(Photo Manipulation by Oli Turner)

Do you know that feeling when you wake up after a sweaty nap and cannot remember if what your mind played for you was a dream or a nightmare? I am sure Doja Cat knows that feeling. Her new album tows the line between dreamscape and nightmare fuel in each track, all while reinforcing how little regard the artist has for her haters — and maybe also her fans.

Scarlet” is the fourth album from the singer, rapper, pop star and fashion icon Doja Cat. It strikes a remarkably different tone than past hits like “Kiss Me More” (2021) and “Woman” (2021), marking a new era in her career. The album leans much more into the sound and pacing of rap and R&B music. This does not come as a complete surprise, considering Doja Cat herself described her past albums in a tweet earlier this year as “cash-grabs” filled with mediocre, corny pop. While not a huge shock from the frequently controversial, chronically online, absurdist humor-leaning and very honest pop star, her public comment set the stage for an exciting genre shift in her discography.  In the R&B-toned song “Love Life,” Doja Cat says herself, “I love it when my fans’ love change / that’s how we change the game.” This is mere conjecture, but in the vein of skirting popular music, the third song in the album “Wet Vagina” feels like Doja Cat’s horror rap-pop answer to the chart-topping 2020 song “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.

The rapper first hinted at this featureless album with the release of the single “Attention in June. The song, and its corresponding music video, introduced Doja Cat’s titular alter-ego “Scarlet.” The name likely came from her iconic thin-layer-of-blood outfit, as featured in both the music video and her VMA’s performance. Such embrace of potentially terrifying, yet empowering, motifs is evident in the album’s song titles, like “Demons” and “Skull and Bones.” The imagery of blood, demons and spiders sprinkled in the music videos, lyrics and a slightly-controversial album cover all reinforce this aesthetic.

“Scarlet” embraces an urge to fight, much like the singer seems to do with online trolls, with the penultimate song “Balut.” The track begins with an audio sample of American professional wrestler Ric Flair announcing, “Remember this, girls / None of you can be first, but all of you can be next!” It is clear from this album that Doja Cat wants to be singular in the world of music, unencumbered by the opinions and pressures of being a celebrity. She wants to be famous in her own way and in her own time.

My favorite song on the album, “WYM Freestyle,” features that f***-you-all attitude throughout the track.

“F*** up all them other albums on repeat,” Doja Cat decisively raps on the track. “Always knew them claims was cap ’cause y’all be sinnin’.”

After listening to “Scarlet,” there is no mistaking Doja Cat’s discontent with the pop music celebrity industry and her goal to break out of any pre-existing mold she was forced into by the media. Intentions aside, her lyrical skill on this album is undeniable. On “Balut,” Doja Cat raps, “It’s like takin’ candy from a baby.” This may seem like a simple idiomatic reference, but with balut being a dish made up of a steamed or boiled fertilized egg embryo, one can assume “baby” is a double entendre.

The performer’s lyricism and genius musical pacing are also evident in the second song of the album, “Demons.” She pauses and slows down on specific words for emphasis. On the line, “I’m a puppet, I’m a sheep, I’m a cash cow,” she finds different pockets in the positively nasty beat to sit within. Those moments make you want to curl your upper lip and smirk like a classic Disney villain, or dare I say, like a demon.

The way Doja Cat carries this demon-core aesthetic through even her more relaxed songs on the album entertained me the most. “Love Life” felt like listening to spoken words, and “Often” felt like a Sade song with way more autotune. The former, in terms of lyrics, reads a bit like a love song, but it still manages to capture her nightmare pop lens with an almost hypnotic repetition of the chorus.

In considering the arc of “Scarlet,” Doja Cat starts with two of her initial single releases, “Paint The Town Red” and “Demons,” drawing listeners in with something more recognizable. Her transition into one of my other favorite songs, “F*** The Girls (FTG),” and others like “Ouchies” or “97,” acts as an important support for the album’s focus on unbothered self-empowerment.

The middle of the album is not as star-studded, but track popularity aside and musically-oriented, some of Doja Cat’s weakest songs are placed here. “Gun” felt a bit like a throw-away song. While still fun and catchy, it does not bring any new sound or lyrical quality to an already packed album. “Can’t Wait” also gets a bit lost in “Scarlet.” The intention behind the lyrics and timing of the track felt less lucid than her beginning and ending songs in the album.

Ending with “Attention,” “Balut” and “WYM Freestyle” does leave the album on a note that felt very true to Doja Cat’s energy in her current era. It helps “Scarlet” recover from the slightly less captivating middle section, bringing the simmering energy and just-under-the-surface excitement back into the listening experience. Ultimately, “Scarlet” felt very Doja Cat: genius, controversial, vibrant, spooky, contemporary, weird, honest, rebellious, avant-garde and entirely singular.

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Zimra Chickering (24C) is a born and raised Chicagoan who studies art history and nutrition science. She is also a student docent for the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Woodruff JEDI Fellow, educational committee chair for Slow Food Emory, and Xocolatl: Small Batch Chocolate employee. Zimra loves cooking, visiting art museums, photography, doing Muay Thai, drinking coffee, and grocery shopping. She uses writing as an outlet to reflect upon issues and oppurtunities within artistic institutions, and the unique ways in which food and art can act as communicators of culture.