album review

Megan Thee Stallion Can Do Better Than Good

There’s a strong sense that one of rap’s MVPs is still figuring herself out. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for dcp

It’s been a wild, lopsided year for Megan Thee Stallion. Last winter, tensions between the Houston rapper and her record label, former Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Carl Crawford’s 1501 Certified Entertainment, came to a head in court proceedings alleging unfair treatment and work stoppage. In the spring, Beyoncé added verses to “Savage,” from Stallion’s Suga EP, giving the single the bump it needed to land Meg her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But just as her summer victory lap was getting under way, Stallion was shot in the feet in a Los Angeles incident she maintains is the fault of Toronto singer-rapper Tory Lanez. Meg swiftly rebounded from the shooting with the Cardi B team-up, “WAP,” earning her second career chart-topper (and Cardi’s fourth). This fall, amid great praise from fans and complaints from critics, Megan Thee Stallion released Good News, her debut album. A cursory glance at the cover, a patchwork of excerpts from news items and editorials about the artist mirroring the artwork from Prince’s 1981 album, Controversy, suggests that it’s finally time for Stallion to address her detractors, but outside of the album opener, “Shots Fired,” a diss track for Lanez that samples the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?,” it seems the objective of Good News is to leave the bad news behind. She wastes no time spelling it out succinctly in the chorus of the album’s second song, “Circles”: “We ain’t going back and forth with the little boys.”

Megan Thee Stallion’s debut album follows three years of mixtape and EP releases that proved what she is (and isn’t) capable of bringing to a record. Early official releases like 2017’s Make It Hot succeeded on trash talk and empowerment anthems. On 2018’s Tina Snow and last year’s Fever, cuts like “Big Drank” and “Big Ole Freak” showed Stallion’s flair for a throwback jam, adding her stamp to samples of ’80s and ’00s hits by Three 6 Mafia and Al B. Sure!, as she had attempted on scrappy early cuts like “Come Get Me,” a spin on Biggie’s “Fuck You Tonight,” and “Get It Girl,” which repurposed lines from Too $hort and Lil Jon’s “Shake That Monkey.” Suga attempted a new evolution, doubling down on the R&B hooks Stallion dabbled in years earlier on “Crazy” and “Good At,” but dedicating a third of the EP’s running time to that style exposed the fact that her singing isn’t anywhere near as confident and effortless as her rapping (the tenderness she brought to “Crying in the Car” was welcome, even if its Auto-Tune fell flat). The gap between the airtight raps and the imperfect pop gestures evoked Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday … Roman Reloaded, an album whose quality sometimes suffered from its wide-ranging tastes. Would Meg follow this path?

Good News is a grab bag, full of reasons to love Megan Thee Stallion but also areas where she could use a little more refinement. She proves to be as good of a rapper as any of the year’s MVPs, outshining the City Girls at bratty misandry on “Do It on the Tip” and stir-frying DaBaby (again) on “Cry Baby.” She goes bar for bar with 2 Chainz and Big Sean on “Go Crazy,” another feisty addition to the list of great 2020 rap songs with Michael Jackson samples (also see Sean’s “Don Life”; Busta Rhymes and Kendrick Lamar’s “Look Over Your Shoulder”), and matches Beyoncé on “Savage.” On solo songs, she’s a joy. “Circles” strikes the perfect balance between condescension and wounded emotional honesty, like Cardi B’s “Be Careful,” at the end of the first verse: “Bullet wounds, backstabs, mama died, still sad / At war with myself in my head, bitch, it’s Baghdad / New n - - - - trying to come around and play clean / My clothes fit tight, but my heart need a seamstress.” This kind of clarity comes and goes on Good News, though. At 50 minutes, it’s Stallion’s longest solo project, and what was true of the 24-minute Suga, which was easily three songs too long, holds here: Not every idea feels cooked all the way through.

Brash, white-hot bars are Megan Thee Stallion’s core strength, and the further she strays from that, the shakier the song sometimes gets. The choruses here are hit or miss. She gets good ones out of SZA and Popcaan when they guest on “Freaky Girls” and “Intercourse,” respectively (although the ratio of Meg lines to Poppy bars on the latter raises the question of whether the song’s a holdover from the dancehall star’s excellent Fixtape), but not out of Lil Durk, whose “Shake that booty, bitch” refrain on “Movie” is drier than what the Chicago star has shown himself capable of over the past decade. “Body” borders on cloying, with a hook that’s been done less gratingly elsewhere and weird lines like “All them bitches scary cats, I call ’em Carole Baskins.” “Outside” falls somewhat short of euphoric production from Juicy J, hedging its bets on vocals again and coasting on an amateurish three-note melody that distracts from how warm and sincere the words are. “Don’t Rock Me to Sleep” is a shocking misfire, a rote soundalike to Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” whose mewling chorus — “Blah, blah, blah / La, la, la / If you wanna leave, then bye, bye, bye” — sounds more like something you’d sing to a baby than an unappreciative ex-lover.

Otherwise, Good News is raunchy, carefree fun, perfect getting-ready-for-the-club music (… if only going to the club were smart business right now). It has a confident sense of place and history that’s becoming of a Texas rapper’s official debut. Southern hip-hop’s past and present mesh immaculately on songs like “Work That,” which flips Juvenile’s 2006 jam “Rodeo,” and “Sugar Baby,” a remake of Webbie and Trina’s “Bad Bitch.” The rapping is immaculate on “What’s New” and on the N.W.A.-sampling “Girls in the Hood,” where Meg’s unique character and interests shine through in lines like “I’mma make him eat me out while I’m watching anime / Pussy like a Wild Fox, lookin’ for a Sasuke,” perhaps the horniest Naruto reference in history. (Quirks aside, Good News is absolutely dripping with smart puns.)

She could get by on these considerable chops alone, but in an era of Drake, Future, Young Thug, and their many tributaries, everyone thinks they need to turn into something of a crooner, because when you stick with what works for you, as DaBaby has on consecutive No. 1 albums, people start to fuss. Megan Thee Stallion has clearly had enough of people fussing, as she’s handled a tumultuous year with the perfect blend of grace, powerful advocacy for Black women, and condescending clapbacks. Her music can be as flawless as her media skills if she can ease off the habit of pushing her voice past its limit, or, conversely, if she calls the vocal coaches and pop-music consultants that could help realize those R&B ambitions and fine-tune those hooks. As was the case with Suga, Good News feels like a transitional project; it’s just not so clear where the artist is going.

Megan Thee Stallion Can Do Better Than Good