Inspired by the 1996 film The Craft, Perry and singer-songwriter Sarah Hudson wrote the first version of "Dark Horse" in Perry's hometown of Santa Barbara, California. Perry described the song as a "juxtaposition", as it mixed her, a pop music artist, with an "urban kind of hip-hop-flavored background soundtrack"; and its lyrics as "witchy and dark", written from the perspective of "a witch warning [a] man to not fall in love with [her]", and if so, she would be his last. Perry then asked producer Dr. Luke to contact one of his Kemosabe Records artists, American rapper Juicy J, for a guest verse. Juicy J complimented Perry as having a "very professional" work ethic and being substantially involved in the song's development. He said: "My verse I did on that song, she was singing it. She's really a genius, she was by the mixing board and telling the guy what to take in and take out. She's really hands-on with her music, she knows music."
"Dark Horse" was recorded and engineered at Luke's in the Boo in Malibu, Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood, Playback Recording Studios in Santa Barbara, California, and Secret Garden Studios in Montecito, as well as MXM Studios in Stockholm, Sweden. It was engineered by Peter Carlsson, Mike "Crazy Mike" Foster, Clint Gibbs, Sam Holland, and Michael Ilbert. They were assisted by Eric Eylands, Rachael Findlen, Justin Fox, Elliot Lanam, and Cory Bice. It was mixed by Serban Ghenea, while John Hanes served as the engineer for mix. All instrumentation and programming was done by Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Cirkut.
In a press release on August 20, 2013, Pepsi announced a partnership with Perry to promote her fourth studio album Prism: a social "tweet-to-unlock" voting program, encouraging fans to tweet the hashtag #KATYNOW in exchange for song titles and lyrics. The chosen tracks for the campaign were "Walking on Air" and "Dark Horse". After the samples were revealed, fans could vote for which one they wanted to have an early release on digital retailers. The winner was "Dark Horse", which was released on September 17, 2013 on the iTunes Store. Due to its commercial success, it was sent to contemporary hit and rhythmic radio stations on December 17, 2013 as Prism's third official single.
"Dark Horse" has been described as a "Southern rap-techno mashup", combining trap and hip hop, and has a length of three minutes and thirty-five seconds. Musically, the verses are built around icy rhythms and chopped and screwed vocal samples, while the chorus' feature Perry singing into a gradual crescendo. The song contains a grimy, "incredibly simplistic" production. According to Kathy Iandoli of MSN Entertainment, "Dark Horse" contains a mixture of elements from "trippy pop", EDM, and dubstep. According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com, "Dark Horse" is written in the key of B♭ minor. It follows a chord progression of G♭ – D♭ – B♭m – B♭m/A♭, and the vocals range from the low note of B♭3 to the high note of D♭5. "Dark Horse" has a tempo of 132 beats per minute in half-time style typical of trap music.
A writer for the Winnipeg Free Press described the song as "brooding, borderline sleazy trap-pop excursion that comes across like a stripped-down version of "E.T." mixed with "Grindin'" by The Clipse," before going on to call it unexpected, unconventional, and unstoppable.
Marc Hogan from Spin called the lyrics a "cliché salad" but believed that the song had potential to become a hit due to its "soaring hooks" and "sleekly sculpted production". Reviewing the song for Billboard, Jason Lipshutz said that by exploring trap-influenced music, Perry "score[d]" and "slay[ed]". Digital Spy's Robert Copsey questioned the decision to not have a proper chorus in "Dark Horse" and the inclusion of Juicy J, though he praised the "sleazy" beat and "sultry" vocals from Katy Perry. He gave the track a rating of four stars out of five. Contributor Dylan Mial of Blogcritics said the "juxtaposition" of Perry's vocals and Juicy J's rap brought "the ingredients for a perfect musical storm" and favored Perry for the "uniqueness" of the single.
Keith Murphy from Vibe called the track "infectiously sexy", while John Walker from MTV was similarly positive about the song, though he wrote that Juicy's verse was "phoned-in". Sal Cinquemani of Slant Magazine likened the song to avant-garde band Art of Noise's song "Moments In Love" and called it a "continuation" of "E.T.", and further labelled it as a "standout" from Prism. While she did not give her opinion of the song as a whole, Helen Brown from the publication The Daily Telegraph criticized Juicy J for his "daft" rap. For AbsolutePunk, Craig Manning classified "Dark Horse" as Prism's worst song, while also panning the rapper's contribution. Marah Eakin from The A.V. Club was not entirely critical of the song, though she noted that it was not among "Perry's best".
Consequence of Sound's Chris Bosman had a mixed response—while he praised the song for feeling "vital" and "forward-moving", he criticized the guest vocals and nonetheless deemed the trap influence "trap for soccer moms". Writing for ABC News, Mesfin Fekadu commented that "her team fare[d] better" in the song and observed that the "Southern hip-hop and electronic flavors" present on it were factors that made it "work". Pop music website Idolator's Sam Lansky opined that the "weird trap-lite" of the song "never quite coalesces". The song was nominated for Best Song at the 2014 MTV Europe Music Awards, though lost to Ariana Grande's "Problem". It has been nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards.
On the Billboard Hot 100, the song debuted at number seventeen on the week ending October 5, 2013. It also debuted at number four on the Hot Digital Songs chart with 194,000 downloads. In response to the unexpected success of "Dark Horse", Capitol Records executive VP Greg Thompson stated: "Katy's well aware of [the success of] 'Dark Horse'" and "It might be the next single. We're watching it – and certainly appreciating the airplay – while still wanting 'Unconditionally' to have a full run". In December, following its success as a promotional single, it was chosen as the third official single from Prism. On the week ending January 11, 2014, "Dark Horse" sold 285,000 copies (up 158%) ranking at number 7 on Hot Digital Songs chart. The following week the song rose to number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 4 on the Digital Songs chart selling 229,000 copies. The song became the thirteenth Top 10 song for the singer, and Juicy J's first top 10 on chart. That same week, the song debuted at number thirty-four on Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs. The song also rose to number fifteen on Billboard Pop Songs, earning greatest gainer honours. The following week the song topped the Hot Digital Songs, selling 243,000 copies, and rose to number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. On the week-ending February 1, 2014 "Dark Horse" topped the Hot Digital Song for a second week, selling 261,000 copies and rose to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The following week, February 8, the song still remains atop the Hot Digital Song adding other 294,000 units to the amount of copies sold during the previous weeks. On January 29, 2014, "Dark Horse" reached the number one position in the United States, giving Perry her ninth US number one and tying her with four other artists as the artist with the tenth highest amount of number ones in history, and also becoming Juicy J's first number one US hit. Perry also set a new record, becoming the only artist to have a number one single in each year of the decade thus far. The song topped the chart for four straight weeks, from February 8 to March 1. It was replaced by Pharrell Williams' "Happy". The song also broke Perry's record for her longest stay within the top 10 for one single - as "Dark Horse" has spent 22 weeks within the top ten so far, breaking her previous record set by "E.T." of 20 weeks. The song has spent 52 weeks on the Hot 100 as of September 18, 2014, becoming Perry's first song to last at least a year on the chart. By May 2014, "Dark Horse" has sold over 5 million copies in the US, and become Perry's 6th song to surpass the 5 million mark. It became the third best-selling song of 2014 in the United States with 4.43 million copies sold for the year. As of February 2017, the song has sold 6.3 million copies in the nation, and been certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Aside from topping the Hot 100, "Dark Horse" has also topped Pop Songs, giving Perry her 11th number-one. This feat tied her with Rihanna for most number ones on Pop Songs chart. "Dark Horse" has also topped the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs thus becoming her 13th number one and breaking her own record for most consecutive number ones. Her earlier record which was established upon her second single "Unconditionally" topping the chart was 12 consecutive number ones.
In Canada, the song has reached the top-spot position, becoming the singer's tenth number-one single in the country and Juicy J's first.
On the week-ending September 23, 2013, "Dark Horse" debuted at number ten on the New Zealand Singles Chart becoming Perry's twelfth top ten. Five weeks later, the song peaked at number two, and charted in the top 10 for a total of 16 weeks. It has gone on to receive double platinum certification, and spent 37 weeks in the top 40. In Australia, the song was not eligible to chart on the ARIA Top 100 Singles Chart but peaked at number five on the ARIA Top 50 Digital Tracks.
In the UK, on September 22, 2013, "Dark Horse" debuted at number 21 on the UK Singles Chart. It re-entered the chart at number 19 on February 2, 2014. Four weeks later, it reached a new peak of number 4. On January 23, 2014 the song re-entered the Irish Singles Chart at number 47 then reached a peak of 3.
On the week-ending October 10, 2013 the song entered the Dutch Mega Top 100 chart at number 74, when "Dark Horse" was just a promotional song from the album. More than three months later, when the song was released as the third official single, "Dark Horse" re-entered the chart at number 28. Six weeks later, the song topped the chart. The song also reached the top spot position on the Dutch Top 40. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Norway and Sweden, the song peaked at number 2. "Dark Horse" also managed to reach the top 10 in Finland and Denmark where it respectively peaked at number 5 and 6. "Dark Horse" topped the Belgian Ultratop 50 Flandre chart and reached the top 10 in other European countries such as France and Germany. In Italy, on the week-ending March 13, 2014, the song entered the FIMI official top 20 at number 17 and, after five weeks, it has so far reached a peak of number 5. It has also been certified gold for sales of 15,000 copies.
In an interview with Billboard at the 2014 Grammy Awards, Juicy J stated the video will be filmed "soon"; he added that it is "a major motion picture." He further teased the release by saying, "I can't really tell you because it's definitely going to be a surprise, but I'll tell you this much right here: you've seen her other videos, this one's gonna be just as big. Everything she does is like grade A."
When "Dark Horse" had attained the top position on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart, Perry announced that she was working on the video. " On February 6, 2014, Perry tweeted the video would be released "soon". On February 13, 2014, she released a preview of the music video onto her Vevo account on YouTube, revealing the Egyptian setting of the video. Perry played a character named "Katy Pätra", a takeoff on the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. The video was released on February 20, 2014.
The music video was directed by Mathew Cullen, who previously worked with Perry on her music video for the song "California Gurls". Perry's idea for the music video was to combine Ancient Egyptian culture with Memphis, Tennessee hip hop: setting the video in ancient Memphis, Egypt as a nod to Juicy J's Tennessee hometown. Speaking of Perry's concept, Cullen said "That's music to my ears — when an artist has a couple concepts that they want to mash up to create something fresh."
During the video's opening, it is revealed that the music video takes place "a crazy long time ago" in Memphis, Egypt. For the opening verses, Perry's character Katy Pätra, the witch of Memphis, is shown wearing a white dress and white and blue wig while floating on a large barge at sunset, with pyramids and palm trees visible in the background. The video transitions to a different scene where Pätra, now wearing a longer dress and a black wig, sits in an extravagant Sphinx-like throne while pharaohs gather to bring her expensive gifts (such as a large diamond) in an attempt to "win her heart."
After retrieving the first suitor's gift, she hits the man with a magical bolt of lightning from her hand, turning him into a pile of sand, and takes his jewels to wear on her teeth as a grill. Another suitor brings her candy, cupcakes, twinkies, and spicy cheese puffs. After she burns her mouth with the spicy cheese puffs, she turns the suitor into a large cup of water, which she drinks. Pätra also appears as a gray statue in a scene where golden pythons and gray guardian statues such as Anubis, Horus, Nisroch and Apep surround her, and in a scene with a blue background where she wears a golden dress and several golden hieroglyphs levitate around her.
During Juicy J's verse, the rapper emerges from a gold sarcophagus while Pätra accepts an Egyptian chariot with hydraulics (she turns the associated suitor into a set of giant dice to hang from the frame) and rejects a suitor who turns out to have the face of a crocodile by turning him into a wallet. During the final chorus, the last suitor brings Pätra a large gold pyramid with a pink capstone, which she ascends. At the top of the pyramid, Pätra, dressed as Isis, uses her powers to conjure up a magical "perfect storm" with pink, purple, and violet clouds. Although it seems like Pätra has finally found a gift she likes, the final frame of the video reveals that she has turned the final suitor into a dog with a human head.
The music video was criticized by some for appropriating the symbols and imagery of Egyptian culture. Cullen, the director, defended the music video, saying that, while he believes it is dangerous to rip things directly from present cultures without adding anything to them, Ancient Egypt is part of what he calls our "shared collective mythology". He said: "The most important thing is that when you create something, and this is actually something Katy and I worked to do — you bring a new spin to it." Egyptologist David P. Silverman praised the music video's use of Egyptian imagery and the interest it could generate to viewers: "[Egypt has] always been a part of popular culture. It encourages people to think of these things, and some of those people actually begin to learn a lot." The video was noted by conspiracy theorists for bearing resemblance to imagery used by the alleged Illuminati, but Ritner rejected the allegations, saying that "The many discussions of the Illuminati are nonsense" and that, in fact, the masonic imagery associated with the Illuminati is drawn from Egyptian imagery (as a common source for both).
On June 9, 2015, the music video for "Dark Horse" became the first video by a female artist to reach 1 billion views on Vevo. Perry also became the first female to have a video on YouTube with 1 billion views. As of March 2017, the video has received over 1.73 billion views on YouTube, making it the fifteenth most viewed video of all time.
The music video caused controversy among some Muslims who criticized a scene in the video where a man wearing a pendant appearing to display the Arabic word for "Allah" is disintegrated and turned into sand by Perry's character. The scene took place 1 minute and 15 seconds into the video. A petition launched on Change.org accused Perry of "representing an opposition of God" and demanded that the video be taken down from YouTube. The petition reached over 65,000 signatures and as a response, the pendant was digitally removed from the video on February 26, 2014, after which the petition was closed.
On July 1, 2014, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Christian rapper Flame and others filed a lawsuit against Perry, Capitol Records, and Perry's co-writers for infringing copyright on the song "Joyful Noise", which appeared on the 2008 album Our World: Redeemed. Flame's DJ, Cho'zyn Boy, stated that Perry's song is "identical" to "Joyful Noise", but ten BPM slower in tempo and one step higher in pitch. In addition to the infringement claims, the suit claims that "by any measure, the devoutly religious message of 'Joyful Noise' has been irreparably tarnished by its association with the witchcraft, paganism, black magic, and Illuminati imagery evoked by the same music in 'Dark Horse'". Rapper Lecrae, who is featured on the song and named in the lawsuit, clarified to MTV that "I was in Hong Kong [when] the press release went out and it's not my song — it's my guy Flame's song and I respect everyone's intellectual properties — but that statement about the witchcraft and stuff, that's not my statement and I don’t stand behind that statement."
"Dark Horse" was first performed at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas on September 20, 2013. It was later performed at the iTunes Festival in London. Perry also performed the song with Juicy J at the We Can Survive event at the Hollywood Bowl on October 23. Perry also performed "Dark Horse" on The Voice of Germany on December 13, 2013. Perry and Juicy J performed the song at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2014. The "dark and mysterious" performance featured a "haunted forest" design with animatronic horses, broomstick pole dances, and a controlled fire. The singer also performed the song at the 2014 BRIT Awards and the performance featured a neon-colored Egyptian theme, like the music video.
On February 1, 2015, the song was performed by Perry during the Super Bowl XLIX halftime show, where she was on a chessboard, with her dancers as chess pieces. It was one of the most technical performance out of the rest of the performances.Digital download
Digital download – Japan version
- "Dark Horse" – 3:35
- "Dark Horse" (featuring TEE) – 3:35
- "Dark Horse" – 3:35
- "Dark Horse" (Johnson Somerset Remix) – 9:01