This July was the warmest month in recorded history, nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the earth’s 20th century average. Around the world, temperatures soared, permafrost melted, and people sweated. Closer to home, Megan Thee Stallion (government name: Megan Pete) declared it a “Hot Girl Summer”—her way of encouraging everyone, regardless of race, creed, or gender, to live life to the fullest, whatever that might mean for you. In her own tweeted words, “Being a Hot Girl is about being unapologetically YOU, having fun, being confident, living YOUR truth, being the life of the party etc,” which feels unexpectedly pure and wholesome in light of the worsening news around the globe. The term spread like wildfire in a drought-stricken forest. Suddenly it was on everyone’s lips, from the actress Jada Pinkett Smith to the singer Miley Cyrus, who filmed herself twerking to one of Pete’s songs.
The 24-year-old rapper is undoubtedly having one of the best summers of her life. Her latest mixtape, Fever, was released in May and reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart; she’s played at shows with artists like Meek Mill and Cardi B; she’s used her newfound fame to organize “hottie beach cleanups,” inviting fans to pick up trash with her as a way to promote awareness of what humans are doing to the earth. “I’m about to get on my hot girl shit and start using less plastic,” Pete said in a live Instagram video before the cleanups, in response to a fan asking her if she could talk more about global warming. Real hot girls care about climate change.
Fever, on the other hand, is less about the impact that our actions have on others than it is about how we should live—which is to say it’s unapologetically about the pursuit of pleasure, the ways we take and find it. Which is probably why Pete’s tone is almost teacherly; she leads by example. She wants money, jewels, and suitors wrapped around her finger, and she wants her listeners to attain those things, too. “I don’t wanna talk / Meet me at the bank, show me what you really ‘bout / Niggas ain’t real when the shit really count,” she raps, huskily, on “Realer,” Fever’s opening track.
Pete is a fantastic spitter, and her bars, complemented by her smooth alto voice, are playfully fluid. They’re well-constructed edifices, confidently placed. Also, she’s hilarious. On “Best You Ever Had,” a song about a happy, stable relationship, Pete’s sly humor comes front and center. “I be actin’ up right before he come to see me / He be like, ‘Why you always tripping for no reason?’ / Told him, ‘Cause you put it on me better when you’re mad’ / Hand around my neck, hit it hard from the back, yeah,” Pete jokes.
She’s from Houston, one of the cradles of American hip-hop. The region birthed stars like UGK, Pimp C, and Slim Thug, along with a number of styles, chopped and screwed among them. Pete clearly knows her elders, because her music feels very of the city: The beats are pure trap and the lyrics wonderfully filthy. “I don’t feel like we ever really had a female rapper come from Houston or Texas and shut shit down,” Pete told Rolling Stone in March. “So that’s where I’m coming from with it.” Hot girl shit.
Pete showcased all of these tendencies—toward cash and love and acclaim—on her 2018 EP Tina Snow, which featured the breakout track “Big Ole Freak,” a song that exemplifies the Megan Thee Stallion ethos. It’s about two people as obsessed with each other as they are with playing games. “We never show up together, but I text him when I’m ready to go / Ay, I had a couple of shots at the bar / I’m finna play with that dick in the car / I got him swervin’ and breakin’ the law / These windows tinted so nobody saw,” goes the first verse. Perhaps unconventional, never unrelatable.
Jai Paul, on the other hand, has made a home in the unconventional, in the gap between pop and what you might call the music of the spheres—something surprising and nearly celestial.
But for the last six years, the biggest story about Paul has been his disappearance. After releasing a pair of legendary singles—“BTSTU” and “jasmine (demo)”—in 2011 and 2012, respectively, the reclusive artist melted away to work on an album. The songs were instantly everywhere, or at least it seemed that way; it felt as if Paul had leveled a critique at pop just by the way he manifestly thought of the genre. “BTSTU” and “jasmine (demo)” sounded like nothing else, as though they were beamed in from an alternate dimension where popular music could be experimental, glitchy, and unvarnished.
That unfinished album, however, was illegally leaked in 2013 by a person or persons unknown and put up for sale on Bandcamp. Paul didn’t release anything else until this past June, when he dropped another pair of singles, “Do You Love Her Now” and “He.” Those new singles turned out to be just the B side to a full LP, Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones)—an official release, by XL Recordings, of the album that was leaked six years earlier.
“Do You Love Her Now” and “He” are not, strictly speaking, new. According to a letter that Paul wrote to accompany the new album, they’re both tracks that were in progress at the time of the leak, although they don’t really sound that way. “Do You Love Her Now” winds itself around a strummed bass chord in a pattern that’s echoed by the bass kick, and Paul indulges in melodic flights while a guitar sparkles nearby.
“He,” in contrast, sounds like an ’80s jam. It’s a midtempo, synth-driven love ballad. “I think about the time / It’s heavy on my mind / Still rowing in the dark / As the mountain climbs, because / All I can think about is I’ve been there / Trying to make sense of it, ” he sings with feeling. Both songs are a reminder of why he was so electrifying in the first place: His compositions are eclectic and melodically advanced and sound like absolutely nothing else. They point in the direction that he might have taken had he not been derailed.
In the letter to his fans, Paul reveals that the leak prompted “a breakdown of sorts,” after which he sought help and then founded an institute to support musicians. (It also releases music from like-minded artists.) Discussing the experience is clearly still painful for him. “It’s completely surreal to me that this music will now exist officially in this form, unfinished, and even sequenced by the people who leaked it!” he writes.
Yet even in this diminished form (because many of its samples couldn’t be cleared), Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) is a triumph. At the time of the leak, many critics put it on their best-of-the-year lists. Pitchfork hailed it as one of the 100 best albums of the decade. While we’ll never know exactly how Paul intended his debut album to sound, the one we have is stunning nonetheless.
From the second track, “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” it’s clear that Paul’s distinctive style—fuzzed-out synths, chattering percussion, vocals almost buried in the mix, and a highly eclectic approach to sampling—is still light-years ahead of his pop-music peers, and the same can be said for his instincts. The question that recurs: What would pop sound like if Paul hadn’t taken his hiatus? Would it be anything like the moonstruck, spiky, yearning songs on this album? I can only wonder, even though those first two singles have changed the course of the genre. (It was no huge surprise that “BTSTU” was later sampled by Beyoncé and Drake.) The leaks have influenced everyone from Mura Masa to Nao, artists who are pushing against the popular conception of popular music.
If Fever is daytime music, then Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) is a soundtrack for the dead space in a night out; it keeps the beat pounding. Lately I’ve found myself playing both, at the party and the party after that. It’s a rare thing when two such diametrically opposed albums share so much. In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself juxtaposing them in my own listening. Perhaps that’s just because it’s summer and these are hot-weather albums, but I think it goes deeper than that. These records are engineered for pleasure, to emulate the kind of heat that, in the middle of the season, dissipates only at night. For Megan Thee Stallion, it’s right there in the title. After all, you have a fever when your body is hotter than normal.
The word also describes a specific nervous excitement, the same kind you’d find in, say, a Jai Paul track. For him, the pleasure is in the song-making process itself. The tracks on Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) feel woozily in love with themselves. They’re a document of a long-past moment in time when a leak hadn’t happened yet and they were still on their way to the world.