“You have to impose, in fact—this may sound very strange—you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” —James Baldwin
The late, sharp-witted Guru of hip-hop duo Gang Starr believed a prominent voice was required to prosper as an emcee. “A lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skills, But if your voice ain't dope then you need to chill,” he raps on “Mostly Tha Voice,” a deep cut found on Gang Starr’s classic, fourth studio album, Hard to Earn. He knew then, in 1994, that having the wordplay of a grand wizard wouldn’t matter if a lyricist's key instrument was a scrawny, incoherent screech.
Twenty-five years later, rap is accessible to every voice imaginable. Newcomers over the past three decades have widened the vocal spectrum of what's identified as effective; the lowest baritones coincide on every playlist with the highest sopranos and pitch-corrected robots. Now, during a period in hip-hop where mainstream rap is dominated by similar flows and overlapping subject matter, lyrics must be told and sold in a matter that’s enamoring. Only the most talented will last when an industry is this saturated.
As a guest feature on Wale’s 2018 single “Pole Dancer,” Houston-born rapper Megan Thee Stallion provided an example for what standing out sounds like. From the start of her dynamic second verse, there is attention-demanding gravitation to her weighty, southern voice; strong and assertive like a sheriff in an old western, the 24-year-old wordsmith eases from line to line with an effortless, authoritative bravado. Megan isn't a dancer in this establishment, she's the club owner; Megan's not a guest on the record, she's the co-star.
Megan's verse isn’t long, but there are three flow switches worth admiring, each as smooth as a jewel thief following in the footsteps of Selina Kyle. Megan’s a natural performer, not a single bar is wasted, but what makes her boast distinctive—from making a man shake like a stripper during sex to driving a Porsche with a woman named Mercedes—is the larger-than-life confidence that sits behind every word.
In 2019, a rapper’s voice should never sound uncertain. Confidence often separates the convincing from the con artists. Similar to being a salesman, rappers must understand their verses are pitches, and the more believable the pitch, the more likely listeners will buy into their identity. Megan Thee Stallion wouldn’t be an exciting act if her talent for sex-positive songwriting and memorable wordplay wasn’t united with her bulletproof poise and compelling presence.
In August 2016, Merrick Needham organized and presented a 19-minute rap cypher featuring 11 artists all based in Houston. Even then, as a rapper on the rise, the young Stallion was able to exude a persuasive charm reminiscent of Florida rap starlet Trina and the brazen energy of late Port Arthur, Texas legend Pimp C. Megan doesn’t stand out simply because she’s the only woman participant, but as the only rapper fully aware of her style and individuality. She knew her pitch early.
That spirit of self, that middle ground between art and sex, has been molded and developed over the past three years. It’s present across Megan's 2018 EP, Tina Snow, which features breakout single “Big Ole Freak.” Watching the first lady of 300 Entertainment perform her Beat’s 1 "Fire In The Booth" freestyle, I had flashbacks to Lil Wayne during his mid-2000s “Best Rapper Alive” campaign—a refining writer with towering conviction.
It’s risky to say you’re the best living rap artist since JAY-Z retired, but at every turn, the former New Orleans Hot Boy intended to demonstrate it. Megan Thee Stallion isn’t making hyperbolic proclamations, though. For years, she has consistently presented herself as a rapper to be reckoned with. All the cyphers and freestyle videos that have resurfaced since her recent rise all share the same charm; it was only a matter of time before the Hot Girl caught fire.
In the excellent short story collection Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, fiction author Venita Blackburn wrote, “Authenticity never made much sense really. All that is real is what is in front of us, if the satisfaction is absolute.” With rap, a medium built upon storytelling and personal narratives, the audience never knows what’s truly authentic. What matters most, however, is what satisfies what’s real. To rhyme into a microphone without the ability to conjure the necessary charisma that allows your every word to translate as bona fide is no different from a lion trying to hunt without teeth, or a fish trying to swim without gills.
There’s an art to having and displaying confidence that absolutely plays into how artists and their music can resonate. Confidence appears not only in song, but also in visuals, interviews, live performances, and social media posts. Megan is aware of her identity, and she knows how to pitch herself musically, artistically, and aesthetically.
Hip-hop is always searching for a voice to believe in, and in Megan I trust.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Thee Writer, aka @Yoh31