronomes, although the metronomic beats are now faster. This style demands immediacy, but also the kind of intricate precision that can only come about through craft, which may be why Fever hangs together with an album’s consistency and stylized motion.

Even by hardcore rap standards, Fever is gloriously fierce, a harsh burst of noise and attitude, from the opening bounce of “Realer” to “Running Up Freestyle,” which ends the album in a flurry of bleeps as Megan and the shrill electronic beat clamor to outshout each other. “Cash Shit” generates manic tension from few sounds, as the low, amelodic bass combines with the drum machine’s clattery claps and softer cymbals to produce a rhythmic pattern that sounds more complex than it is — a needling, stressful sound when played in the background; the groaned ad-libs are also percussive elements. DaBaby’s amused guest verse plays against Megan’s blunter verses, as both take delight in dissonance.

Megan Thee Stallion, Hot Girl Summer

Although she sometimes uses trap’s signature hypnotic keyboard loops, the album’s minimalism startles. Half the songs have no melodic elements at all, instead constructing a sharper, heavier, more uncompromising sound from only the interlocking of various discordant electronic drums and her own voice; it’s irresistible even as it’s hard to listen to. The hooks are the percussive clicks and jitters and crunches that punctuate her rapping. “Pimpin” belongs to a venerable Southern rap tradition, the song that instructs you on how to dance to it and/or how to have sex with Megan Thee Stallion (Cardi B’s “Bickenhead” pulls a similar trick). As she belts out commands (as in, “Gotta get my ass ate/gotta make that ass shake”), the beat thumps along, with vibrant bass shudders and skittering, subliminally irritating snare drums.

Even the token singy tracks (“Best You Ever Had,” “Bring Drank”), where she slows the beat down and croons a vocoded R&B chorus (because it’s hard to deliver romantic confessions when you’re battle rapping) are quite lively, and their depictions of relationship dynamics widen her persona.

What makes this music hardcore, a term that has meant many things to many genres, is technical mastery — abrasion that isn’t just a mess often suggests that musicians are showing off, because discord that coheres is hardest of all. To push harsh noises in your face as Megan does while retaining spareness creates the impression of intense discipline. Her whirlwind delivery is both pugnacious and feminine, especially when she does her creaky-voice noises (“Ahhh!” “Eew!” “Ugh!”). Nicki Minaj has sounded like this, but her cartoon voices, alter egos, and abrupt mood swings function as distancing devices, creating a context of self-consciously artistic improvisation. Megan speaks directly — her calculated formalism requires straightforward expression. This style of rapping has more restricted rules; she must prove her prowess by speed and dexterity alone.

It makes sense that her exaggerated sexual boasts project exact bodily control rather than general eroticism, and that such control sharply contrasts with the zonked, submerged fantasies of unconscious transcendence depicted by neoambient rappers like Travis Scott and Post Malone. It also makes sense that such music would resonate when police violence and mass shootings mean that bodily control is not a given. But Fever most thrills in its combination of control and glee.

Too often, rappers aiming for precision sound pinched, paranoid, annoyed with the imprecise outside world, too absorbed in how each rhyme will click into the next without smoothing over the whole. By contrast, Megan relishes self-presentation — when she bellows, say, “You a weak ass, weak ass, weak ass BITCH!/on that weak ass, weak ass, weak ass SHIT!/fuck you and your weak ass, weak ass FRIENDS!/don’t nobody want your man weak ass DICK!” she can’t hide the immense pleasure she takes in making noise, the sheer satisfaction of the outburst. She delights in her ability, as a great rapper should.

As an example of streamlined dissonance, Fever is both comforting and exciting. Megan Thee Stallion puts on a restrained show of excitement, and gets excited over it. She raps with precision as the precondition for noise. She’s loud and in control.

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