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Doja Cat Proves the Best Way to Respond to Critics is to Rap Really Well

The middle of Doja Cat’s new album, Scarlet, is punctuated by a paradox. Slithering across the lithe koto strings of “97,” she lets loose incisive venom at PETA and Instagram naysayers both real and imagined. For the hook, she says it’s the look of someone who “don’t give a shit,” but it’s exactly the appearance of someone who does. That dissonance is at the center of the new LP, one that finds Doja at her most ornery — and most effective. After spending much of the last year trolling judgy fans, she’s served up the rare artistic clapback that’s as fiery as it is virtuosic; Doja lets her raps do the talking, and they’re more persuasive than ever.

Although it’s not completely devoid of the infectious pop-rap melodies that made her a superstar, Scarlet sees Doja embracing all her purest hip-hop influences to eviscerate anyone who’s had an unsolicited word for her the last year. The tracks are equal parts scabrous and refined, threaded by varied cadences, dense rhyme schemes and wordplay that’s simultaneously spiteful and dismissive. For “Fuck the Girls (FTG),” Doja serves up a genius Mean Girls reference and an inventive metaphorical flex to call the paparazzi broke; having folks clamoring to ride your coattails becomes a snobby thrill when you know they can’t afford the jacket.

The bars for “FTG” are speedy and tightly wound, but she switches things up “Demons.” For that one oscillates between playful and furious as she mocks both IG haters and hollow arguments from industry truthers. Her bar structures are matter-of-fact and snarky as she channels Kendrick Lamar’s shifting tonal inflections to accentuate her condescension. It’s the answer to a peanut gallery’s theoretical request: “Oh, I’m a loser? Explain it to me like I’m five years old.”

Succinct, funny and precise, the bars work well with a theatrical monster movie instrumental and a hook that demands to be repeated, an example of the type of pure rap songwriting exercise plenty of folks didn’t think she conducted.

Doja Cat’s comical instincts and natural charisma

Photo Credit: Jacob Webster

To be fair, Doja Cat’s biggest hits have been undeniably pop, infused with melodies and soundbeds that range from disco (“Say So”) to Afrobeat (“Woman”). But beneath the gloss, there was always an underlying craftsmanship — a writerly eye for details and the dexterity to graft flows onto any beat. The skills were there. But form should follow function, and Doja has a lot of shit to talk on Scarlet. More conventional raps allow her to do so with ferocity and precision.

Doja continues her clinic on the aforementioned “97,” taunting fans who would criticize her online only to ask for pictures at a meet and greet. When she’s not coming at alleged fair weather supporters, she’s throwing barbs at an animal rights organization, using a grotesque, but sharp set of imagery that feels like a giant’s middle finger:

“You could hit up PETA, the paint on me make me gorgeous/I’ma take the geese-and-chinchilla coat on a walk and/Don’t forget the cheetah print, speed up, come here, record it/If that shit ain’t bleedin’ and screamin’, I do not want it.”

Abrasive, yet sleek, it’s micro-rhetoric that lends itself best to spoken word instead of brief, melodious couplets. Rappers are able to make the form even more potent with their backs against the wall.

On his classic Marshall Mathers LP track “Who Knew,” Eminem disarms hypocritical anti-rap arguments with irreverent humor, concision and agility:

After spending much of the last year trolling fans, Doja Cat’s finally returned with her new album, Scarlet. On the album, she lets her raps do the talking, and they’re more persuasive than ever.

Firing off on Jay Electronica’s “Flux Capacitor,” JAY-Z let loose a cutting argument about his exploits as an alleged sell-out, weaving in an Odell Beckham reference and a clever bit about why he didn’t “stay on the bench” in the first place. Sure, it’s not a flawless defense, but it played out much better than any of us atypically clumsy statements regarding the NFL and Colin Kaepernick. At their best, folks like Slim Shady and HOV are able to use their craft to their advantage, where some are only stifled by it. For Jaylen Brown, having to dribble the ball only takes away from his natural speed and agility. With the rock in his hand, Kyrie Irving only gets faster. Tasked with defending herself through bars, Doja’s comical instincts and natural charisma are only enhanced. That’s not the case for every rapper.

Kendrick tried addressing critics on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, but his skill as a rhetorician has never matched his gift for storytelling, so his responses felt generic and cumbersome (check “Crown”). The concept applies in other arenas, too. Certain comedians have simply doubled down on the things that got them criticized, lacking the finesse and creativity to strike back at their detractors. Hidden under neon soundscapes and an elastic voice befitting of Top 40 perpetuity, Doja’s got the skills of a battle rapper, or a lawyer with a penchant for compelling closing statements, and she swirls them all together on Scarlet. If you’re going to respond to so-called “cancel culture,” this is the only way to do it.

At the end of the day, quality is what matters

Aside from her literal clapbacks, Doja’s best argument is the quality — and diversity — of the work itself. Her skill showcase extends to increased emotional transparency and the storytelling to infuse songs with deeply human sensitivity. “Love Life” conveys warmth with images of best friend roast sessions and her mother’s macaroni and cheese, and “Can’t Wait” is an unashamed love letter about insecurity and romantic surrender. The latter evokes a level of bleary eyed sincerity a casual fan wouldn’t expect from the experienced cyber-troll. Vocally, she channels Kung Fu Kenny (“Demons”) or Erykah Badu (“Often”) depending on the track. She can do boom bap (“Attention”) or light and ethereal like “Agora Hills.”

After calling her own previous efforts cash grabs — she may or may not have been trolling — Scarlet definitely gives the impression of an album Doja wanted to make at this very moment. And that’s a good thing, because In the early going, it doesn’t look like she’s on pace for a great commercial performance; Hits Daily Double predicts it will sell around 60,000 streaming equivalent albums (SEA) in its first week, a far cry from 2021’s Planet Her (over 100,000 sold in the first week). After bashing her fans and generally acting even weirder than usual, the fall off isn’t totally mysterious. The slip probably isn’t as drastic as it seems, either; she’s always been something of a slow-burner, and this album will probably be platinum or better this time next year.

But high sales or low sales, it doesn’t feel like Doja will be too upset by the outcome. Doja’s latest plays out like a dynamic vent session, a proverbial case of having a lot to get off your chest. There are no apologies or half measures here. This is all impulse; she said what she said, and she’s never spoken with such clarity.

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Peter is a writer and editor who covers music, movies, and all things dope.

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