It’s not hard to understand why Doja Cat sometimes seems to have a chip on her shoulder. She rode in five years ago on an unabashed novelty song called “I’m a Cow” (choice lyrics: “Bitch, I’m a cow / Bitch, I’m a cow / I go ‘Mooooo’”) and was originally positioned as a Dr. Luke-produced, sassy and solid if unspectacular pop-R&B singer. Cue haters.
But over the past few years, the real artist — a weird, fearless, sex-positive, empowered and funny-as-hell rapper — has gradually emerged. Her singles got better and better, especially the effervescent “Say So” and her sparkling 2021 duet with SZA, “Kiss Me More.” During the pandemic, her videos and awards-show performances got more musically ambitious, and the visuals got stranger and stranger. With her high-billed Coachella performance in 2022, she proved that she has the talent, catalog and charisma to headline hold a major stage. And on “Scarlet” — her fiery fourth full-length — it all comes together.
Doja has always had a provocative, Madonna-like image, a formidable social-media game, and a rare ability to turn the tables on haters — we’re not even going to try to unpack all the snapbacks on this album. She takes on morons who say she’s promoting Satan; the “people that were sleeping [who] say I rap now”; trolls trying to pit her and her admitted biggest influence, Nicki Minaj, against each other (with some hilarious impersonations); not to mention the countless lyrics here that are as sexually aggressive as any male rapper’s, and turn the tables on chauvinists criticizing her looks (“Boo-hoo, n—a, I don’t care you don’t want to fuck me”). A song called “Fuck the Girls” follows one called “Wet Vagina.” The video for for “Agora Hills,” which dropped last night, begins with her floating like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” and ends with her riding a bicycle while wearing a T-shirt that says “Queen of Blowjobs” on it. (See how easy it is to get distracted?) But on “Attention,” she raps, “You follow me, but you don’t even know about the music,” so let’s shut out the rest of it and focus on the powerful set of songs she’s dropped here.
“Scarlet” is not only hands-down her best album, it’s also her first full-on hip-hop set, with beats that range between hard and skittery. The pop element is still there, but is mostly channeled into sung choruses or bridges. There are a couple of perky, pop-leaning songs, but even those have an ironic edge: “Agora Hills,” the most conventionally pop song here, comes complete with a girlie “no, you hang up!” phone-call segment, until she gets to a middle rap about “sucking a little dick in the bathroom” (let’s just say that’s the only reference to a small one on the album). There are probably 25 different producers and 50 songwriters in the credits, but her primary collaborators are seasoned vets with vast track records, many of whom she’s worked with for years: Kurt McKenzie, Earl on the Beat, Fallen, Jean Baptiste and Jay Versace, whose collective work ranges from Lil Yachty, Childish Gambino, Drake and Lil Baby to Selena Gomez and Black Eyed Peas. And while she remains signed to Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe label, the only Luke in the credits is a Luther Campbell sample.
Musically, the sounds are all over the map: “Attention” has an indelibly slinky melody, “97” is built around a RZA-ish hook that sounds like a Japanese koto, “Paint the Town Red” uses Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” as its foundation, and many of the songs have spare, hard bass and beats to highlight her jaw-dropping lyrics. Head over to Genius.com for the full pull, but some highlights include “James Dean/ Let me in them jeans/ Put me on yo hip and let me ride it till I cream”; “Shorty walk-in like she gotta a stick in her ass/ Pretty face, plastic/ It’s giving Kardashian/ Agent 47, I’m giving assassin/ Kick me out the Met but I really run fashion”; “We are enemies, we are foes/ Who are you, what are those?/ You are gross/ Percocet got you playin’ with your nose.” Yet some of the album’s catchiest lines are simple, like Kanye West-like “Ugh”s on “Paint the Town Red” or her song-stopping, “Look at me, look at me — ya lookin’?” on “Attention.”
The album is loaded with singles, but it’s a real album, with most of the other songs branching out her sound and showing off her killer flow. With 17 tracks spanning almost an hour, it sags in a couple of spots, but “Scarlet” sets a new bar on multiple levels, and not just for female rappers. As she sings on “Fuck the Girls”: “Who dare ride my new Versace coattails?”