Doja Cat looks to the past to create her moment on ‘Scarlet’

This is an era of true flourishing for women in rap. The duo of peak-personality superstars, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, are battling for supremacy. A second wave of rising stars is firmly established, including Megan Thee Stallion, Leto and Ice Spice. An endless supply of future fixtures are emerging from TikTok, which has done something for women in hip-hop that record labels and radio stations haven’t: allow them to be themselves, and allow them to be found.

Too often, however, Doja Cat is left out of this conversation – perhaps because she’s so edgy. A smooth performer in both rapping and singing, she works most prominently on songs that show off but don’t emphasize 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 verses are edgy and sharp, they are almost smothered by the shine of the production.

So it’s notable that “Paint the Town Red”, the lead single from their fourth album, “Scarlet” – and the second No. 1 song of their career – is something different: a light, airy, almost disarmingly casual hip-hop song. , woven together with a quirky sample of Dionne Warwick’s version of “Walk On By”. Doja Cat raps with finesse and skill, while pounding horns negotiate humility and sincerity.

But even as a hip-hop song, it’s a standout song in the current climate. Throughout the cheeky, eccentric and at times great “Scarlet,” Doja Cat has an extremely precise ear for hip-hop, showing that she’s more likely to look at earlier eras in a more manner than today’s biggest stars. Has little interest in making songs, even from the early era. Late 1990s or early 2010s.

She does this not in a particularly nostalgic or imitative manner, but as a matter of decoration. “Can’t Wait” is the first hip-hop song to feature the signature drum sample of the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President” and the first song about intense romantic affection, with the same clever imagery as “I Wanna Be The”. There’s a strangeness to the production that marks the song as contemporary, but most of the component parts would have been at home three decades earlier.

This pounding is repeated on “____ The Girls (FTG)”, which sounds like it could have been produced by ’90s New York rap giants like Diamond D or Lord Finesse; and on “Ouchies”, which has the chaotic, fast-paced energy of the late 1980s.

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

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

Looks like I’ve got some things you hate
And trust me baby, God don’t play with hatred like that
So you’ll get really upset when I pick a cat
Chart to be one of them all over the map

This is the archetype Doja Cat: She’s not typically a teller of extended tales, but a rapper who’s thrilled to return to a verse again and again from different angles, working on a specific sound until it’s almost perfect. Don’t become a Tantrik. Sometimes she raps about feuds with fans, or observers (“It’s a rating, it’s some hate/It’s engagement I could use”), and sometimes about feuds with peers. About (“Who dares to ride my new Versace coattails?”). And his songs about sex, like “Agoura Hills” and “Often”, are cheesy and light-hearted.

“Scarlet” is longer than Doja Cat’s previous two albums, both more inventive and more volatile. But it’s also their most promising and exciting album to date. There are countless templates for women in hip-hop now, and she has no interest in sticking to any of them. His path to and through this genre is without contemporary peer. If she’s been ignored in the current hip-hop conversation, maybe that’s what she wants.

doja cat
(Kemosabe Records/RCA)

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