When I first heard “Dark Horse” being played live for the first time at the iTunes Festival in late October 2013, I didn’t really know what to make of it. I made the decision to wait until the album version to finally judge it properly. The most puzzling aspect of the performance was rapper Juicy J's guest verse. In fact, it didn’t really sink in what exactly he was saying at first because I simply was having trouble understanding what was unfolding before my eyes. But right from the get go, as soon as Juicy J told us it was time to “rage,” I knew this was going to be ridiculous. As in, I knew that it would become ridiculously popular - in the worst sort of way.
That being said, Katy's part in the song is perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with her lyrics, honestly. It’s a fun harmless little song, if not a bit witchy. The "there's no going back" voice at the end of the chorus continues to irk me until this day, though. Unfortunately, that same annoying electronic voice makes yet another appearance in "This is How We Do." I have plenty of issues with that song, but we’ll get to those later. For me, about two-thirds of the song – those that are Katy’s parts - is okay, if not spectacular. Katy did something a little different, and I give her credit for making it hold up pretty well
Juicy J’s guest rap verse, though, absolutely ruined it for me. It’s taken almost a year for me to be able to tolerate hearing it without wanting to throw up a little. It’s not that Juicy J himself wrecks the song for me. It's nothing personal against him. It’s a cheesy song to begin with and the verse goes to an absolute cornball extreme in trying to pretend that this is a dark song.
The funny part is that the message of the verse fits the theme of the song, but the word choices to me just take me out of the song and make me ask myself: what were they thinking? This is what Katy wanted, though. She wanted a fun song and Juicy J had a bit too much fun with it. That doesn't mean I'm not going to "rage" about it. Juicy J did indeed suggest that we rage in this song’s intro, so why not follow his suggestion?
Don't get me wrong. As overdone as rap guest verses have become, most are perfectly tolerable to me, even if they’re just a way to get in on someone else’s track. Snoop Dogg’s guest verse on "California Gurls" was extremely ridiculous, but that song was quite intentionally ridiculous, and he nailed it. Kanye West's guest verse on "E.T." was mostly tolerable, although I’m glad that they cut it from the album version – I can easily live without it.
Honestly, some of the rap verse lines are fine. "She's a beast/I call her karma" was a cool lead in. The Jeffrey Dahmer reference bugged the crap out of me – even if it was appropriate in the theme of the song. Comparing Katy with a cannibal just does not sit well with me. After that, I just wanted to throw the rest of the song out. But as time has gone on, I’ve come to appreciate the rest of the verse a lot more. To wit:
Shawty's heart was on steroids because her love is so strong! Ok, that one is cute.
It gets better from there.
You may fall in love
When you meet her
If you get the chance you better keep her
She's sweet as pie but if you break her heart
She'll turn cold as a freezer
“Cold as a freezer” is pretty corny, but it works…
That fairy tale ending with a knight in shining armor
She can be my Sleeping Beauty
I’m gon’ put her in a coma
I’d rather you not, Juicy J.
Damn I think I love her
Shorty so bad, I’m sprung and I don’t care
She ride me like a roller coaster
Turned the bedroom into a fair (a fair!)
That I’m sure of…
Her love is like a drug
I was tryna hit it and quit it
But lil' mama so dope
I messed around and got addicted
Yes, we all know that Katy's "dope" and we've gotten addicted. Thanks for stating the obvious, Juicy J.
I appreciate what Katy and Juicy J were trying to do here. Don't play with my heart or you'll regret it. Honestly, Katy's not really like that, but it is just a song. To be fair, I would've loved to hear Katy rap this part – I wouldn’t have been so harsh about it in the beginning.
In my initial track-by-track review of the album in November 2013, I felt very generous by rating this song a 7. My reasoning was that I could learn to tolerate it and respect Katy's artistry and purpose to having "Dark Horse" just be what it is. It’s definitely not skip-worthy and only cringe-worthy in parts of the rap verse, so I can live with it being a four star track.
As for it being a #1 hit, it is ridiculously catchy and the chorus is such an earworm that once you hear it, it never really leaves your head – ever. The video, I will admit, is atrocious. Even as a die-hard Katy Cat, I declare that video practically unwatchable. Never mind how many nationalities or religions were offended by some of the imagery – Katy and Juicy J went very overboard with trying to turn what was a pretty silly song in the first place into a hit. But I judge the song on its own merits, and despite my feelings toward the video, I have bumped “Dark Horse” up to an 8 on my scale. It became a massive hit for a great many reasons, and Katy is very proud of it, as I am of her.