As Doja Cat’s “Scarlet Tour” touched down at L.A.’s Crypto.com Arena Thursday night for what was only its second date, fans were still learning about just what shape her first arena headlining shows would take. Title cards appearing on the big screens announced that it would be broken down into five parts — Acts I, II, III, IV and V — but it took a while to figure out whether these chapter stops would involve big costume and production design changes, as might be typical on a big diva tour.
That wasn’t so much the case, though, as the shifts Doja Cat was going for over the course of the hour-and-a-half set were more subtle than that. The singer stuck with just two costuming choices in the performance… and a single dominant color. Unlike Taylor Swift, Doja Cat spends her entire show sticking with her red era.
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Or, yes, “Scarlet,” to take a pretty obvious cue from the title of both the tour and her new album, released in September. Her favoritism toward both the hue and the record were clear from the start: The set was thoroughly dominated by the performance of 15 of the 17 songs on “Scarlet,” augmented by just five from her biggest commercial outing, “Planet Her,” and two from “Hot Pink” and one from “Amala.” That extreme emphasis on just-released material is a pretty gutsy move, even before considering that Doja Cat is going to spend nearly the entire evening wearing a single literally gutsy costume — a skin-tight bodysuit that’s a stylized representation of a body’s crimson internal musculature — while bathed primarily in red (or an orange-red).
On paper, these emphases on a brand-new album and one domineering hue may not sound like something that’s going to convince you to buy a ticket. (If you could easily get one, anyway; at Crypto.com Arena, she was playing to a completely full house.) But “on paper” is different than experiencing it in the flesh, as she spends the set doing a great deal of physically expressive movement in that fleshless-looking costume. Doja Cat is too savvy and certainly too visually attuned an artist to pick such basic core elements and then let them linger in any kind of monotony. This tour is a successful exercise in how to pick a vibe and mostly stick with it, rather bravely resisting the trend toward revolving-door variety and flat-out maximalism we get in Swift’s, Beyonce’s and Madonna’s outings. For a show that actually literally uses viscera as a big part of the costume (and at point prop) design, the Scarlet Tour is every bit as viscerally captivating as it means to be.
Whether you walk away thinking that Doja Cat has exposed her inner being, with all those internal organs, is another thing. At Thursday’s show, she rarely spoke to the audience, except to tell them she loves them. (A few of them might have thought, “Really? Tell us again!,” given that she did seem to be actually trolling her fan base a few times on social media this year.) There was one downright hilarious moment of spontaneity during the show, when she asked the audience to turn off the lights on their phones — and of course they misheard and did the opposite, because how many performers nowadays aren’t having a moment in their shows where they solicit fans to power up and form a wavy starfield? “I said, ‘Lights off,’ but that’s OK,” she elaborated, and she and the crowd shared a good laugh. You could wish for more moments of personal interaction like that in the set… although, given Doja Cat’s sometimes unnerving unpredictability on social media, hoping for more spoken commentary in concert could be a be-careful-what-you-wish-for situation.
But, generally speaking, it’s no major setback that she’s not employing the gift of gab on this tour. It’s a very vibey show, and get-to-know-me! monologues could well get in the way of that. (Even the sound, which didn’t allow a great deal of her lyrics to be thoroughly intelligible, contributed to the ultimately pleasurable experience of focusing on mood and visuals, versus just how much braggadocio or provocation fills some of her new songs.) This is an all-business show, albeit one that eventually comes to feels fairly relaxed, even club-like, in the sections where she shifts out of hard-ass mode and settles more into being a playful R&B seductress.
The first two “acts” at Crypto were devoted primarily to her aggressive — and more recently emphasized — all-out hip-hop side. The more balladic fan favorite “Agora Hills,” with its more even mixture of rapped and sung content, also slipping in there toward the beginning, but otherwise, she’s looking to overpower for the first half-hour. “Scarlet,” the tour, is a twin to “Scarlet,” the album, in that regard. Both are marked by early passages where she’s a woman on a mission, to establish her rapper bona fides right at the outset, in an intense concentration. It’s understandable why she’s driven to start off this way: Doja Cat has made no secret of how she feels her pop success with “Planet Her” left her undervalued as a serious rapper, and so she’s out to overcompensate, if anything. She’s proven her point, and then some: How many could listen to the first third of “Scarlet” and not think she merits being listed in the company of a Megan or Cardi? But it’s also an unexpectedly crowded space to be moving into right now, and it’s not clear that her most profanely boastful or taunting songs quite carve out their own place in that category just yet.
Which is why the new album gets markedly better as it goes along — and so, it turns out, does her show — as she starts taking up some of the hybrid material that really seems most uniquely her. The imagery picks up in interest as the show proceeds, too. At the outset, Doja Cat and her creative collaborators seem to be going for a scary-movie feel that skirts the line between horrific and ho-hum. There are overhead filmic shots of a possibly haunted house; the sounds of what appears to be a panicky exorcism; a giant, hovering arachnid prop. Appropriate, probably, for a section that does include her song “Demons,” and to establish that the artist is nobody’s idea of a softie… but you can still hope the set won’t stay in that mode indefinitely. It doesn’t.
Act II closes with her most celebrated rap number from prior to “Scarlet,” the “Planet Her” cut “Ain’t Shit,” the great sing-along — or rap-along — that a significant part of her demographically diverse audience dare not sing along to, for obvious reasons. From there, it moves into Act III, aka the pure oldies portion of the set, where she has concentrated the other four songs from “Planet Her” — those aforementioned pop smashes — plus the earlier disco-pop ditty that put her on the global map, “Say So.” This could go down as the part of the performance where Doja Cat has concentrated what we assume are the songs she doesn’t want to sing, given that she’s more or less gone on record that her biggest singles were sellouts and her audience fools for falling for it. Whether or not she meant that or this was just all part of the Big Troll, all these hits in Act III sound utterly terrific… and sound substantially different than you’d expect them to.
Being able to morph the earworms “Say So,” “Woman” and “Kiss Me More” into new arrangements is likely her way of satisfying audience expectations while also keeping them interesting for herself. They’re reworked enough that it might take you till about the end of the first chorus on some of them to recognize that it’s one of the dominant songs of the last five years being played, but they’re not quite so radicalized that anyone’s going to go home unhappy. I’ll admit that “Woman” was the only hit of Doja Cat’s that, on record, I could find a little cloying — but at Crypto.com, it might even have ended up being the most musically enjoyable surprise of the whole concert. With the fresh full-band takes on that and “Say So,” she’s going for something in the space between tribal and tropical — with dancer choreography to match — and the switched-up syncopation makes them a joy to behold anew. The closing number of this hits section, “Kiss Me More,” also takes it out of the realm of naughty gooeyness into something that feels meatier, even as Doja Cat makes a demand of the audience: “Kiss each other!” (The audience, not having been primed that there might be a Dodgers-style Kiss Cam, was a little slow to respond, but maybe next tour stop.)
This mid-section served as an effective primer for what was to be a satisfying last couple of acts: a full-scale return to the “Scarlet” album, but the tracks that are either dominated by a slow R&B feel or an even mixture of that and hip-hop — plus the first-rate “Hot Pink” balladic holdover “Streets,” to really bring this section down to a lower simmer. One of Doja Cat’s greatest gifts is that she deserves to be nominated for Grammys for best rap/sung collaboration — even if she’s just collaborating with herself. (“Scarlet” is an entirely features-free album; bless her for resisting the celebrity pile-up trend so completely.) Her ability to switch so effortlessly from sultry progressive R&B to recitation within a song, in a way that can leave you blissfully unaware of the transitions, places her within a very select league.
And then, after we’ve had a bit of the softer side of Doja Cat, even with an outlying moment or two of relative vulnerability, the show ends with the new “Wet Vagina,” with its combination of Gucci, Louie, designer forks, the Met, “my new chest” and “really, really, really rough sex.” (It may not be your cup of tea but you’ve got to appreciate her emphasis on the reallys.)
Speaking of new chests, Doja Cat’s costuming choices bear mentioning. She starts the show, in that quasi-horror segment, wearing a black jacket over a painted breastplate with 3D boobs, looking real enough from a distance. That soon gives way to how she will appear for the remainder of the show: like a walking-and-dancing cadaver that has been stripped of all its skin, and looking just enough like something out of a medical textbook, except for, shall we say, a much more prominent vulva. Maybe this is a feminist power statement… or maybe it’s a recognition that, when you’re selling out arenas, sometimes you have to go the extra mile to reach the back row.
As for props, they’re surprisingly few for a show of this contemporary diva nature. Late in the show, five gigantic red ribbons drop from the rafters, and remain for the length of a number. Apart from that and the introductory spider, there’s just a giant eyeball with legs, trailed, of course, by a to-scale optic nerve. The eye doesn’t exactly menace Doja Cat so much as just kind of befriend her for a few minutes. (Going to guess this is not her homage to the Residents, but she does have her surprising avant-garde tastes, so who can say for sure.)
Extra points for the use of dancers and choreography, which isn’t exactly paralleled in any of the other big shows touring today. Knowing that Doja Cat is a big admirer of how someone like FKA Twigs expresses herself in dance may provide a clue as to what she intends with the physicality of the Scarlet Tour, which isn’t too easily contained or explained. The dancers’ garb is somewhat in contrast to the red motif of her own, or the overall color scheme; they look kind of like post-apocalyptic (or just post-punk) ragamuffins, with ripped, patchwork costumes. They lean, they move around a turntable, they semi-moonwalk, they break out of the pack for charming individual freestyle solos, and they do just about everything but the cliche sexualized movement so many tours fall back on. There is a clever showpiece moment where all the dancers crawl in a circle, and crawl over a stationary Doja Cat, one at a time… pausing as if they might be thinking about simulating sexual congress with her, before quickly moving on.
Like we said, it’s a busy show.
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