Photo Credit: Jacob Webster
Amala “Doja Cat” Dlamini has had the sort of career that could have only unfolded in our current “Very Online” era. Her big breakthrough arrived via the self-published “Mooo!” – a rap number, which was accompanied by a music video of Doja in cow pajamas, and which includes the line, “B*tch, I’m a cow! // I’m not a cat, I don’t say meow.” What followed for Doja was a relatively traditional career arc – being picked up by a major label, assisted by disgraced, chart-topping producer Dr Luke, and enjoying a number of highly catchy Top 40 pop songs. When Doja dismissed her previous efforts, Hot Pink and Planet Her, as “digestible pop” and “cash grabs”, you sense that she was less annoyed at how those albums sounded and more annoyed at how conventional her once singular career journey was unfolding. Fittingly, everything about the Scarlet era has been deeply weird.
After social media disproportionately turned on Doja for a series of relatively mild and inconsequential tweets, many proclaimed that her days as a hitmaker were over. Then, “Paint The Town Red” became a global No.1 – assisted by massive viral success. The Scarlet opener remains the LP’s best song – an infectious slice of pop-rap, the song adeptly samples Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By,” skewers Doja’s critics, and joyfully embraces being entirely too much. I particularly enjoy her confident affirmation that “I am so much fun without Hennessy,” which is preceded by a line that only Doja could conceivably pull off (“I put good dick all in my kidneys”).
The promotional cycle behind Scarlet continues to threaten to overshadow the music itself – inflammatory social media posts, increasingly out-there fashion statements, and an ever-growing embrace of occult imagery continue to drive discussions around the LP. Sometimes this works in the favor of the “Paint The Town Red” singer – the excellent music video for “Demons” is horror movie worthy; with a horn-clad, red-eyed Doja haunting a suburban family. The video largely disguises the song’s disjointed nature and the cloying nature of its refrain, “How my demons look?”
But without the aid of more high-budget music videos and social media firestorms, the rest of Scarlet has to survive or die based solely on the strength of the music itself. Unfortunately, Scarlet stumbles here. The hip-hop-heavy, pop-light sonic palette that dominates the LP proves underwhelming – offering a less compelling showcase of her wide-ranging talents than the pop-rap fusions of Planet Her or Hot Pink. On “Wet Vagina,” Doja exists within the shadow of her contemporaries – offering an edgeless take on Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” (“I bring the drip with wet vagina”).
However, what proves most resoundingly exhausting is Scarlet’s endless boasting and points-scoring. The clever skewering of Doja’s opponents on “Paint The Town Red” is replaced by tired jabs. When Doja declares, “You ain’t even got no mother f*cking brand” on the aforementioned “Wet Vagina,” she sounds tired, not victorious – and her cries of, “I’m getting rich, rich, rich” on “F*ck The Girls” suggest insecurity, not triumph. On the slow-burn “Balut” Doja sounds like she’s merely going through the motions, unconvinced by her own declaration of, “I’m the shit, you’re a real piece of shit.”
There are highlights scattered across Scarlet – on “F*ck The Girls,” she delivers one of the sharpest lines on the album, offering a retort to her parasocial fans (“Since when was y’all my bastard children? Go head and raise y’all self”). Meanwhile, “Agora Hills” proves a shimmering, oddball highlight – a likely future TikTok hit, it recalls the recent PinkPanthress hit “Boy’s a Liar,” and represents a rare tongue-in-cheek moment (“It’s so lonely in my mansion,” she declares with a wink). Doja may have a point to prove with Scarlet, but in the end, she fares best when she lets go of lingering resentments and defensiveness.