Friday, May 24, 2019

album review: 'fever' by megan thee stallion

So I'll admit I was a little surprised to even consider this review - it's not like there aren't other albums I could cover on my schedule, so why this? Why review a project for which you're fairly certain you won't have much to say and if you do might be best suited for the Trailing Edge?

And then I immediately questioned why I thought any of that - yeah, Megan Thee Stallion might have gotten her initial traction off of Instagram twerk videos and being hotter than hell, but she could spit her ass off better than a fair few of her male counterparts, her mixtapes had some genuine sizzle over pretty solid trap production - again, better than a lot of her competition - and it wasn't like Cardi B hadn't surprised me with the longevity and flair of some cuts from her debut album; I might be the only one who still genuinely thinks 'Money Bag' is a great song, but if Cardi is settling into a comfort zone, I wanted to find someone where the fire was still lit. Sure, the content wasn't about to be all that deep beyond flexing, sex jams, and taking guys for all their worth, but her meteoric rise did prove there was an audience for that sort of material, and my general liking for 'Big Ole Freak' proved that she had the charisma and command of her mix to make it work. So I figured why not give that debut a listen and ignore that mess of a new DJ Khaled project, what did we get from Fever?

So look, I'm going to lay my cards on the table here: after a fair number of listens to Fever, I don't have a lot to say about this album. It's fine enough and I think it does accomplish what it's setting out to do with aplomb, but it absolutely lacks dimensionality and at least to me falls considerably short of the potential I've seen from Megan Thee Stallion over the past few months. And as much as I would be tempted to put this on the Trailing Edge on that basis alone, the more I dug into the background details surrounding this project's release, the more I'm thinking that there are some things that should be exposed about this project and its backing label that deserve more scrutiny, so this review is probably going to wind up going in a different direction.

But let's get the review out of the way first, and talk about what immediately works on this project - and most of that begins and ends with Megan Thee Stallion. She's a commanding presence behind the microphone, with a security and poise that doesn't feel as cartoonish as Cardi B or CupcakKe, but also commands more dignity and respect than the City Girls or acts like Kash Doll or Dreezy do, especially off of her last album. I'd argue that ease and natural charisma is her strongest asset, so much so that the rock solid flows almost come as bonus, which she handles with such grace that most people probably don't notice how she flubs more rhymes than she should like the third verse of 'Pimpin' or really isn't saying much of deeper substance or dimensionality. And while that means she can hold her own with DaBaby and Juicy J who are also not expected to deliver much in the way of content, it absolutely makes many of these songs feel interchangeable when it comes to their references and ideas - Megan Thee Stallion gets money hand over first, guys will trick for her, she's absolutely more than any man can handle long-term, especially when she dances up on them, and she's doing it herself, so any weak dudes or bitches around her better watch out. Beyond that... look, I'm a guy who'll appreciate subtlety and lyrical depth, and not only is it not here, it was probably never in the cards to begin with. And hey, that can work, albums like this don't have to be deep, provided the production works, and yet if I were to highlight a glaring weakness of this album, it'd probably come here. Yes, the Houston and especially Three 6 Mafia influence is obvious and you don't technically need much in the way of complexity for these bangers - and even songs that try for more melody from Megan like 'Best You Ever Had' and 'Bring Drank' are plainly not her specialty - but the lack of stronger melodic tunes backing up the meaty beats and trap snares means that a lot of these songs run together. There's barely any tune behind 'Pimpin', 'Cash Shit', 'Shake That' or 'Sex Talk' beyond the bass and percussion, and even the songs that do have more melody feel like they could use more layers and development - take a song like 'Simon Says' that grabs a snippet of 'Me & Mrs. Jones' to open the song, but can you imagine how commanding Megan could sound over a really good soul flip? She doesn't need to rely on the bare minimum, so when you have more developed melodies like the blaring synth on 'Running Up Freestyle', the stuttered beat and scratch on 'Dance', and the deeper bombast behind 'Money Good' and 'Realer', I hear more of that potential.

And here's the thing: if this was just a mixtape to serve something fast before the album proper, that'd be one thing, but this is her full-length debut album, marketed as her big commercial breakthrough. Like it or not, there's not an immediate 'pop-crossover' song here in the same way there were for Cardi B on Invasion Of Privacy, which might only be good instead of great because of its rushed release and underwhelming production but did have something for everyone. Now granted, Cardi was riding a wave of hype off of multiple hit singles that Megan Thee Stallion just doesn't have, and maybe her label 300 thinks the best way to leverage the limited success she has right now is to riding the streaming playlists off an album of twerk anthems. But for an artist with the raw talent and presence that she has, you can't help but feel as that could be a very narrow lane to walk especially on a debut, which at its best shows your versatility and greatest strengths. And there's nothing wrong with being the next Gangsta Boo, but Megan has the wordplay and flair and presence to appeal to as large of an audience as Cardi, so why was that not considered in the rollout of this album? Well, the first hypothesis was that they were rushing this while 'Big Ole Freak' is still charting, even as an old song that doesn't have an obvious followup, and these were simply the easiest songs to make. But my second hypothesis goes deeper and gets a little uglier: namely that since the departure of Lyor Cohen in 2016, 300 Entertainment has seriously struggled to launch any upcoming trap artists with the expected degree of traction of their earliest successes. Yes, Migos put out CULTURE in 2017... after the album was delayed and the trio fought tooth and nail to get away from 300, citing an ugly legal battle that Rich The Kid later echoed a year later. Yes, they have Young Thug's YSL Records as a subsidiary, but outside of streaming traction, the music has been disposable at best and Thugger certainly hasn't taken off the way he should have after Jeffery. And yes, you got releases from Tee Grizzley and Famous Dex... but neither moved the needle significantly, and in neither case I've seen much in the way of artist development, which is still extremely valuable when you have promising talents like Megan Thee Stallion. 

Now I could be wrong, and the current heads of 300 could realize the major talent they have with Megan Thee Stallion and give her the money, promotion, and creative flexibility she deserves... but going back to Fetty Wap's debut in 2015, the label has built a reputation of albums lacking dimensionality, especially when the acts could well have more talent, and that absolutely worries me here. Because yes, Fever does mostly succeed in what it sets out to do, but it's hard to avoid how it might just be coasting on low expectations when I see a lot more potential here, and as a debut album it is underwhelming in its lack of dimensionality. Granted, I'd rather hear this from Megan than most, but there are acts in her lane like CupcakKe who can rap just as well with more colour and variety in production and content. As such, for me this is a strong 6/10, as it does still succeed in what it's trying to do and I can see it going off in the right setting... but outside of that? Like most fevers, it's a headrush - I want to hear what stands after things cool down.

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