Released amid a hail of controversy – some of it stemming from an incident in which its author was shot, allegedly by rapper Tory Lanez – Megan Thee Stallion’s 2020 debut album Good News was an exercise in optimism from its title down. Two years on, there’s more controversy – the Texan rapper is currently engaged in a bitter legal battle with her record label – but her mood has clearly changed. The title of Good News’ follow-up is derived from “a chemical released in the brain when it is forced to deal with painful emotions caused by traumatic events”; the video announcing its release featured a funeral, gatecrashed by Megan Thee Stallion in an absolutely enormous hat. “I’m on my fuck-you shit, bitch, I’m done being nice,” she announces a few minutes after Traumazine begins.
You can say that again: there are fleeting and very occasional references to wider current events, including Roe v Wade – “my body, my motherfucking choice,” she snaps on Gift and a Curse – but Traumazine largely sticks to the topic of what she calls “fake-ass, snake-ass, backstabbing, hatin’-ass, no money, kidding-ass bitches”. Suitably riled, she comes out swinging to such a degree that even the rhymes about sex feel strangely confrontational and pugilistic. Red Wine has her “looking at your pretty face while I’m straddling it”: her delivery makes it sound as if she’s describing murdering someone, rather than showing them a good time.
The four-to-the-floor beat of Her offers further evidence that house-influenced productions are becoming an unlikely 2022 hip-hop trope, but for the most part Traumazine’s sound stays sparse and 808 drum machine-driven. The productions are frequently inventive – Scary offers a winning patchwork of screams and Twilight Zone theremin, while Anxiety not only features a sample of yodelling, it makes it work – but outside Flip Flop’s R&B stylings and the G-funk-influenced Consistency, obvious pop hooks are thin on the ground. Indeed, on the rare occasions when a track lunges in that direction, it jars. The weakest thing here is Star, which also features Traumazine’s solitary use of Auto-Tune on vocalist Lucky Daye’s guest appearance. Megan’s collaboration with Dua Lipa, Sweetest Pie, is a far stronger song, but, closing the album, it feels tacked-on and somehow surplus to requirements. It’s a sensation bolstered by the fact that, on the stream sent out to reviewers at least, it appears in its radio version, with all swearing decorously removed: given the contents of the preceding hour, that feels like shutting the stable door after the Stallion has bolted.
For the most part, Traumazine places its focus firmly on the main attraction’s voice, which is far from a bad idea. On the surface, Megan Thee Stallion’s success seems very much of its era – her fame was buoyed when the title of her 2019 single Hot Girl Summer went viral as a social media hashtag; she earned her first US No 1 single after Savage provoked a TikTok dance challenge trend – but at heart, there’s something old-fashioned about her appeal. Lots of rappers like to claim they were “raised in the game”, but Megan Thee Stallion literally was: the daughter of a Houston rapper who took her to recording sessions rather than sending her to childcare, subsequently mentored by Q-Tip, she has the kind of lyrical dexterity and technical skills that aren’t necessarily a prerequisite for success in 21st century hip-hop. She’s clearly happy to be seen as part of an august rap lineage, whether freestyling over Warren G’s 1994 hit Regulate, referencing Biggie Smalls’ Who Shot Ya? on Who Me, or comparing her image – a little improbably – to that of one of gangsta rap’s 80s architects: “Slick back ponytail,” she says on Plan B, “feeling like Ice-T.”
Listening to any pop star bemoan the pressures of fame for an hour should constitute hard work, but Megan’s talent and inventiveness make Traumazine’s fixation on one topic a pleasure rather than a chore. She flips between accusing her nameless foes of murky agendas – “I guess my skin ain’t light enough, my dialect not white enough, or maybe I’m just not shaped the way to make these niggas give a fuck” – and raining brimstone in the most entertaining way imaginable. She has a seemingly limitless supply of fantastic insults – “bitch, you do you – whatever that is”; “you ain’t worth the crack your momma used to smoke” – and an equally limitless number of ways to announce her own brilliance: “Like a nigga with a big dick, a lot of these ho’s can’t take me.”
“How many more ways can I say that I’m the baddest bitch?” she asks at the album’s outset: an hour later, it’s clear that was very much a rhetorical question. Listening to her in full flight feels not unlike like being pummelled: Traumazine is an album that leaves you reeling slightly, both impressed and strangely grateful – convinced of Megan Thee Stallion’s brilliance, and glad you’re not on the receiving end of it.