Megan Thee Stallion Returns Guns Blazing but Unfocused on ‘Traumazine’
Megan The Stallion begins her new album guns blazing, declaring, “I ain’t perfect, but anything I did to any of you niggas, y’all deserved it.” From the onset of opener “NDA,” her words are harsh and her flow is unrelenting. With litigious spite from her ongoing label battles, she warns, “And the next one of y’all blogs wanna spread lies, I’m gon’ sue you / And the next bitch that break my NDA, they goin’ for you too.” The Houston rapper remains in legal disputes with 1501 Certified Entertainment. The struggle to free herself from contractual obligations has considerably informed the sound and shape of her latest work. On one hand, the conflict has incurred the wrath of a rapper who we’ve known to fear since 2013, when a viral freestyle battle video first showcased her formidable skill to the world. As it turns out, the fire fueled by the label strife has allowed for Megan’s fiercest iteration yet and some of her strongest music. On the other hand, the rather incohesive album appears scrambled together in haste, likely in desperation to move past the current stalemate. According to Megan, the title, “Traumazine,” refers to a chemical released in the brain in response to traumatic events and experiences. In a highly publicized 2020 incident, Megan was shot at a Hollywood party, allegedly by rapper and former friend Tory Lanez, who awaits trial. While this hardly makes its way into the lyrical content, it could partly explain the titular chemical surge. At any rate, “Traumazine” shocks from the onset and takes peculiar turns.
“NDA” immediately hits hard. There’s an audible Texas swag to Megan’s rapping, with her cadences at moments recalling Project Pat’s signature flow, but sounding unmistakably her own. The beat is fittingly ominous, a four-chord progression, familiar from countless other songs, repeated incessantly. It’s the first instance of the album’s altogether underwhelming production, although the monotony has its benefit, enhancing the insistence with which Megan rages forward, recoiling and springing back unscatherd after every four bars. The missing link arrives upon the next track, “Ungrateful,” with a slightly more developed instrumental. A grimy sludge of backwards music and sparse piano serves as an optimal backdrop for Megan’s torrents of trash talk, as she calls out “fake-ass, snake-ass, cake-ass, hatin’-ass, no money gettin’-ass niggas.” Rapper Key Glock complements Megan’s energy with a hushed twang and laidback swagger that offset her ratched, in-your-face overload. “Not Nice” adapts the same energy and attitude to an old school aesthetic, as Megan adopts a mid ‘90s-styled instrumental that gives the music an entirely new feel. A sentiment that mades its way into the opener now becomes a mantra in a refrain of “Fuck it, bitch, I’m not nice.”
Megan puts on a dynamic demonstration in “Budget,” settling into insistent grooves and splattering syllables in animated patterns with percussive breathing and intonations that play up her femininity over a hard-hitting beat that carries over a trace of the predecessor’s old school flavor. On “Her,” she appears to take a page from Azealia Banks’ playbook, fitting her rap to a house beat as Banks did on tracks like her 2011 single “212.” The foray into dance stylings could hardly be better executed, with Megan utilizing the pulse of the kickdrum to assert her unyielding presence, declaring, “I’m her, her, her, her.” Twerking has always figured prominently into Megan ‘s offerings, and she makes sure to see to that matter quickly. The rusty machine swivel and sway of “Gift & a Curse” propels her incitements of “I wanna see you work, work, work, and work… Just look at my ass when I twerk, twerk, twerk.” “Ms. Nasty” aims to deliver on foreplay, as a Miami bass beat is slapped under jokey ‘80s frivolity, while Megan keeps the raunchy lyrics steadily coming.
The music takes a dark, spooky turn with the minimal, creaking trap stylings of “Who Me.” At one point, Megan alludes to the shooting incident, noting, “I feel like Biggie, who shot you? / But everybody know who shot me, bitch.” Pooh Sheisty, who joins Megan on the track, sounds impressively ramshackle, with his every bar ringing like the forced unpeeling of a strip, and the messily echoing, disorienting display calling attention to the considerable accessibility of Megan’s crisp enunciations. Out of the blue comes “Scary,” an unexplained Halloween-spirited diversion in which Megan declares herself a “thick-thighed nightmare,” and proceeds to sing about graves, goons, and goblins over a beat that rings like a Dirty South spin on Portishead’s “Mysterons.” An amusing novelty with a colorful feature from Rico Nasty, the song would sit much better in the tracklist after the sonically similar “Who Me.” But placed between the two songs is “Red Wine,” which finds Megan descending into R&B slow jam territory, going so far as to lampoon the aesthetic with a liberal scattering of moaning sounds vying for volume with her vocals, and a refrain of “Come fuck me, let’s get fucked up on this red wine.” It’s the first sign of a sequence that soon descends into hopeless disarray.
Apart from the relative lulls of “Ms. Nasty” and “Red Wine,” both measured diversions, Megan’s performance for the album’s first half is all gas, no breaks, Then, upon “Anxiety,” the album’s eleventh track, she takes on an entirely unanticipated form, displaying an unprecedented vulnerability, and suddenly trading in her bona fide trash talk and braggadocio for a new tune of struggle and street wisdom. Having lashed out and sent sparks shooting for over half of the album, she introduces a vibe so unfamiliar that it can be a bit hard to take, even if it showcases a new dimension to her artistry. Suddenly, she is rapping, “All I really wanna hear is ‘it’ll be okay’ / Bounce back ’cause a bad bitch can have bad days.” The second line, nearly an apology for the change in tone, is something of a saving grace, assuring us that Megan is still a bad bitch after all. Over the course of the track, as she reflects on the loss of her mother and explicitly disavows drug use, she veers uncomfortably close to the domain of, say, Talib Kweli, although with an edge about her that sets her apart. Her flow is masterful as always, and suddenly cast in a sober light, can seem even more so in audibly passionate stretches of slickly stacked syllables.
On “Flip Flop, ” Megan continues to focus on navigating hardships and keeping her head up, now retrieving the smooth ‘80s sounds teased on “Ms. Nasty.” In one of her instances of near-singing, she dons a cool, collected voice for a hook of “Tick-tock, but it don’t stop / Your people ain’t your people, they want what you got.” The light, airy stylings, worlds away from the opener, grow gentler yet on the subsequent track, “Consistency.” This time, Jhené Aiko contributes a hook over a beat that samples B.I.G.’s classic “Big Poppa,” and the music takes on the slinky, sugary semblance of a Summer Walker track. The shift from Megan’s hard-edged onslaught to this type of froth ironically recalls the output of none other than Tory Lanez, who has alternated between energetic hip-hop releases and his appropriately titled “Chixtape” offerings. Aiko effectively brings out the softer side in Megan, who harmonizes with her over the luxuriant soundscape. Come “Star,” however, featuring a sappy, throwaway hook and Auto-tuned offering from Lucky Daye, the album reaches a marked low point.
“Pressurelicious” is a refreshing resuscitation, a return to the subject matter of “Mr. Nasty” and “Red Wine,” coupled with the energy of “Gift & a Curse.” Over another hypnotically hard-hitting, no-nonsense beat, Megan gets back to business with some help from Future. Among both the most colorful and least reliable rappers today, Future appears in top form, showing a natural chemistry with Megan as the two trade lines in an unabashed sex jam. As it turns out, “Pressurelicious” is paired with a track that could be its ideal B side for reasons beyond its title, “Plan B.” Itself another single, the song continues the sex talk, but switches the mode of conveyance to the old school stylings explored elsewhere, so that the pair of songs captures both sides Megan’s sound. The sentiments too are switched dramatically on “Plan B,” as Megan demands, “You better get on your knees and eat this pussy right.” On a broader note, she boasts, “Poppin’ Plan B’s ’cause I ain’t plan to be stuck with you.”
Megan sticks to a buoyant, lighthearted sound, continuing with “Southside Royalty Freestyle,” a classic posse number, on which she brings several colorful Houston rappers on board to take turns on the mic in a nod to hip-hop tradition. Finally, “Sweetest Pie,” featuring Dua Lipa, is tagged arbitrarily on to the end, with no thought at all put into its placement. A punchy track on its own, it squeezes animated verses from Megan between a readymade chorus from Lipa that sounds suspiciously familiar. The song will effectively introduce Megan Thee Stallion to broader audiences. On the album, however, it couldn’t be more out of place.
Every song on “Traumazine” is a success, yet the album is something of a debacle. Megin begins with a bang and seems to hit harder with every successive track until losing herself midway, shuttling between haunted houses and jacuzzis, then shifting gears completely for a second half that ought to be a separate work altogether. From “Anxiety” on, with the exception of “Pressurelicious,” the songs become bright and buoyant, and Megan veers off course. Suddenly, the merciless trash talk is replaced by a strain of righteous indignation that can seem out of character, while the twerk tracks subside for a slew of more sentimental, if campy, slow jams. The versatility on display is impressive, but the sudden shifting of shapes midway seems haplessly ill-advised. Perhaps it came from the rush to get an album out and move past contractual obligations. The absurdity of the Dua Lipa feature’s placement at the end is practically proof of throwing in the towel. “Traumazine,” the post-traumatic chemical release, appears to have triggered an imbalance, and one can only hope that Megan better moderates her levels once she has secured a more satisfying recording arrangement. In terms of skill, she has done more than deliver on the promise of her debut, proving herself easily a rapper of the highest rank. And, if her skill-set didn’t speak for itself, the attitude on display dispels doubts that she remains a force to be reckoned with.
“Traumazine” releases Aug. 12 on Apple Music.