Doja Cat: Scarlet review – globe-conquering star comes out swinging at the stans

From the start, hip-hop has thrived on conflict. Between the ostensibly lighthearted insults of battle rapping to the internecine feuds that range from jokey to fatal, it’s hard to think of another musical arena so riven with rivalries and disputes. They occur with such frequency that Doja Cat spends a couple of verses on her fourth album declining to take part. She has, she claims, risen to the top “with no confrontation”, despite attempts to pit her against Nicki Minaj: “I never gave a F,” she snaps. “Go stir the pot, bitch”.

You might receive this in boggling disbelief, given that in recent months Doja Cat has opened up a whole new frontier in hip-hop conflict: even in the rap world, going to war with your own fanbase feels extraordinary. It started in the summer, when fans questioned her choice of boyfriend – social media star J Cyrus, who has been accused of emotional abuse – and escalated very quickly. “I NEVER WILL GIVE A FUCK WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT ME… GOODBYE AND GOOD RIDDANCE MISERABLE HOES,” the rapper wrote in response, disparaging the hardcore supporters who call themselves Kittenz – “get off your phone, get a job and help your parents with the house” – suggesting they deactivate their fan accounts, calling them “creepy as fuck”. She lost more than 500,000 Instagram followers, an experience she compared to “defeat[ing] a large beast”.

It looks nuts from the outside, but there’s something very serious at its centre. This is the era of the stan, the diehard fan given to an alarming degree of entitlement and ownership over the object of their adoration: reading accounts of their toxic behaviour online, you can understand why artists might look askance at the most devoted Instagram or Twitter followers. Equally, it’s very on-brand. It’s hard to keep count of the supposedly career-ending infractions Doja Cat has committed which have caused a flurry of online outrage but ultimately had no impact on her popularity: “I had to draw a long line in the sand,” as she says of the latest controversy on Scarlet, “now I see long lines at the venue”. Should the point require underlining, her most recent single Paint the Town Red is an escalation of hostilities, from its opening line – “bitch, I said what I said” – to its description of rabid fans as “extremists” to its sample from Dionne Warwick’s Walk on By recontextualised to suggest cold diffidence. It became the most popular song in the world for two weeks, according to Billboard’s global chart.

It opens Scarlet and sets the tone for the album, which primarily concerns itself with raining brimstone on her stans: “Since when was y’all my bastard children?”; “keep your money”; “you do not exist to me, I am not your friend”. But even when Doja Cat doesn’t come out swinging, recent events appear to colour what is here, from the note of defiance that underscores the slow-jam love songs – “whether they like it or not I wanna show you off … rub it in their face” she coos on Agora Hills – to Shutcho’s deployment of a sample from 10cc’s I’m Not in Love: during the online row, the rapper responded to a request to tell her fans she loved them with a testy “I don’t though cuz I don’t even know y’all.”

Doja Cat has talked up Scarlet as a straightforward hip-hop album, in contrast to its poppy predecessor, Planet Her, and the latest online controversy has given a pugilistic force to her rapping: she sounds furious and contemptuous above the horror movie strings and distorted beats of Demons, her voice flipping between bored indifference and furious snarl. There are pop hooks here – not just the Dionne Warwick steal, but on the R&B-flavoured Can’t Wait and amid Gun’s analogue synths – but noticeably fewer than usual, while at its most dramatic, it strikes out in a distinctly experimental vein: 97’s off-key piano is rhythmically untethered from the beat; Ouchies offers a thrilling cacophony of sirens and synth stabs; the live bass, scattered electric piano and theremin-like tones of Often occasionally meld together, but more often spin off at tangents from each other.

The desire to offload and flaunt her current relationship at length means Scarlet loses the snappy brevity that was Planet Her’s calling-card. After a while, you feel that points that have already been made are being reiterated, and a long album is made to seem longer still by its weird structure, a glut of slower and more abstract tracks taking up most of its second half.

It strikes something like a conciliatory tone with Love Life’s talk of embracing flaws and acknowledgments of its author’s bad temper, although on closer inspection, what the track is really doing is drawing another line: between the stans and the fans, the latter the ones who “don’t quit”, “love change” and are loved by her in return. She sounds confident there’s enough of them to make Scarlet another huge hit, despite its imperfections. She is doubtless right.

This week Alexis listened to

Cleo Sol – Airplane
From Cleo Sol’s third album, which unexpectedly dropped last week: a cool acoustic breeze of a song that sounds as if it was recorded live, adding to its charm.