Megan Thee Stallion performed Tuesday evening at Jiffy Lube Live. (Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Roc Nation)
Pop music critic

Hot Girl Summer was almost over and nobody knew exactly how to feel about it. The sun was slumping out of the Virginia sky, the temperature had dipped to a cool 74, and there was our hero, Megan Thee Stallion, working the stage of a venue called Jiffy Lube Live, squatting down to the floor and vigorously bouncing her backside, as if casting gravitational waves across the cosmos.

Yet, somehow, in that wild swirl of celestial profundity, joyful absurdity, sexy deadpan and undiluted fun, it was easy to feel disappointed by the world. Easy because Megan is having the breakout year that every rapper daydreams about — but here she was at the Lube, opening for four other acts, all men, unloading her beautiful trash talk into an amphitheater that was only one-seventh full.

Over the past few months, the 24-year-old’s notion of “Hot Girl Summer” has mutated from a social media motto into a planet-eating meme into a vaguely defined philosophy of personal triumph. And yet when Megan took the stage at dusk on Tuesday, victory still felt very far away. Her microphone wasn’t working for the entirety of her first song. “Put some respect on my team,” she rapped anyway, barely blinking. If you knew the words that you were supposed to be hearing, the malfunction transformed her demand into a plea.

Sadly, the top still feels like the bottom for so many women, regardless of the songs they sing. In country music, women have spent years crusading for more radio airplay, with no relief in sight. In rock-and-roll, women continue to fight against gender being the only lens through which the media is willing to experience their work. And while these genre-specific struggles are usually discussed separately from one another, they’re all symptoms of the same dumb patriarchy, a system that’s been trying to shush half of humanity for centuries.

In today’s rap music, it can get especially grim. The most inventive women are often pitted against one another, as if there was only one spot available on the A-list, while the rest tend to be dismissed in broad strokes. Earlier this summer, when the industry mogul Jermaine Dupri was asked about his favorite women currently rapping, he said, “I feel like they’re all rapping about the same thing. I don’t think they’re showing us who is the best rapper. It’s like strippers, rapping.”

Sexism aside, he isn’t really listening. What do rap stylists as disparate Megan Thee Stallion (sensual meticulousness), Rico Nasty (Technicolor anger) and Tierra Whack (wild-style concision) really share other than a knowledge of hip-hop history, two X chromosomes and a determination to survive the misogyny that smogs our society?

Even if today’s women were rapping about the same stuff, the sound of their words would mean more than the words themselves. Not because of their gender but because that’s how rap music works: Lyrics accrue meaning when they become sounds. Megan might rhyme incessantly about sex and power, but the precision of her delivery also makes her songs about self-awareness, discipline, control and more.

Her sound is born out of tradition, too. She grew up in the same Houston neighborhood where the late DJ Screw once conducted some of rap’s most psychedelic experiments, bending time and timbre, slowing the tempo of his songs into an exquisite cosmic slop. Megan’s rigor might sound like it comes from another solar system altogether, but listen closely, and you’ll hear that she’s highly fluent in Screw’s looseness, which gives her exactitude depth and meaning.

She’s been wise to couch her taut rhyming style in a worldview as expansive as Hot Girl Summer. Megan has suggested that you don’t have to be a girl to get into the spirit of the season and that everyone should be flexible with their definitions of “hot.” Everyone is invited, but she’s still rapping on her own terms. That’s progress.

Still, after bouncing her words and her body across the stage for 20 minutes straight on Tuesday evening, Megan seemed entirely aware of how far she stood from the top. “I go by the name of Megan Thee Stallion,” she said at the end of her set, introducing herself by way of farewell, “and if you don’t know about me, ask your boo about me.”

The roars that followed made the amphitheater sound nearly half full. Maybe that was progress, too.