At just 22, Monaleo has already been through it. Before the Houston musician became a viral sensation and Ivy Park ambassadorexpectant mother and rising rap royalty, she was a young girl from Missouri City dealing with suicidal ideation as young as fourth grade, surviving intimate partner violence, and coping by developing a “fascination” with death so matter-of-fact that she once studied mortuary science. So even though she’s spent the past two years enjoying the deserved popularity of her gloved-up-fighter singles—especially “Beating Down Yo Block,” the 2021 banger begging to be blasted from a lowrider truck—success has made her somewhat circumspect, too. On her debut album, Where the Flowers Don’t Die, she aims to fill out the contours of an ascendant star, determined to complicate her tough-talking persona and detail everything she went through to get here.

From the top, Where the Flowers Don’t Die signals that Monaleo is serious. On “Sober Mind,” a slow boom-bap textured with piano chords, she raps about clear-headedness and vanquishing her darker impulses: “This little mind of my mine it take time/If I ever get to thinking too much I take five/I be damned if I let a bad thought take mine.” Her pensiveness is surprisingly traditional, hewing to the rap classicism that tends to intrigue old heads; here it’s about the timeless musicality of her words and the lilt of her sentiment. Monaleo replicates the approach on the deceptively lovely breakup flamethrower “Return of the P” as well as “Ridgemont Baby,” a gutting memoir over a Tom Brock sample in which she transforms a diss into a plaintive family portrait. “You bitches grew up with family dogs in a two-story/So in other words bitch you don’t know the half,” she admonishes her bougier enemies, and then: “What you know ’bout boiling hot water just to take a bath/We was four deep in a one-bedroom, you do the math.” It gets rougher and more resilient from there; she’s really been through it.

These tracks provide personal context and a deep backdrop for her punchier numbers, including “Beating Down Yo Block” and the Southern bad bitch anthem “Ass Kickin.” When she tells an eager but marginally useful man that “you gon’ pay for what Kirk did to Rasheeda” on the latter track, she raps with the same cutting cadence as the iconic Atlanta rapper she namechecks: succinct, consonant-forward, voice low and bubbling like pavement tar, elucidating the finer points of a cunnilingus pump-and-dump strategy. (Its video depicts Monaleo’s pregnant posse administering beatdowns at the OB-GYN, and cross-cuts to a fetus breakdancing in the womb.) Monaleo can be funny and tough, emotional and direct, broadly versatile in tenor and style with a distinctly Texan flair, and it’s a blast to hear her growing into her talent.

Flowers starts to swerve into the median somewhere around “Goddess,” featuring Flo Milli on a melodic, Kewpie doll flow—a pop play in the mold of Doja Cat that wouldn’t feel totally prefab if only a feckless engineer had accidentally deleted the acoustic guitar. It’s prettified by an ethereal cascade of synths and the theme, that God has to be a woman because dudes are so trifling, is relatable though well-trod. It also establishes that Monaleo has a beautiful singing voice, and her church choir skills are there to call upon for album closer “Cosmic Love,” where she declares she’d fly into “space with no spacesuit/If it means that I won’t get to face you again.” There’s that professed morbidity! (Memo to the queasy: Do not Google what happens to the human body while rawdogging space.)

And then—a Swiftian adult-contemporary song called “Miss Understood” pops up like promoted Instagram poetry. It’s meant to illustrate that Monaleo is “hard on the outside, soft in the middle,” as she sings, but going straight from beating down hoes to walking on sunshine is quite the jarring switch. The hardass tracks may be a front for a woman who’s seen some shit, but Monaleo has already established her complexities; a rote guitar ballad that invokes songwriting clichés about a hurt little girl feels like its own, different kind of mask. Particularly when that’s followed by an interlude called “Sauvage,” which transitions into “Cologne Song,” where our heroine wonders sweetly, “What kinda cologne are you wearing?” (This also evokes sour memories of Johnny Depp’s creepy Dior campaign, probably not what she was going for.) On their own, the undeniably great layered harmonies on “Cologne Song” gesture at innocent, early ’90s R&B—Shanice singing about loving your smile was schmaltzy, too, yet remains one of the best love songs of that era. But “Cologne Song” betrays Monaleo’s impulse towards surface-level lyricism when she can obviously go much deeper.

You could see this track sequence as a statement of Monaleo’s clear versatility, but it’s a better case for a sharper edit. So just when you’re contemplating her untroubled attraction to a man’s alluring scent (“I know it ain’t Axe”), she’s back with the gloves on, rapping ferociously that she’s a “thug ass gangsta bitch come get ya wig split” (“Wig Splitter”). Monaleo’s got a compelling story to tell—of her climb from the couch to become a “young rich bitch” with a shoulder chip, hardened by her experiences but as vulnerable as any of us when she lets the defensive pose drop. The instinct to flex her range is a good one, particularly at the outset of an already thriving career. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance between boldness and platitudes, chutzpah and chaos.