At a time where it can feel like we’re being presented various shades of the same product, Doja Cat brings another flavour entirely. Equal parts inspired by Erykah Badu, Pharrell, Partynextdoor, video games and Japanese culture, the Los Angeles-born Amalaratna Zandile Dlamini has gone from being a tertiary artist gasping for the air of publicity to sending fans into hysterics with the news that she’d be heading out on tour or getting bankrolled to contribute to superhero movie soundtracks.
Doja Cat at the NYC HNHH office – Image by HNHH
Far from a placid carbon-copy of what’s gone before, the raunchiness of Doja’s music is teamed with a vibrant sense of humour and an insistence on not taking herself too seriously. Brought into the major label sphere by the disgraced Dr.Luke and his Kemosabe imprint, it’s easy to forget that she’s not some overnight sensation when the volume of stories and fan accounts dedicated to her has risen at such a rapid rate over the past few years. Setting off with her 2014 EP Purrr! the talented vocalist began in the vein of a sultry R&B vocalist, producing music that shared more DNA with Jhene Aiko and Summer Walker than it does with her current contemporaries such as Megan Thee Stallion and Rico Nasty. Intoxicating as tracks such as “So High” and “Control” were, they lacked a real sense of identity. In her words, this came from an instinct “to collect all the things that interested me.”
Thrust into the industry during her teens, Doja has since been able to deconstruct why she reached something of a standstill when it came to increasing her profile in those early years. “I was high half the time. I was smoking hella weed. I was being a fucking delinquent,” she told The Face.?”I had no idea how to be a businesswoman, and it took me about six years to realize that’s what I need to do.” Then, one fateful glint of inspiration would change everything. Made over the course of one day including filming a video with a makeshift bedspread green screen, the humorous yet undeniably catchy refrain of “Mooo!” changed everything. The kind of subject matter that could only be taken on by someone who was making YouTube tutorials at 14, Doja is very much a disciple of the internet in every sense and despite not being a conscious effort to create a meme, the “shitposting” mentality had naturally bled into the track.
Without trying too hard, Doja had found a way to harness virality and in turn, found a niche that completely altered her fortunes. “I proved to myself that I could do something that was worth watching,” she claimed. “It’s a fucking crazy video. Like, how do you not click that?” Organic as its creation was, with “Mooo!” Doja Cat found the crossroads between musical merit and comedy, a tone that her career has continued to carry. For her, it’s an integral part of the game as she told The Face that “I feel like you need to be a little bit of a comedian to be a rapper.”
After it brought new eyes and ears to what she was doing, the increased name recognition of rapping about a cow could’ve been the death knell for her legitimacy. In Doja’s case, her awareness of the internet’s practically non-existent attention span meant that it was time to feed them more content. As such, her March 2018 debut project Amala was reissued with the meme-worthy track in tow. Allowing those who’d came for the absurdity to stay for unique R&B and hip-hop hybrids such as “Go To Town” and “Candy.”
Doja Cat performing at the 2020 Adult Video News Awards – Ethan Miller/Getty Images
As the buzz around Doja as a major artist has grown, she’s remained mindful of what allotted her this favourable position in the first place. Thus, when it comes to social media, she offsets thirst traps with comedic hijinks, while her elaborate live streams give fans a chance to observe the creative process in real-time as well, and offer an opportunity to hear Doja’s trademark candidness— which is part and parcel with her approach to music, too. Meanwhile, Doja’s repertoire of YouTube-based acapella performances such as the Mark Morrison-inspired “Return of The Snack” ensures that there’s still an outlet for her frivolous fun-having antics, even when the stakes are a lot higher.
“That’s a small portion of my career, taking a moment to do something stupid,” she said. “I have a song called ‘Waffles Are Better Than Pancakes.’ If I can’t be goofy, I’ll go insane.” As her stock continued to climb, the natural impulse would be to follow the blueprint to the letter. Yet for Doja, the release of her November 2019 sophomore offering Hot Pink was a chance to show the world how she could infuse her more gaudy lyricism and jol edge with elite-level output.
“With my first album it was a little bit like I was practicing,” she informed The Fader. “It’s like, you know the first time you do anything, you kind of have to figure out who you are? I feel like with this second project I know who I am and I know what I want and I know what I want it to sound like. I’m really proud of this.”
Tasked with an unenbly thin line to walk, Hot Pink kept the spirit of the no-rules, no-consequences approach that defined her earlier work and allowed it to manifest in previously unanticipated ways. Sampling Blink-182, working with Gucci Mane and above all, approaching the record with a clear head, the exponential rise in chart position from Amala’s peak of #95 to Hot Pink’s massive push to number 19 on the Billboards goes to show that all the hard work is paying off.
Doja Cat at the 2019 BET Awards – Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Although “Mooo!” is behind her in some ways, everything from her more whimsical bars to her IG interactions means that she now judiciously walks a tightrope between being typecast and expanding far beyond the repressive limitations of a comedy rapper. Hitting on that sweet spot between zaniness and credibility that recalls Luda, Missy Elliott and De La Soul, what remains to be seen is whether this cross-sectional approach will allow her to crack that top 10 in the years to come. Either way, don’t expect the dalliances with social media-ready comedy to go anywhere fast.
“I just like to do the fun stuff,” she informed Billboard. “If I’m not having fun with it, I’m not going to do it for the rest of my life, I just wanna bring something fun — the current climate is so uptight and serious and it’s just good to have something stupid to laugh at.”