In 2018, Megan Thee Stallion levied a vivid threat. “Bitch, p-pretty please / I want you to come say something to me,” she rapped on “Tina Montana,” one of the most propulsive songs from her EP that year. “I’ve really been itching to go the fuck off / I put this Giuseppe heel in your mouth.” Tina Snow was a confident album, full of punchy one-liners that referenced Megan’s proclivities for sex, money, and control. It was also the then-23-year-old artist’s first release with her label, 1501 Certified Entertainment.
Two years and one chart-topping record later, the contract she signed is the subject of pending litigation—and of her newest album. The Houston artist, née Megan Pete, sued 1501, claiming that it had been blocking her from releasing new music. Now 25, she contends that the contract she signed while “young and naive” is financially exploitative and creatively restrictive. But this month has been a good one for her so far. A Texas judge granted her a temporary restraining order against the label and its CEO, Carl Crawford; the order was extended Friday. (For his part, Crawford has denied all of Megan’s allegations.) And last week, Megan released Suga, an eclectic nine-track EP on which she flouts 1501’s control through her defiant lyrics. While Megan’s broader legal battle is ongoing, these smaller triumphs are encouraging—not just for her, but for other artists in the industry too.
Many rising musicians, especially young women of color, have had their careers hindered by arrangements similar to Megan’s, in which a label wields near-total control while giving musicians paltry sums. Megan’s complaints echo those of artists such as the singers Kelis and SZA. The Oakland rapper Kamaiyah, too, recently released Got It Made, the first mixtape put out by her new independent label, which follows years of delays that Kamaiyah endured while signed to Interscope Records. Still, Megan’s degree of candor—especially since she remains signed to her label—is comparatively rare. Beginning with an Instagram Live broadcast on March 1, in which she first spoke publicly about her dispute with 1501, the rapper has been startlingly transparent about the particulars of her financial arrangement with the label.
Suga continues Megan’s offensive, albeit in musical form. Already rebellious by virtue of its existence, the EP begins with a reclamation of Megan’s story. The rapper opens the first track, “Ain’t Equal,” with reminders that she hasn’t been thwarted by recent tragedies, including the death of her mother, who was also her manager. “Ain’t Equal” is also a thinly veiled dare to 1501, and to Crawford specifically. All three verses end with references to Megan’s self-determination: “Bitch, I been popping, doing numbers, been lit / And since the nigga think he made me, tell him do it again,” she raps at the end of the second verse. The third closes with a similarly unsubtle shot at Crawford: “Niggas tryna get some fame off my name, that’s a shame / When I started making money, that’s when everybody changed, huh.” The lines recall the frustration that pulses through Kamaiyah’s “Still I Am,” the Got It Made single on which she raps about prevailing over her past contract woes: “Fuck all the bullshit, I done earned these stripes / For all of them days I lived on my dime / And the labels didn’t spend, I’m back on my grind.”
Elsewhere on Suga, Megan tries to strike back through her artistry. “Captain Hook,” the third and most impressive of Suga’s songs, packs an onslaught of wordplay into less than three minutes. In one breath, the rapper ties an R-rated invocation of the inspirational 2004 dance film You Got Served to a delightfully vulgar reinterpretation of the titular Peter Pan character. (The first time I heard the lyric, my jaw dropped—and then I immediately replayed it.) “Captain Hook” is Megan at her peak, a fast-paced paean to her own sexual and lyrical prowess. Each word lands hard, and the rapper knows it. The “Ain’t Equal” producer Helluva Beats joins forces with Megan again on “B.I.T.C.H.,” the January single that seemingly addressed the sexist vitriol she’s received: “I’d rather be a B-I-T-C-H (I’d rather keep it real with ya),” she insists in the chorus, “’Cause that’s what you gon’ call me when I’m trippin’ anyway.”
Megan’s hardly new to cursing, or to pointing out the double standards that women must face, but some of Suga’s most audacious moments diverge from her usual repertoire. On “Hit My Phone,” the singer Kehlani joins her for a slower, more sentimental spin on the rapper’s sultry themes. As on Tina Snow’s “Cognac Queen” and Fever’s “Big Drank,” Megan channels a woozy, liquored-up sound, even when she’s delivering straightforward raps rather than crooning. Reminding a man that he’s lucky to be in her presence, Megan never loses her bite—“Hit My Phone” is, after all, a command, not a request. But even with the surprising addition of Kehlani’s syrupy vocals, Suga isn’t all sweet: Some of the later tracks, which find Megan shifting toward an almost leaden singing style, lack the rigor and sharpness of the prior songs.
Whether future court hearings go in her favor or not, Megan’s fight to release Suga now—and the fan support she has generated—may lead to a more equitable contract. Ideally, that’d account for artistic development that doesn’t drain her resources as dramatically as her current contract, which stipulates that Megan must pay producers and other collaborators out of her cut of the profits. That clause only underscores 1501’s seeming disinterest in supporting its own artist by helping her refine her craft. Indeed, some of those gaps show up on the EP, which at times feels rushed—a disappointing but unsurprising result for a work that also comes less than a year after the high-octane rollout of a full-length project. Even with these moments of weakness, though, Suga is still an achievement for the rapper.