Plenty of artists present an unapologetic front, but Doja Cat seems genuinely immune to any kind of online controversy. Two months before the release of ‘Scarlet’, her transitional fourth album, the singer, rapper and frequent beef magnet called out her fans for calling themselves “Kittenz” in the vein of Beyoncé’s Beyhive or Taylor Swift’s Swifties. “My fans don’t name themselves shit,” Doja posted on Threads, a social media platform she has since disappeared from (like us all). “If you call yourself a ‘kitten’ or fucking ‘kittenz’ that means you need to get off your phone and get a job and help your parents with the house.”
A day later, when a disgruntled former k**ten asked Doja to reassure fans that she “loves them”, the musician replied with brutal honesty: “I don’t though cuz I don’t even know y’all.” Though she lost 500,000 followers in the fallout, an exodus she compared to “defeating a large beast”, she has since made her position abundantly clear on this album’s lead single, ‘Paint The Town Red’. “Fans ain’t dumb,” Doja raps over a luxurious sample from Dionne Warwick‘s ‘Walk On By’, “but extremists are.” Ouch – though this didn’t stop ‘Paint The Town Red’ from going to Number One in the UK, US and beyond.
Doja has also talked up ‘Scarlet’ by dismissing her last two albums, 2019’s ‘Hot Pink’ and 2021’s ‘Planet Her’ – both multi-platinum smashes – as “cash grabs” filled with “digestible pop hits”. The artwork for her previous material on streaming services is now bathed with a red hue, in keeping with this era’s aesthetic. In fairness, she has put her money where her mouth is by distancing herself from Dr. Luke, the controversial producer who polished up some of her biggest pop hits. “I don’t think I need to work with him in the future,” Doja said in 2021; and certainly nothing here mimics the blissful disco sound of her Luke-produced breakthrough song ‘Say So’. Instead, ‘Scarlet’ is a much tougher affair that repositions Doja as a rapper first and singer second.
If Doja has been stung by past criticism of her skills – Remy Ma said last year: “I don’t think of her as a rapper” – she now seems intent on rising above it. “Lots of people that were sleeping say I rap now,” she insists on ‘Demons’, a hard-hitting brag track that features the knowing line “I’m the fastest-growing bitch on all your apps now.” The song that follows, ‘Wet Vagina’, underlines her point with some tight self-mythologising rhymes: “Pretty face plastic – it’s giving Kardashian / Agent 47, yeah, I’m giving assassin / Kick me out the Met but I really run fashion”.
Working with producers including her regular collaborators Rogét Chahayed, Kurtis McKenzie and Y2K, Doja comes out fighting from the start. ‘Fuck The Girls’ lays a combative hook over a ’90s hip-hop beat; ‘Ouches’ is driven by the nonchalant refrain “looks like we don’t give a shit”, and the midtempo sex jam ‘Gun’ is thrillingly filthy. “Said, James Dean, let me in them jeans – put me on your whip and let me ride it ’til I cream,” she raps. The latter also features one of Doja’s famously plainspoken come-ons: “Stick it up me in the living room.”
Around its midpoint, ‘Scarlet’ becomes more sensual and reflective, though Doja still finds time to tell us she “don’t fuck incels” on the otherwise nostalgic ‘Agora Hills’. The harp-flecked ‘Shutcho’ is built around another expensive-sounding sample – 10cc’s soft rock chestnut ‘I’m Not In Love’ – and ‘Can’t Wait’ shows off her underused soulful vocals. “Not to be too much but I am always me around you,” she raps over a balmy beat that harks back to Lauryn Hill’s classic ‘The Miseducation…’ album. “But when you leave, I’m moving very awkwardly without you.” Her phrasing may be clumsy, but she sounds genuinely loved-up.
It all adds up to an overlong, slightly repetitive but ultimately compelling album of two halves. Late in the day, she checks herself on ‘Love Life’ by admitting “I know I’ve had a temper before” and injects some humour into the woozy ‘Balut’. “The only problem that I havе and I’ll be so real,” Doja deadpans, “[is] I hit the stagе and lose the crystals on my toenails.” Still, by this stage, there’s no doubt that Doja has made her point – that she doesn’t owe us anything but to be herself.
Doja Cat – Scarlet artwork
- Release date: September 22, 2023
- Record label: Kemosabe, RCA