Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Doja Cat Scarlet


“I dont even know yall.” It might be the realest thing that any celebrity has said in 2023. A couple of months ago, during a brief flirtation with Facebook’s new faux-Twitter platform Threads, Doja Cat refused to tell her clamoring fans that she loves them. This interaction lost Doja hundreds of thousands of social-media followers, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that celebrities are trained not to do these days, as the parasocial stan-army interaction has become the default method for stars to face their public.

Doja’s rebuke was a corrective, a welcome reminder that celebrities are a whole lot more interesting when they act like human beings and not like reflections of fans’ idealized self-images. After Doja said what she said, a few dozen online op-eds theorized that she might’ve just ended her career. Before long, though, Doja had the #1 song in America. Doja landed that chart-topping hit, her first without a big-name collaborator, by rapping, and she pulled it off in an era when other rap stars’ singles are dying on the charts. Sometimes, it pays to follow your intuition.

Scarlet, Doja Cat’s new album, is all intuition. For a long time, Doja Cat has been playing the game. A decade ago, 17-year-old Doja was a creature of SoundCloud and of LA’s indie-rap underground. That changed when she signed a deal with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe label. Since that time, Doja has continued to present as a messy always-online weirdo, but those qualities haven’t always come across in her music. Instead, Doja has become extremely successful by making ultra-glossy pop-rap. She sang as often as she rapped, and her songs came out as hybridized hook-fests — thumping disco-revival one moment, burbling Afrobeats the next. Doja can really rap, but it can be hard to notice when she’s doing a choreographed hypercolor dance routine over a Big Mama Thornton sample. It’s a testament to the innate strength of Doja’s personality that her loopy, cartoonish sensibility was able to shine through at all.

Last year, Doja Cat shaved her head and her eyebrows on Instagram Live — a clear sign to the world that she’s not into playing the game anymore. Scarlet is coming out on Kemosabe, but I’m pretty sure Dr. Luke didn’t work on any of the album’s tracks. (Luke sometimes hides behind alter-egos, but I combed all through the credit sheets, and I didn’t see that guy anywhere.) Instead, Doja Cat has gone out of her way to make a straight-up rap record, talking hard shit over hard beats without ignoring her pop instincts. The result is a big, brash statement-piece album that never loses its sense of fun.

Doja Cat has talked about going back to her roots, trying to make an album that reflects the East Coast rap that she grew up loving, but she’s not trying to make her own Reasonable Doubt. As a rapper, Doja Cat is a whole lot closer to what her onetime collaborator Nicki Minaj was doing back in her schizophrenic mixtape era. Doja doesn’t switch wildly among a cast of personalities, as Nicki once did — though you wouldn’t know it from the album rollout, where Doja plays a red-painted figure whose name is Scarlet and whose blood-drenched visage is supposed to signify rebirth. Doja does, however, jump energetically among modes of delivery — playfully stage-whispering before suddenly revving up into a pissed-off scratchy-voiced growl. On Scarlet, she’s finally rapping over music that’s just as chaotic as she is.

“Paint The Town Red,” the big hit that opens Scarlet, is a bit of a misdirect, its sticky singsong chorus and buoyant Dionne Warwick sample telegraphing an airy sophistication that doesn’t reappear too often. Instead, Doja spends much of the album indulging in the silly ferocity of “Demons,” her knowingly ugly follow-up. Over that song’s chopped-up horror-movie strings, Doja savors the taste of her own pettiness: “We are enemies, we are fooooes/ Who are you? And what are thooooose?/ You are grossss/ Percocet got you playing with your nooooose.” It’s a playground-bully provocation that calls back to Doja’s SoundCloud days, and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Virtually every track on Scarlet has multiple producers, but one of Doja’s main collaborators is Earl On The Beat, the Atlanta-born Lil Yachty associate known for his work on City Girls’ “Act Up.” Earl served as a driving force on “Paint The Town Red,” and he shows similar pop instincts in the way he chops up 10cc’s dazed reverie “I’m Not In Love” on “Shutcho” or Troop’s 1989 slow-jam “All I Do Is Think Of You” on “Agora Hills.” Elsewhere, though, Doja goes for more extreme and abrasive sounds — ominous foghorn drones on “Wet Vagina,” hard-bounce syncopation on “Ouchies,” full-on boom-bap on “97.” Doja even ends the album by snarling over the dramatic, churning instrumental from Gunna’s “Fukumean,” one of the year’s biggest full-on rap anthems. On that beat, Doja raps about being a sellout, turning it into a flex. As it fades out, she screams, again and again, “Fuck this beat!” It’s the purest ’00s mixtape-rapper moment we’ve ever heard from Doja, and it’s also a beautiful troll move.

Doja Cat knows how to troll. All over Scarlet, she lands her punchlines, and she seems to have a great time doing it. On “Fuck The Girls,” she pops off hard: “I said suck my dick, clit, tits! I’m yelling 666! I can’t believe how bold, you think the line’s that thin!” On “Ouchies,” she calls out her peers’ torpor: “I don’t mean to instigate/ Y’all really phone it in with the music lately/ I don’t need another hit ’cause it’s useless, really/ I ain’t looking good? You hallucinatin’!” (Doja leans into her vocal fry to make all those words rhyme, the same way that Southern rappers do by emphasizing their drawls.) Another line I liked: “Boys be mad that I don’t fuck incels/ Girls hate, too — gun to their pigtail!” And then there’s the moment where Doja explains exactly how she weaponizes all the online hate against her: “If you’re scooting, let me know ’cause that’s a comment. that’s a view, and that’s a ratin’, that’s some hatin’, and that’s engagement I could use.” Sometimes, the biggest troll move is to explain exactly how you’re trolling.

Another producer who’s all over the album is Jay Versace, the former Vine comedian who’s reinvented himself by producing hazy boom-bap for the Griselda crew and Tyler, The Creator. Versace’s spaced-out, near-psychedelic beats on songs like “Often” and “Love Life” bring something else out of Doja. Like friend SZA, another Jay Versace collaborator, Doja Cat sometimes moves into the realm of astral neo-soul. Doja spent years of her childhood living in Alice Coltrane’s commune, so it makes sense that she’s comfortable with woozy, off-kilter drones, or with elastic live basslines that amble lazily through some of these tracks. Even on some of the hardest and most aggressive Scarlet beats, Doja stacks up ecstatic backup-vocal harmonies. On the quieter songs, she stops trolling and talks about feeling vulnerable or being in love. “Love Life” is literally just Doja listing out all the things that make her feel grateful. On the lovestruck “Agora Hills,” Doja’s nervously languid flow is weirdly reminiscent of circa-2012 Kitty Pryde.

There are no guests on Scarlet, and you can tell that Doja ignored any and all notes from her A&R reps. She’s got two platinum albums and a big pile of top-10 hits, so this is her blank-check record, the album where she’s spending the goodwill that she’s accumulated. Scarlet is a long record, and some of its experiments don’t fully connect. But even at her most indulgent, Doja Cat still makes fun, catchy music, and she does it with a lively rebel spirit that sets her completely apart. Nobody else could’ve made this album. Scarlet cuts against the algorithmic predictability of circa-2023 pop music with a joyous sense of style, and it’s fun to hear someone with her level of skill and craft cut loose like this. The spirit that leads Doja Cat to tell fans to stop being creepy is the same spirit that leads to the creation of an album like this. Even when it doesn’t work, I’m glad it exists.

Scarlet is out now on Kemosabe/RCA.

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