year in review

The Year That Couldn’t Break Megan Thee Stallion

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Mainstream artists hardly take breaks from dropping new joints, and, even rarer, they don’t usually come out the other side of a hiatus shittin’ on their opps. In 2023, Megan Thee Stallion was able to do both with a level of grace and savoir faire that we’ve come to expect from the bubbly, confident, hellaciously fun rap superstar. With the release of her single “Cobra” earlier this month, over its slithering, synth-y guitar riffs, she has compelled our eyes and ears to consider what happens when an artist retrieves joy for themselves after an immense amount of public suffering.

If this new song sounds like testimony, that’s because it is. Eight months ago, when asked by Entertainment Tonight about new music — a rather impatient question, seeing as she had released her second studio album, Traumazine, only seven months prior — she answered with the prickly brevity of a public face aware that insatiable audiences, who love her or hate her, seem to always fiend for a piece of her, and that this is the imbalanced social contract she signed her name to when she first started this whole rappity-rap thing: “Oh, I am. New album. Fuck y’all hoes. Bye!”

Of course, this well-deserved sabbatical and standoffish posture came after years of receiving floods of hatred from folks within, outside, and adjacent to the music industry that only a few years ago seemed to fully embrace her energy with wide-open Henny-filled mouths. The turn on her wasn’t entirely unexpected; there were always jokes about her size, the shape of her face, the bop she liked to hit when she freestyled in those early days, her ’fits (before the high-end designers got ahold of her) — all of which spoke to the depth of anti-Blackness, misogynoir, anti-transness, and sex negativity internalized by music fans. But it wasn’t until Tory Lanez shot her in mid-2020 that rap blogs and commentators — egged on by that nebbish Canadian artist — began to spread lies around the incident, compelling her to betray her initial decision to handle the matter privately and take him to court. He was convicted to ten years in prison, but before, during, and after the case, tweets, blog posts, and dusty-ass rappers came out of the woodwork to gaslight her. She lost her best friend in that incident out of jealousy and lies, and earlier that year, her mother and her great-grandmother had passed away. We also learned that she had been stuck in an exploitative deal with a record label hardly anyone outside of Houston would even know if it weren’t for her.

But that was a primordial era when Megan, in her own words, “naïvely believed that everyone came with pure intentions and wanted to be my friend.” It’s fascinating to go back and watch those videos of Meg at the club pouring shots down the tubes of folks who would eventually abandon her in her time of need. Discerning hearts could feel how unsustainable it all was, that the entertainment industry is nowhere near as lighthearted and jovial as it appears. That the drinking, the Instagram love, the flings, the attempts at twerking alongside thee twerk empress would eventually fall by the wayside once the high subsided. Once she was rendered vulnerable, the vultures and leeches did the only thing they know: steal and consume. Her narrative became twisted. And if those years were about naïveté, 2023 was about taking her things back.

At the beginning of this year, Meg’s silence was louder than ever. After releasing Traumazine in August 2022, launching mental-health resource site Bad Bitches Have Bad Days Too (a reference to a bar in her elegy “Anxiety”), and being featured in Forbes’ top rap earners of the year, she had stepped away from the public eye to focus on recovering, spending time with pets and her small circle of remaining friends. By March, she had reemerged with the announcement of not only a new album, but that she was in talks to star in the next Safdie brothers film and would be performing at the March Madness Music Festival in her hometown. In May, she addressed the shooting for the very last time with a heartfelt column in Elle magazine.

She continued with a string of performances that showcased her growing talent and continued marketability among a diverse set of stages: at L.A. Pride, where she surprisingly reunited with a queer friend, Carlos Ruvalcaba from middle school (who later Instagrammed that Meg “stepped in and defended” them when they were “talked down being called Gay when I wasn’t out yet”); at the Essence Fest in New Orleans; and eventually the release and performance of “Bongos” at the VMAs with Cardi B (one of the only celebrities who has stuck beside Meg during her troubles), a second chapter to “WAP” that, naturally, moved from gooch to ass in the duo’s traversal across the taint. (Maybe they’ll co-write a final chapter on the tatas just to complete the holy trinity? One can only hope.)

Perhaps Megan’s biggest moment onstage this year came when she stood alongside her idol Beyoncé during her exalted Renaissance world tour. In hindsight, we should’ve known something more massive was coming, because October had been a banner month for the Hot Girl: The first Friday of the month, she starred in Dicks: The Musical; a week later, she announced that she’d be independently financing her next album; and six days after that, she and her label, 1501, finally parted ways. The very next day, the seventh season of Netflix’s horny animated hit Big Mouth premiered, wherein audiences were delightfully surprised to hear her deep verveful voicework as Megan, (thee) hormone monster. By the time we reached November, around 448 days since the release of Traumazine, Meg switched on the Snake Signal to let her rabid fans know new tunes would be rattling out November 3. She started with “Cobra,” a song conceptualized from the very public trauma that everyone witnessed her experience, anime nerdom (she references the Naruto character Orochimaru, a slippery snake-based villain known for reinvention, renewal, and chasing immortality), and a streaking guitar chord that immediately told us that she was trying something completely new here. (And the bars? Whew, the bars.)

We heard emotional acrobatics on Traumazine, no doubt, but many of those revelations were already known at the time of release. We knew she was tight about how the music industry responded to her experiences with predatory maliciousness. But “Cobra” revealed that the loneliness she felt gave way to anger: “Every night I cried, I almost died, and nobody close tried to stop it / Long as everybody gettin’ paid, right? / Everything’ll be okay, right? I’m winnin’, so nobody trippin’.”

She’d already made it clear that the torrent of loss she experienced had her reflecting on her choices and shook the trust she had within herself, yet “Cobra” told us that those reflections had nearly led to her death: “Yes, I’m very depressed / How can somebody so blessed wanna slit they wrist?”

“Driving the Boat,” a game she played with celebrities, had onlookers questioning whether alcohol was becoming a problem for Meg. Again with “Cobra,” she clued us in on the volume of consumption dovetailing with the shakiness in her self-confidence, so much so that if she did end up dying by suicide, she’d “probably bleed out some Pinot.”

The simple and heartfelt chorus of the song finds Meg placing her status as a sex symbol in the crosshairs of her ongoing struggle. It’s a brilliant twist. Whereas her constant references to her coochie across her discography are normally a space for empowerment, sexual liberation, and stunting, on “Cobra” she uses the vagina as a site for vulnerability in a tragicomical way: “This pussy depressed, I’m about to stress him, yeah.”

And then there’s the mention of her ex-boyfriend Pardison Fontaine cheating on her in the same bed they once shared. Which can depress the pussy quite drastically. But I don’t see how this record could have been meant to center that particular relationship struggle. She doesn’t even mention his name, and please, trust, that if she wanted to go in on their shit (maybe she’ll do it on the album proper), she probably would’ve just done that. “Cobra” was a foreword, a moment for her fans to recognize that Meg’s about to enter a new era where she wouldn’t just make records for the girls and the gays to drop down and get they eagles on. You can definitely still do that, but you might tear up while rolling the hips, too. For all the concern trolling about whether or not “Cobra” could actually make money, peep: The song holds the record for the biggest 24-hour solo debut on YouTube by a female rapper this year. Not to mention the girl was gone for more than a year and remains quite booked and ever so busy. She’s co-signed by Beyoncé, so there’s pretty much very little chance that her wallet will be hurting. And last Friday, a rock remix featuring Spiritbox with a much more involved, haunting guitar, a very mean drum, and an emo pre-chorus showcased Meg’s ear and taste across musical genres.

Even more than the record, the most promising factor in Meg’s new era is her separation from 1501. When an artist has the opportunity to make the music she wants to make by breaking away from the pressures of label expectations, innovation emerges. The release of “Cobra” is a testament to that renewal, shedding an itchy, decaying outer layer. An artist with the popularity, sway, and marketability of Megan rarely gets the chance to make the music they want to make while enjoying the influence of a megastar. “Cobra” tells us that in the coming year, she will suffer no fools (nor sad attempts at “diss” tracks). We’ll see Meg marrying her artistic development with the push of her sound into new sonic realms, flipping through her Rolodex of artists strumming through divergent musical paths, while allowing us access to some of her deepest emotional struggles. This new period isn’t a new Megan Thee Stallion, necessarily, but a more truthful Megan Pete. It might sound a little different, but if there’s one thing we can count on, the Hot Girl is gonna keep it realer than real.

The Year That Couldn’t Break Megan Thee Stallion