When Megan Thee Stallion hops on the phone following her Billboard photo shoot, she sounds completely in her element. The Houston rapper took over a ranch in her hometown, posing in cowboy boots and Daisy Dukes alongside horses whose legs are nearly the same length as hers. “It’s hot in more ways than one,” she says of the shoot. “That’s what I do!” The rapper, who admits she can’t take three steps without twerking, fell in love with the booty-shaking moves in middle school after watching viral dance squad “The Twerk Team” on YouTube. She remembers thinking, “Wow, I need a butt like that!” But now, it’s become more than that, influencing and driving her entire career.

Born Megan Pete, the rising rapper’s influences include The Notorious B.I.G., H-town icon Pimp C and her own mother, Holly Thomas, who rapped as Holly-Wood (Thomas died in March). In 2016, Megan Thee Stallion went viral after a cypher of her freestyling over Drake’s “4pm in Calabasas” hit social media. “I know [my success] looks quick to everybody else,” says the artist, “but I’ve been secretly rapping since I was 7 years old.” Her ferocious bars led 300 Entertainment co-founder/CEO Kevin Liles and senior vp A&R Selim Bouab to make her their first female rapper signee last November. Megan Thee Stallion, who is also signed to Houston indie 1501 Certified, says 300 felt like a family from the beginning. “I wanted to be somewhere where I was gonna be a priority.”

The 24-year-old poured her spunky confidence into the saucy club banger “Big Ole Freak,” the Tina Snow mixtape highlight released in June 2018 that proved to be a breakout hit, becoming her first Hot 100 entry. The rapper, who is currently a junior at Texas Southern University studying health administration, even wrote down the goal of hitting the Billboard chart as part of a class assignment. The song, produced by LilJuMadeDaBeat, also hit No. 38 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and No. 9 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.

With its thumping melody that samples Immature’s 1992 deep cut “Is It Love This Time” and explicit lyrics (“I’m finna play with that dick in the car/ I got him swerving and breaking the law”), Megan Thee Stallion has found that the unapologetic spirit of “Big Ole Freak” has resonated with women in particular. “It makes them feel free and sexy, and that’s really important,” Megan Thee Stallion says. “Once you make the girls happy, then you got a winner.” Among the girls she’s made fans of are SZA, who did the #BigOleFreakChallenge during her Dreamville Festival set in Raleigh, N.C. on April 6 and fellow Houstonian Solange. Solange came to Megan Thee Stallion’s New Orleans performance in March, during which the pair tried to meet backstage but ended up making a beeline to a secret bathroom to escape the frenzy. “There were two girls in there and when they saw us they damn near fainted!” Megan Thee Stallion says. “Solange goes to introduce herself and we’re like, ‘Girl we all know who you are!’ That’s my girl now — she can’t get rid of me.”

Megan Thee Stallion’s skills have also caught the attention of hip-hop legend Q-Tip, whose assistant emailed the rapper’s team earlier in 2019 requesting a meeting. In March, the artist and her mother flew to New York, where the trio rode around in his truck, singing along to fellow rapper Max B’s music. Q-Tip “always encourages me to be myself and not let anybody change me,” she says, calling him her “bestie.” “He makes me feel good about being my ratchet self, because he’s ratchet too.”

Q-Tip aside, a not-so-surprising number of men have shown disapproval of Megan Thee Stallion’s twerk-friendly tunes, hopping on social media to bark comments underlined with misogyny. “It really shows how insecure a lot of these dudes are,” she says. “Half the time it’s an up-and-coming rapper who’s trying to get a reaction so somebody can check out their music [instead]. Or some dude that’s probably been hurt before by a girl who looks like me. Or maybe a guy that I didn’t [direct message] back in 2013? I don’t know what it could be, but that’s just not my problem.”

The rapper isn’t letting this, or anything really, stop her from completing her mission: inspire women to wholeheartedly own their sexuality. “We gotta break these double-standards and get women to loosen up a bit,” she says. “We gotta show them that we can do what we want to do how we want to do it. If someone doesn’t like it, they can get to stepping.”

Megan Thee Stallion’s debut project Fever will introduce her alter ego, the college partying Hot Girl Meg. Her favorite songs include “Shake That,” “Money Good,” and the latest single “Sex Talk,” for which the beat was made on the spot by DJ Willaye at a Dallas show when he forgot the flash drive that included the rapper’s viral “Stalli Freestyle.”

She started working on Fever prior to her record deal and planned to drop it in January, but the label wanted to build out her marketing campaign first. Due in April, the LP was pushed back again after the deaths of her mother and Nipsey Hussle. She now plans to release Fever in May. “I definitely have to pray and spend a lot of time by myself when I can,” she says. “Sometimes, when you’re doing too much, things get overwhelming. So I just have to calm myself down and think, ‘What would my mama want me to do?’ ”

During such alone time, Megan Thee Stallion can be found studying (she switched to online courses after booking too many gigs to attend in-person) ahead of her graduation ceremony in the fall, which she hopes to bring some of her fans — who she affectionately dubs as her “Hotties" — to. And when she needs to unwind, she’ll turn to anime shows like Bleach, Inuyasha and Hunter X Hunter. She even dyed her wigs (like the red-and-white ponytail in her Billboard shoot) to mimic My Hero Academia character Shoto Todoroki. “I really like how the characters always has to go through some type of long journey that’s like a crazy struggle,” she says. “And these anime shows give women power. She’s always the queen or somebody that you cannot beat — I love that.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 20 issue of Billboard.

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