Arts and Entertainment

Demonic Only in Name: Scarlet

Doja Cat promises a new direction on her latest album, Scarlet—and while she achieves it occasionally, most of the tracks lack substance and blend together. Doja Cat promises a new direction on her latest album, Scarlet—and while she achieves it occasionally, most of the tracks lack substance and blend together.

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Doja Cat has been unavoidable for months, stirring up controversy after controversy in the lead-up to the release of her fourth studio album, Scarlet (2023). It’s unclear whether her myriad of digital scuffles, from disagreements about the name of her fanbase to a fiery viral dispute with actor Noah Schnapp, are actually authentic or just publicity stunts. However, one thing is certain: her erratic online behavior generated an enormous amount of interest in her latest work.

Though she began her career as a rapper, honing her craft as an underground artist in Los Angeles, Doja Cat’s rise to fame stems largely from her skill as a vocalist. This versatility makes Doja Cat’s genre hard to pin down; due to the massive success of her pop-oriented hits, she is often characterized as a singer and not a rapper. Doja Cat often voices her disagreement with this label, affirming that she is, in fact, a rapper. When launching Scarlet, she announced that she would be moving away from her previously successful pop sound in favor of a purer style of rap.

In addition to her musicianship, much of Doja Cat’s success comes from her ability to provoke and generate virality. The release of Scarlet has been no different, with unsettling satanically-themed promotional music videos and a wave of bizarre Instagram posts. This marketing has offended some Christians who disagree with the way she incorporates biblical imagery into her music videos. Many of Doja Cat’s own supporters were reluctant to defend her, confused after she insulted her fanbase repeatedly across social media. All this attention created intense anticipation for the album, with listeners expecting to have all their questions about Doja Cat's recent erraticism answered.

The first half of this album presents a triumphant facade as Doja Cat flaunts her success, taking jabs at her haters, supporters, and even her peers, criticizing them for making bland pop music. Doja Cat’s rhymes are self-assured and relaxed as she confidently proves that she is a skilled rapper. Her playful vocals combine with the sharp drums of her simplistic beats to create an energetic groove.

While her vocal skill is undeniable, Doja Cat’s lyricism lacks any overarching narrative, and these tracks seem disconnected, both musically and thematically. The minimalist beats she chose give her vocals the spotlight, but because her writing is so fragmented, they fail to fill up the space left by the instrumentals. While the beats are similar in their simplicity, they’re disconnected from one another. For the most part, they also lack any connection to the demonic theme used to promote the album or any other common theme, leaving most of these tracks feeling empty.

However, there are some highlight songs that manage to escape emptiness with energetic, violent instrumentals. “Demons” does this, connecting with the satanic marketing tactics that Doja Cat employed to advertise the album. Throughout this track, Doja Cat screams and raps over the most distorted, bass-heavy beat on the album. The aggression of the beat combined with Doja Cat’s fiery vocal performance make up for the song’s writing, which is more focused on flexing than expressing anything genuine.

The song “Agora Hills” marks the beginning of the more earnest and vulnerable second half of the album. Doja Cat, describing her desire to publicize her relationships, raps that she hopes her partner can “handlе the heat” as she puts his “name in the streets.” While she recognizes the consequences of revealing her partner’s identity, she refuses to let public opinion dictate her actions and embraces her desire to show him off. Because her writing is finally substantive, the subtle yet rich instrumental is an asset, allowing her singsong raps to shine.

Doja Cat continues to explore her relationship with fame through “Attention.” In the intro, she sings, “This one doesn’t bite, it doesn’t get aggressive,” describing the docility that the music industry expects of its stars. She lets go of these expectations as she raps, “I am not afraid to finally say [EXPLETIVE] with my chest,” referencing breast reduction surgery and the confidence it gave her despite the fan backlash she received. On a broader scale, this song explains her desire to express herself authentically despite the pressure put on her by the music industry to be marketable, finally providing some insight into the recent shift in her public presence.

On a stylistically different note, the 15th track, “Attention,” is mostly sung, bringing to mind Doja Cat’s older songs that were crafted specifically to become hits. The contrast between this style and the song’s theme of her journey away from living to satisfy others further emphasizes her newfound confidence. Disregarding the expectations of her audience and the music industry, Doja Cat is able to let go of the restrictive demands of pop music, weaving the elements of her musical past with a new vulnerability into a cohesive whole.

While these final songs see Doja Cat letting down the braggadocio that characterizes most of this album and addressing her relationship with fame, it’s too little, too late. The lack of substantive writing throughout Scarlet means that most of its 17-song tracklist blends together. The few tracks that do stand out cannot unite the rest of this largely directionless album. Despite its thematic issues, Scarlet represents a major stylistic shift for Doja Cat. While she plays it safe for the most part, staying away from anything too harsh or experimental, she takes a step in the right direction on the few standout tracks.