Throughout Scarlet, Doja Cat is joyously irreverent and chaotic. As much as 2019’s Hot Pink and 2021’s Planet Her flaunted her versatility as a pop star, it often felt like the gloss of the music fell short of matching her unpredictable personality; at the level she was now operating, it’s a wonder it came through at all. Though Scarlet is meant to serve, above all, as a testament to her talent as a rapper, it’s more engaging as an album that shows little concern about what a blockbuster rap album is supposed to sound like in 2023 rather than one with a couple dozen things to prove. “I don’t need a big feature or a new sidekick/ I don’t need a new fan ’cause my boo like it/ I don’t need to wear a wig to make you like it/ I’m a two-time bitch, you ain’t know I’d win?” she raps on ‘Paint the Town Red’, which, of course, did end up becoming her second No. 1 hit. Commercial appeal aside, Scarlet succeeds when it feels like an energetic reminder of her early-career outings instead of an extension of the game she’s been playing with her fans throughout its rollout. Unfortunately, it often feels exactly like that.
Though probably the most compelling track on the album, ‘Paint the Town Red’ doesn’t give the best indication of what Scarlet has to offer. It’s catchy and fun, but it uses its Dionne Warwick sample to create an air of eerie disaffection the record hardly nails elsewhere. It’s followed in the tracklist by ‘Demons’, an abrasive single that boasts one of Doja Cat’s best performances as she juxtaposes the song’s ugly ferocity with cool indifference. It should probably serve as the template for the album, which quickly offers up a stream of tracks in a similar vein – ‘Wet Vagina’, ‘Fuck the Girls’, and ‘Ouchies’, each of which is rowdy and hard-hitting in its own way. But the rest of the album feels uneven and repetitive, with many of the mellower tracks draining the excitement built up early on. It would have been one thing to make an all-over-the-place record that’s not quite what it seems on the surface, but Scarlet ends up losing steam and direction the more it tries to branch out stylistically, and the experiments don’t always pay off.
Earl on the Beat, the Lil Yachty collaborator known for his work on City Girls’ ‘Act Up’, helped produce ‘Red’, but the interplay between his production, the songwriting, and Doja Cat’s delivery just doesn’t click in the same way when he flips 10cc’s classic ‘I’m Not In Love’ on ‘Shutcho’ or Troop’s 1989 hit ‘All I Do Is Think of You’ on ‘Agora Hills’; it feels disjointed rather than inventive. Jay Versace has a hand in some of the woozier cuts with a more off-kilter edge, but while ’97’ pairs an experimental piano melody with one of Doja Cat’s sharpest flows, ‘Often’ begins to grate before the first hook is even over. The latter arrives as part of a series of lovestruck, sensual tracks in the album’s second half, which – even if you know are in defense of her relationship with Twitch star J. Cyrus, who has been accused of emotional abuse – should be a breath of fresh air in an album that can get pretty self-indulgent. But it’s only on ‘Can’t Wait’ where it (almost) sounds like the only person whose opinion matters is the one she’s rapping about.
The momentum picks up again with the album’s three final tracks, which effectively mix Scarlet‘s lavish and menacing qualities, particularly on the singles ‘Attention’ and ‘Balut’. But the fiery energy Doja Cat hinted at initially doesn’t return until the closer, ‘WYM Freestyle’. Too often, her self-awareness gets the best of her, dragging the pace of the album for fear of her not getting the last word on a record that’s all her. But though it was included last minute, ‘WYM Freestyle’ delivers on the promise of Scarlet in ways that the most well-crafted tracks on it don’t. Even if you’re tired of her taking aim at her detractors after nearly an hour – they just don’t deserve this much space – you’re suddenly forced to pay attention. “Always knew I was gon’ change from the beginning,” she raps, knowing how to convince you she’s always been one step ahead. You just hope that on the next record, we catch her with a better idea of where she’s going.