Doja Cat Looks to the Past to Make Her Own Moment on ‘Scarlet’

It is an age of true flourishing for women in rap. A pair of peak-personality superstars, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, are tussling for primacy. A second wave of rising stars is firmly established, including Megan Thee Stallion, Latto and Ice Spice. A seemingly endless supply of future fixtures is emerging from TikTok, which has done for women in hip-hop something that record labels and radio stations simply haven’t: allow them to be themselves, and allow them to be found.

Too often, though, Doja Cat is left out of this conversation — perhaps because she’s too nimble. A frisky performer comfortable with both rapping and singing, she’s broken through most prominently on songs that show but don’t emphasize just how detailed a rapper she can be. Her two best-known hits, “Say So” and “Kiss Me More,” have been quasi-disco-revival pop, and even though her rhymes are pointed and tart, they’re almost suffocated by the gloss of the production.

So it’s notable that “Paint the Town Red,” the lead single from her fourth album, “Scarlet” — and the second No. 1 song of her career — is something different: a light, airy, almost disarmingly casual hip-hop song, woven through with a mottled sample of Dionne Warwick’s version of “Walk on By.” Doja Cat raps slickly and dexterously, while peppy horns interject politely and austerely.

But even as a hip-hop song, it’s an outlier in the current climate. All throughout the cheeky, idiosyncratic and sometimes great “Scarlet,” Doja Cat has a disarmingly precise ear for hip-hop, showing she’s far less interested in making songs in the manner of today’s biggest stars than looking back to earlier eras, whether the early 1990s or the early 2010s.

She does so not in an especially nostalgic or imitative fashion, but more as a decoration. “Can’t Wait” is both the umpteenth hip-hop song to sample the signature drums from the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President,” and the first one to be about intense romantic affection, with clever imagery like “I wanna be the stubborn crust of barnacles upon you.” There’s a wooziness to the production that marks the song as contemporary, but most of the component parts would have been at home three decades ago.

This recurs on the snappy “____ the Girls (FTG),” which sounds like it could have been produced by a ’90s New York rap stalwart like Diamond D or Lord Finesse; and on “Ouchies,” which has the chaotic, quick-tempo energy of the late 1980s.

Doja Cat also varies her rapping technique in ways that recall these bygone eras. “Love Life” nods to the mid-90s proto neo-soul of Groove Theory, and Doja Cat matches it with a percussive flow that recalls Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets. And “Balut,” a muscular, boom-bap track near the album’s end, full of swaggering punchlines — “Glass houses I don’t really like to keep my stones there/Oh well, I’ll buy another property for $4 mil” — sounds like it could have appeared on Rawkus’s “Soundbombing” series.

Lyrically, “Scarlet” has two primary topics: Doja Cat’s dominance and her lust. On “Skull and Bones,” she encapsulates the former:

It’s archetypical Doja Cat: She’s not generally a teller of extended stories, but a rapper who thrills to returning to a rhyme again and again, from different angles, working over a specific sound until it becomes almost tantric. Sometimes she raps about tussles with fans, or observers (“That’s a ratin’, that’s some hating/that’s engagement I could use”), and sometimes about tussles with peers (“Who dare ride my new Versace coattails?”). And her songs about sex, like “Agora Hills” and “Often,” are bawdy and lighthearted.

“Scarlet” is lumpier than Doja Cat’s last two albums, both more inventive and more unsteady. But it is also her most promising and encouraging album yet. There are now countless templates for women in hip-hop, and she’s not interested in sticking to any of them. Her path to, and through, the genre is without contemporary peer. If she’s overlooked in the current hip-hop conversation, that may be just how she wants it.

Doja Cat
(Kemosabe Records/RCA)

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