Wed | Nov 29, 2023

On ‘Scarlet’, Doja Cat’s demons demand attention – as if it were possible to look away

Published:Saturday | September 23, 2023 | 12:08 AM
This cover image released by Kemosabe/RCA shows ‘Scarlet’ by Doja Cat.
This cover image released by Kemosabe/RCA shows ‘Scarlet’ by Doja Cat.


Before Doja Cat, the adventurous and often absurdist rap phenomenon born from Internet celebrity, released her stellar fourth full-length album, the take-no-prisoners Scarlet, she bit the hand that feeds.

Sort of.

On social media, she told her followers, who call themselves ‘kittenz’ to “get a job”. A few of her fan pages demanded an apology and then deactivated their accounts when it wasn’t received. No stranger to bucking convention, Doja Cat had inspired conversation about celebrity and the fans that make them that way. Did she owe them anything? Were they wrong to assume she did?

Attention was the first single she dropped – a biting treatise on parasocial relationships, particularly, the one between her fans and herself. The sonics amplify the delivery: a ‘90s hip-hop beat, the opening lines of the first verse: “Look at me / Look at me,” and a break before “ You lookin’?”

Fame has its demons, and it’s usually the source material for very unimaginative pop music. Here, Doja Cat flips the trope on its head – for one, she’s abandoned the glossy pop of her last two albums, 2021’s Planet Her and 2019’s Hot Pink, and instead sharpened her flow. Throughout, it cuts – but her humor is never lost. “On Ouchies, she raps, “A hunnid Billies / I’m the goat / No Eilish.”

Fans as villains may very well be a theme here, because it appears throughout Scarlet. F---- The Girls is Attention’s more unforgiving sister song, a burning cathartic release – it is the song equivalent of a therapist instructing their patient to write a letter with all the incendiary things they’d like to say to someone who has wronged them. (And, in the case of this example, destroy it.) Except, of course, instead of getting rid of the note – or having someone accidentally send the letter to its subject, as is the plot to so many sitcoms – she sends it to everyone, scorched earth-style.

Gone are the days of Say So – and even further away, the comedic virality of the tracks that made her, like Mooo! Instead there’s the shimmery Shutcho and its sample of the soft rock hit I’m Not In Love by the English group 10cc; the new jack swing sweetness of Agora Hills, filtered through Troop’s 1989 hit All I Do Is Think of You, and the R&B romance of Can’t Wait.

In mid-September, her album opener Paint the Town Red – which features a sample of Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By – became the first rap song to hit No. 1 in over a year. That was the longest absence since 2001. (For the history-curious: there was an 18-month gap between Will Smith’s Wild Wild West and Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me.) For the last few months, country music has occupied the top spots – if anyone had the power to dethrone its dominance, it’s Doja and her rule breaking spirit.

On this album, she goes beyond her Scarlet Letter – and wears the colour as a point of pride.