January 26, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Megan Thee Stallion’s 2020: “Savage,” “WAP” and a shooting

Megan Thee Stallion didn’t realize she had a thick Texas accent until she left her hometown of Houston.

“Words that I can understand and that the people around me can clearly understand — a lot of people would be like, ‘What did you say?’” the 25-year-old rapper recalls. “Or I’d see people typing my lyrics on the internet, and they’d be absolutely wrong.”

To a point, Megan was sympathetic: “I was a little ratchet thing back then,” she says, laughing, of the viral freestyles that first brought her attention as a student at Texas Southern University. But although her subsequent travels never led her to smooth out her deep Texas twang — just listen to the way she chews the word “nasty” in “Savage,” one of a pair of smash hits she took to No. 1 in 2020 — the experience of being misunderstood made her consider her priorities.

“The older I got, I was like, ‘Let me go ahead and enunciate this whole word so that people know what I’m saying,’” Megan explains. “I had to learn how to talk to you in my songs, because I want you to grasp where I’m coming from.

“I want my music to feel like a conversation.”

This year that conversation has been one of the most vital in pop. With “Savage,” which took off initially on TikTok before going global with a remix featuring Beyoncé, and “WAP,” her chart-topping raunch-a-thon duet with Cardi B, Megan created a smart, rowdy forum for complex ideas about gender, race and sexuality.

And the conversation broadened after a widely publicized incident in July in which she says she was shot by rapper Tory Lanez; suddenly, Megan became a focal point in a reckoning over the oft-unpunished violence faced by Black women such as Breonna Taylor, whose killing by police she invokes on “Shots Fired,” the opening track of her just-released debut album, “Good News.”

Fans have taken part in this dialogue by streaming Megan’s songs hundreds of millions of times and by adopting her catchphrases and nicknames for themselves. (She’s Hot Girl Meg; with any luck, they all had a Hot Girl Summer.)

Of course, as in any discussion of important issues, there are those who disagree with Megan’s views, including the handful of conservative politicians who were scandalized — or who pretended to be — by “WAP,” whose title abbreviation unrolls to describe a well-lubricated part of the female anatomy.

“This is my body; why can’t I talk about it?” Megan asks in a call from Los Angeles, where she’s spent most of her time this year. “Men have been doing it for years. Me saying I have a WAP should not be making the boys cry this hard.”

Yet now she’s having the last laugh with four Grammy nominations — for record of the year, rap song and rap performance (all with “Savage”) and for the highly coveted best new artist prize.

“If you don’t have no haters, you’re not poppin’,” she figures. “So that just really let us know we’re doing something right.”

Megan’s buoyant attitude permeates “Good News,” which after “Shots Fired” — in which she stops just short of naming Lanez because “I know you want the clout” — offers up one joyful, uptempo cut after another. There’s a song with SZA, “Freaky Girls,” in which the women exult in their sexual prowess; there’s a song called “Body” about how pictures of Megan have been “getting these n— through the quarantine.”

“2020 obviously just threw everybody under the bus, so with this album I wanted to talk about things that make me feel happy,” she says. On the phone she’s chipper but thoughtful, pausing for a second when asked if she plans to move here permanently from Houston.

“There’s no place like home,” she says. “The South just feels like my grandma — like a hug. But L.A. is work, and all signs keep pointing back here.” She laughs.

“I need to figure it out and buy a house already.”

Her rental was where she rode out the initial COVID lockdown in the spring, an experience she says changed the way she thinks about herself. “I always thought I was the type of person who had to be out and about,” she says. “Then quarantine happened, and I’m like, ‘Wait — I like being by myself in the house.’”

The unexpected downtime was also a creative boon. “My album turned out the way it did because I had the time to sit and write and marinate with the songs,” she says. “Before, I was doing a show in a different city every single day, squeezing in my writing where I could — backstage, in the plane, in the damn restroom.”

The meticulousness of Megan’s rhymes, as delivered in the crisp yet chatty flow she’s worked hard to develop, sets her apart from the rappers making blearier, more abstract sounds at the moment.

Juicy J, the Memphis hip-hop veteran who’s known Megan for years (and who produced several cuts on “Good News” and her 2019 mixtape “Fever”), remembers the first time he met her in the studio.

“We talked for a sec, vibed out, then she jumped in the booth and just killed the song,” he says. “Pulled up another song, she went in the booth, killed that one too.

“I was like, ‘Damn, man — she ain’t playing no games.’” These days Juicy J calls her “the verse-killer.”

“2020 obviously just threw everybody under the bus,” says Megan, “so with this album I wanted to talk about things that make me feel happy.”

(Marcelo Cantu)

Megan, whose last name is Pete, started rapping in Houston under the tutelage of her mother, Holly Thomas, who herself rapped under the name Holly-Wood and eventually began managing Megan’s career. Thomas died from a brain tumor in 2019 but not before her daughter had started turning heads with songs like “Big Ole Freak,” which Megan recorded between assignments for the health administration degree she says she’s still pursuing.

Not having her mom around for support made the shooting last summer that much more difficult, Megan says; ditto the ugly way she was treated online by people using the incident as fodder for jokes and memes — and by Lanez, who released an album suggesting she’d lied about him. (Last month Lanez pleaded not guilty to felony assault charges.)

Megan says she’s prohibited from discussing the case but allows that the aftermath put her in a “dark place.” Among the folks she’s leaned on are Jay-Z, who signed her to his management firm, Roc Nation, and Beyoncé, whose friendship feels like a “wild dream” to a young woman who grew up admiring the superstar with whom she shares a hometown.

“Being from Houston, Beyoncé means everything to us,” Megan says. “I’m pretty sure Beyoncé means everything to a lot of people. But when I got to do a song with her? Oh, my God.”

Has she considered therapy to help process her feelings about what she suffered? She’s thought about it. “Sometimes you need a day when you just want to holler,” she says, though her instinctive response to stress, she adds, is “to throw myself into work.”

Indeed, she’s kept remarkably busy over the last few months, penning a widely discussed op-ed for the New York Times about the need to protect Black women and taking the same message to “Saturday Night Live,” where she gave a powerful performance of “Savage” that explicitly criticized Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, for his handling of the investigation into Breonna Taylor’s death.

“Any time somebody gives me a platform, I’m gonna figure out a way to show out,” she says. “So when ‘Saturday Night Live’ came me the opportunity to get up there and speak, that’s exactly what I did.

“I don’t care who it makes uncomfortable — do your job.”

Asked if her activism has brought any political thought leaders into her orbit — Stacey Abrams, for instance, or Michelle Obama (whose husband recently put “Savage” on a playlist) — she replies, “Unfortunately, because of COVID, I haven’t been able to actually meet anybody.” A tweet by Kamala Harris in which the vice president-elect praised Megan’s op-ed “made me feel so special,” the rapper says.

“But I’m so excited to get in a room with these women at some point. Just keep on pushing the agenda. Staying true to the message. Getting s— done.”

At the Grammys ceremony — for which she says she hasn’t yet settled on a piece of “arm candy” to be her date — Megan says she’s in talks to perform “Savage” with Beyoncé, who will compete against herself for record of the year with her song “Black Parade.” (Of Cardi B’s surprising decision to keep “WAP” out of awards contention, Megan says, “I don’t know why she didn’t submit it. But Cardi is a very smart woman, so I never question her decisions. She knows exactly what she’s doing.”)

But she’s also looking beyond January’s ceremony to what next year might hold. She’d love to collaborate with Rihanna or maybe with her fellow best new artist nominee Doja Cat.

“She’s so funny,” she says of the proudly eccentric pop-rap star. “Sometimes she’ll randomly send me texts, and it’ll just be videos on YouTube of the most random crazy s—.

“I’m like, ‘Doja, what the f—?’”

Juicy J sees “icon status” in Megan’s future — “like Diana Ross,” he says, “doing movies and running businesses.”

First, though, Megan needs to decide which song from “Good News” to shoot a video for next. She’s put the question to her so-called Hotties, so far without any consensus.

“They’re battling, but it’s so positive,” she says of her fans. “If I can get the whole world to interact with each other as positively as they do, I’m doing a damn good job with my music.”