Album Review: Doja Cat - 'Scarlet'

22 September 2023 | 2:26 pm | David James Young

Has Doja Cat created an album that meets the expectations set by 'Paint The Town Red'?

'Scarlet' album cover

'Scarlet' album cover (Source: Supplied)

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It's said that inside you, there are two wolves. Inside Doja Cat, there are two venomous arachnids.

Though the platinum-selling slashie (singer slash rapper, of course) originally presented her fourth studio album, Scarlet, with a single glittery pink creature on the cover, it was quickly substituted for a pair that appear to be in head-to-head combat with one another. The ostensible reason for this swap-out was that artwork designer Dusty Ray had sold more or less the exact same cover art to a German metal band putting their album out on the exact same day, but if you'll allow a book to be judged by its cover, then there's something deeper at play here.

Consider the conflict playing out on the updated cover: in one corner, the girl who emerged as a rapping bovine aficionado in the late 2010s; in the other, the woman who took over the planet as one of its biggest pop stars in the early 2020s. The original cover may have had you believing that Doja Cat wanted to present herself as this all-encompassing monolith, but the reality is that even after all the success she has been afforded in the past decade, there's still a schismatic sense of being unable to compromise who she is with who she was.

This, at the very least, ensures that Scarlet isn't a boring listen. Doja doesn't do dull, after all – she's sold herself with her time in the spotlight thus far as being multifaceted and chameleonic, and that's entirely to her credit. In tandem with that constant movement, however, comes its fair share of crashes – and having zero features on this album means that it's Doja doing all the driving. 

Take Wet Vagina, for instance – and yes, that's the actual name of the song. Its intention was clearly to be evocative and brash, to chase off the chaste Planet Her fans from the room and to make it clear she's not for kids – at least, not anymore. In execution?

The song feels like you tried to download Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's WAP from LimeWire and instead installed a virus on the family computer. Elsewhere, the breathy come-ons of Agora Hills and Often want to add some sultry sexuality to the mix but feel far too undercooked to make any kind of lasting impact – save, of course, for this career-worst bar in the latter: “Like Fortnite, I'mma need your skin.”

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One of the big selling points in the rollout of Scarlet was Doja Cat espousing an earnest return to rapping and largely shunning singing in favour of it. It's a commendable attempt to showcase her range, and there are unquestionably moments that make it work – early single Attention, for one, is a pitch-perfect tessellation between her raspy singing and her paced-out flow.

The slinking bass and boom-bap of Fuck the Girls, too, is an excellent playground for the upper echelon of Doja's rapping abilities and serves as one of the best tracks on the album to have not been released in the lead-up. It would be foolhardy to not make a point of mentioning the Dionne Warwick-sampling Paint The Town Red, too – not just on account of it being her first ever solo Billboard (and ARIA) chart-topper, but being a happy medium that strikes early on Scarlet's highlight reel and strikes often throughout its four-minute run-time. 

More often than not, though, there is some sort of communication breakdown between medium and message. Though insisting on bringing in her own producers – and thankfully not including the man currently known as Tyson Trax amongst them – only a handful seem to really get how to make Doja's sound really pop, even when it's not pop. Demons, another single from the album, presents a snarling, bass-heavy beat care of D.A. Got That Dope that anticipates a fiery, acidic rap atop it. Doja comes in all guns blazing on a shouted hook, ranting and raving how she's got all these “bitches shook”... and then immediately fumbles the ball with her cutesy helium rap delivery when it's time for her verses.

She genuinely sounded more convincing when she was telling you that she was a cow – and more intimidating, too. It legitimately sounds like The Lonely Island's I'm A Hustler, where Jorma Taccone boasts in a classic rap-star fashion over a big, expensive beat in the most ridiculous voice imaginable. You can't imagine Doja had any SNL digital shorts up on her vision board for Scarlet, so how exactly did we end up here?

By swerving into this new path and burning the bridge behind her, Doja Cat wanted Scarlet to come across as cool as walking away from an explosion without looking at it.

As the hour progresses, listening to it, however, you can't help but feel she's thrown the baby out with the bathwater. By pushing herself to an extreme of her sound as a kneejerk reaction to the criticism she's received since achieving mega-stardom, she's arguably created something that is even more susceptible to it.

It's an over-correction that translates as far more desperate than defiant. It's the sound of the snake eating its tail – or, more pertinently, two venomous arachnids attacking one another to see which is the first to draw blood.

Scarlet is out now via Sony Music Australia.