Public figures who deliberately alienate their patrons rarely get away with it, but it seemed like the ultimate power move when Doja Cat essentially flipped off her entire fanbase earlier this year.
Sure, she lost over a quarter of a million Instagram followers after condescending to loyalists who go by “Kittenz,” a name she gave them, but the hype surrounding her only continued to grow even as her social media numbers plummeted. A few months prior, she teased that the majority of her industry catalog was a money-driven sham, which fans took as a backhanded slap to those who have sworn by her material from the start.
The promotional campaign for Doja Cat’s fourth studio album, Scarlet, was predominantly steered by the controversy that has followed her in 2023. In the months leading up to its release, she leaned further and further into her reputation as a full-time provocateur and unleashed a quartet of demonic hit singles that pointed to a strong contender for the hottest album of the year.
Soon after the complete tracklist finally went public, however, it became apparent that her current chapter’s most exciting moments had been used up.
Once the excitement of the first listen wears off, the repetitive lyrical matter of most songs begins to stand out more with each cycle, to the point where they start resembling the unvarying commercial records she vowed to distance herself from. Doja asserts her dominance, refuses to apologize for her in-your-face sexuality, and doubles down on her preeminence and unapologetic conduct. Also, she’s in cahoots with the devil, but who isn’t these days?
Fixated on reminding everyone that she can rap, Doja Cat failed to move past the idiosyncrasies she had already established about herself so firmly. She had positioned herself to either climax or crash tremendously with Scarlet, but instead ended up barely moving an inch from where she was before.
The album’s four promotional singles each encapsulated its key themes. “Attention,” self-explanatory and self-aware, emphasizes her obsession with … well, being the center of attention. “Paint the Town Red” and “Demons” both illustrate her cheeky retort to critics writing her off for being shameless, ungodly and devoid of virtue, among countless other disparagements. “Balut” is just heavy-hitting, no-nonsense rap that cements her status as an MC.
These cuts were spectacular as isolated releases, but they lost their sting upon being placed beside 17 other compositions formulated reusing the same ingredients. The five-song arrangement stretching from “Ouchies” to “Shutcho,” for example, perhaps best encapsulates the tedium this LP repeatedly finds itself drifting off into.
Scarlet is an album worth hearing but not listening to. It’s still arguably Doja’s most gripping body of work to date because it sounds amazing, but it lacks the integrality to secure a legacy. The package as a whole deserves praise for the rich flavors it offers, plus the vocal delivery on it remains buttery and crispy through it all — her raspy voice dragging over a beat with an easy precision never gets old.
Two joints in particular — “Can’t Wait” and “Skulls and Bones” — exhibit the best of her vocal execution, rapping and singing both robust and delicate, and are far more pronounced from the rest. Furthermore, user-friendly lines like “I wanna show you off” from “Agora Hills” and “You must do this often” from “Often” have far more durability than the cumbersome bars dominating most of the album that say very little in so many words. These stand out for diverting from the core patterns, at least far enough to have identities of their own.
Still, the album doesn’t age well, even over a few days. With time, it will be remembered as Doja Cat’s failed endeavor to prove she could do it all. It was meant to render the rest of her catalog insignificant but just ended up weakening her distinctive qualities. In her endless attempt at being different, she has come full circle and once again gone back to being basic by running the wheels off tried-and-tested formulas like cutesy rebellion, heroic antagonism and erotic imagery.
It’s essentially just a darker paint job — from Hot Pink to Scarlet — but the interior remains just as it was before.