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On 'Scarlet,' Doja Cat finds power harnessing the darkness of online vitriol

On Doja Cat's fourth album, <em>Scarlet</em>, she delights in playing the "demon" her haters and fans accuse her of being.
Illustration by Jackie Lay
On Doja Cat's fourth album, Scarlet, she delights in playing the "demon" her haters and fans accuse her of being.

Do yourself a favor and Amazon One Click yourself a copy of The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin's trenchant 1976 book length essay of film criticism. I'm fond of the section when Baldwin skewers William Friedkin's 1972 horror classic The Exorcist, thumbing his nose up at the film's banal, phony take on demonic possession. Baldwin's point: any conscientious person will know that real evil has nothing to do with the film's levitating beds and pea soup vomit special effects. Evil has more to do with what the film cannot, and will not say, about racial terror in a country that values the immateriality of stocks and bonds over the materiality of human life. "He who has been treated as the devil," Baldwin cuts to the chase, "recognizes the devil when they meet."

MC, singer-songwriter and edgelord Doja Cat recognizes the devil, and she's fiendishly rapping about it on her fourth studio album Scarlet, her most artistically adventurous to date. Some backstory is necessary. Doja Cat first rocketed to viral success with "Mooo!" an absurdist 2018 Soundcloud trifle in which she rapped from the perspective of a cow. Highly media savvy, Doja Cat put forth a persona, at her career outset, that was exactly what you'd expect from a musician who first connected with fans as an Internet meme: equal parts silly, irreverent and bratty. 2019's Hot Pink transformed Doja Cat into an overground sensation, a brash shapeshifter serving up hip-hop, pop, R&B in equal measures — the Dr. Luke co-penned nu-disco bop, "Say So," became her biggest hit.

But for a pop star who seemed to nearly live online, and who sees every opportunity to be in the public eye as an opportunity to make a viral splash, she also seemed decidedly uncomfortable with the more intrusive aspects of fame. In March 2022, after a canceled Paraguay concert, she publicly claimed she was quitting music after fans complained. In August 2022, Doja Cat shaved her head and eyebrows, claiming she never liked having hair; she called it an act of ripping "off her shell." Doja Cat's baldness unleashed the ire of Internet "reply guys" and misogynists of all genders who didn't hesitate to share their unsolicited disdain with her look. Fans and haters alike have armchair diagnosed Doja Cat as having mental health issues and an eating disorder; they've diminished her rap skills, branding her as a sellout on account of her mainstream pop success; and they've called her everything from an Illuminati member to a devil worshiper.

In January 2023, Doja Cat sported an all-red, jewelry-encrusted Schiaparelli look during Paris Fashion Week that some of her fans hastily labeled "demonic"; in April she got a tattoo of a mythological monster, further evidence to some of her conspiratorial fans that she'd Robert Johnson-ed her soul to the devil. She later explained it was an image from Fortunio Liceti's work 1616 De Monstris that she found beautiful even if her fans did not, with the accompanying text: "your fear is not my problem."

But Doja Cat isn't solely a victim in this tale of online hostility. A rude gyal to her core, Doja Cat has long been a social media addict and a bellicose troll. "If somebody wants to fight me on the internet," she's said. "I will gladly join in, balls to the wall. It's fun for me." Exhausted by calls to look conventionally feminine after shaving her head bald, Doja Cat fired back caustic retorts to her fans online, refusing to submit to their demands. Last month, Doja Cat told her fan base (who call themselves her "kittenz") to get a job and rethink their lives, causing a wave of deactivated fan accounts and a spate of demands that she apologize. Instead, she replied on Meta's Threads: "I don't even know y'all." Not exactly a model of artist-to-fan graciousness.

Her impulsive desire to out-troll her trolls ("I love to go to f****** war with trolls," she gleefully admits) is both disturbing and hilarious. In January of this year, when online fans drew attention to her lack of eyelashes as part of the aforementioned Paris Fashion Week look, Doja Cat tweeted: "If lashes are what you all want, then lashes are what you'll get." For her follow-up appearance at the Viktor & Rolf Spring/Summer 2023 Haute Couture show, she wore fake facial hair, along with extreme eyelashes pasted to her eyebrows. Stunts like these are why Doja Cat deserves an honorary doctorate from the Drake School of Pettiness Studies. "I'm evil. I'm a mean person," Doja Cat recently confessed to an interviewer, maybe only half jokingly.

Despite — or maybe because of — her willingness to wage war on her public, Doja Cat has remained a fixture on the Hot 100 chart, winning a 2022 best pop duo Grammy for "Kiss Me More" featuring SZA. Of late, Doja Cat has also been badmouthing her back catalog, calling her previous three albums transactional "cash grabs," and labeling her own recorded rap verses "mid and corny." Her willingness to self-cannibalize her catalog seems more like a clever way to promote her latest product than genuine self-sabotage. Just last year, Doja livestreamed her process of producing beats in the studio: it was a nifty way to share her creativity with fans, but also, it seems, to defend her artistic merit against naysayers.

Scarlet largely makes sense as Doja Cat's creative resynthesis of all her swirling drama and toxicity. "I let all that get to my head," she confess-raps in Scarlet's "Paint the Town Red." The album often feels like she's thinking out loud, working out her issues in real time. For instance, last December, Doja Cat logged on to Instagram Live while having an emotional freakout over the discovery of a spider in her house. Two twin spiders appear on Scarlet's album cover, meant to signify Doja Cat's overcoming of fear — and to send a message that she no longer cares about satisfying her fans. Scarlet's lead single, the aptly-titled "Attention," is hypnotic, '90s trip-hop (think Massive Attack) meets 2000s, alt hip-hop (think Black Star). The sound is a sharp left turn away from Doja's Cat more melodic, neo-disco and Afrobeat hits — sexy, ominous and menacing. It's way closer to the '90s indie pugilism of Jean Grae than the 2020s bubbliness of her Hot 100 chart mates like Dua Lipa and Lizzo. It's also an attempt to clapback against trolls who trashed her looks and diminished her as a second-rate Nicki Minaj. "Lost a lil' weight, but I ain't never lost a tushy," she raps, later telling fans who say she's "ugly" that she "ain't sad you won't f*** with me."

The album title Scarlet evokes histories of biblical harlots and put-upon sex workers, not to mention literary characters like Hester Prynne and Wanda Maximoff "The Scarlet Witch" from Marvel comics and franchises. "I'm yellin' 666" Doja Cat blurts out in her abrasive screed "FTG (F*** the Girls)." In "Paint the Town Red," the occult references are everywhere: "I'm a demon, Lord," she says; then there's the self-aware hook "Mm, she the devil / She a bad lil' b****, she a rebel." The video, incorporating paintings by Doja Cat herself, features everything from red pentagrams to images of the singer cozying up to the Grim Reaper. The title of Scarlet's third, anthemic single "Demons," speaks for itself; in the video she wears horns and long, claw-like fingernails. Doja Cat's been cosplaying her own Scarlet alter ego — appearing in promo materials half naked, slathered from head to toe in red paint that doubles for blood. The look is giving equal parts Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma's Carrie, South Park's Lucifer and Dianne Ladd's red lipstick smeared, psycho mom in David Lynch's Wild at Heart.

Doja Cat is trend-chasing, too, with these Satanic references: occult images in pop have become somewhat de rigueur after Lil Nas X climbed the charts pole dancing with Lucifer in the video for 2021's "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," while Sam Smith and Kim Petras followed suit with their video for 2022's chart-topper "Unholy." Decades after the "Satanic Panic" when political pundits like Tipper Gore fought to censor pop music by way of the Parents Music Resource Center, Satanism feels like one of the last taboos left for pop provocateurs in an era when even your grandma might have an OnlyFans account. Satanic pop also carries an even more transgressive purpose in 2023: it rankles and pushes back against the evangelical Christian right at a time in which politicians and lawmakers are allowing the church and state to do the horizontal mambo instead of upholding their constitutionally mandated separation. With the devil-may-care visuals of Scarlet, Doja Cat wants to become the toxic monster many in the political establishment likely already think she is.

But a number of tracks on Scarlet are simply Doja Cat being Doja Cat: egocentric, flossing and boasting in a defensive way. "I don't shop anymore because I get free clothes / You can have a trophy, I no longer need those," she says on the addictive, brazenly-titled rumpshaker "Wet Vagina." The sensual "Can't Wait" has jazz elements and a sampled beat cribbed from "Impeach the President." Hazy, intoxicating tracks like "Gun" and "Shutcho" fall somewhere between vibey neo-soul and blunted chillwave, while "Agora Hills" — named after the California neighborhood in which Doja spent part of her childhood — is a quilted, romantic R&B sleeper built on a sample of Troop's "All I Do Is Think of You" that reveals her softie side; it's her "Plastic Off the Sofa" moment.

The album's production lurches between boom-bap hip-hop, booty-shaking trap, gauzy R&B and more, never resting in one style or the other. Doja Cat co-directs some of her music videos, designs her own artwork, and has a writing credit on every Scarlet song, but her controversial collaborator Dr. Luke (she's signed to his label and he had a hand in co-writing some of her biggest past hits) is nowhere to be found. Not everything on Scarlet sticks — a few of the tracks fail to bring anything new to the table; and at just about an hour in length, some judicious editing might have been in order. On the other hand, not getting it just right may be Doja Cat's ultimate anti-pop rejection of the meticulous, my-album-has-no-filler ethos associated with perfectionist pop stars from Michael Jackson to Beyoncé.

Still, Scarlet gives Doja Cat ample opportunity to showcase her wicked vocal skills. "I focus most on my craft / I stay on top of my s*** but y'all done got me convinced / That I'm the popularist / That's why you watchin my moves," she says on "F*** the Girls (FTG)." On "Ouchies," Doja Cat's staccato delivery resembles Roxanne Shanté's hypersyllabic flow. And on "Paint the Town Red," Doja Cat deploys monorhyme, each line ending on a consistent syllable stress: "My illness don't come with no remedy / I am so much fun without Hennessy / They just want my love and my energy / You can't talk no s*** without penalties / Bitch, I'm in yo' s*** if you send for me." Like her main artistic influence Nicki Minaj, Doja Cat's lyricism is precise and blunt, and she gravitates to droll, ribald humor. Scarlet arrives in a golden era for women in hip-hop, but not every artist coming up these days has the same ability to rap skillfully. In contrast, Doja Cat's artistry is rooted in her cosmopolitan listening habits — in making Scarlet, she claims to have been listening to everything from Machine Girl and Orbital, to the Beastie Boys and Cocteau Twins.

Scarlet's visual aesthetic, and the malevolent imagery Doja Cat has played with online, also reminds us — if only indirectly, by default — that true evil in 2023 has little to do with artificial red body paint and prosthetic horns. Instead, the devil continues to find idle hands on social media apps, spurred on by the likes of Elon Musk and his insidious re-engineering of Twitter as X — the chaotic changes he wrought resulted in an uptick on the app in hate speech against people of color under the toxic smokescreen of anti-woke rhetoric. Doja Cat named her fourth single "Balut" after a popular Filipino fertilized egg street dish that she crudely (and controversially) mischaracterized as a bird being eaten alive; she says the song is a metaphor for Twitter stans (the former logo was a blue bird) and the dismantling of Twitter under Musk's rule. "F** what they heard, I don't f*** with them birds," she also confirms on the track "Agora Hills." Criticizing the rebarbative online hatred that X has helped spawn this year, Doja Cat seems to be giving the devil a taste of his own fentanyl.

"How my demons look / now that my pockets full?" Doja Cat shouts in "Demons." She's the quintessential 2020s pop star who finds her spotlight in the dark swamp of online vitriol, who sources her power from diving deep into the abyss of hatred and coming up the other side swinging. She not only recognizes the devil — she meets him with more sinister and monstrous imagery than he himself might conjure, and ultimately bashes him over the head with reminders of her deep pockets. While many musicians react negatively to their fame once they've had a taste of it, Doja Cat isn't at all fame adverse. "I said what I said / I'd rather be famous instead," she muses in "Paint the Town Red." Doja Cat isn't necessarily trolling her haters because she's some sort of moral crusader; she's trolling them because pettiness in 2023 translates to streaming numbers and sold-out arenas. Doja Cat calls her Scarlet-era hijinks a form of liberation: "I have all the freedom in the world," she recently told an interviewer. If there's a hell below, to riff on a phrase from Curtis Mayfield, Doja Cat will be the first to greet us all there.

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