doja cat
Pop

Can't Stop the Feline: How Doja Cat Took Pop to a New Dimension

With a string of chart-scaling singles and showstopping performances, she didn’t just ride out the pandemic -- she proved an internet weirdo can become a pop star.

Doja Cat has a mouthful of sand. Two days ago, she had a photo shoot in the desert for an upcoming fashion line collaboration, and she still can’t seem to get the stuff out of her teeth. “That’s what I look like...” she deadpans as she pops up on Zoom from her Los Angeles bedroom one recent afternoon, cracking herself up at how exhausted she appears. The scene feels familiar: Over the last year, Doja has streamed all sorts of oddball activities from the same bedroom — Shakespearean-style recitations of trap lyrics, dramatic lip-syncs to old Tyra Banks Show episodes, pop-and-locking routines to Justin Timberlake songs.

When she wasn’t goofing around on the internet, the 25-year-old singer-rapper-producer spent the pandemic experiencing a glow-up many likely wouldn’t have seen coming had they been introduced to her (as many were) through the video for 2018’s “Mooo!,” in which Doja twerked in cow-print couture to an off-the-cuff freestyle about the joys of being a bovine. The Doja Cat who has dominated radio and owned awards show stages during the past year-and-a-half is on a whole new level, sparked by the breakthrough success of her 2019 album, Hot Pink. That record — a playful, polished collection of freaky rap and R&B — spawned four Billboard Hot 100 hits over two years, including “Say So,” the TikTok smash whose remix featuring Nicki Minaj landed both artists their first Hot 100 No. 1. Her biggest tour yet, planned for last spring, sold out in 10 minutes. You can probably guess what happened next.

“I luckily didn’t have too many expectations,” says Doja of the COVID-19 lockdowns that upturned her plans. “I was just like, ‘If the world’s going through it right now, I don’t want to add to that by freaking out over my tour.’ It’s a big deal, but it’s not as big of a deal as getting everybody healthy and getting the world back to not such a f--ky place. I’ll put down my tools for that.”

Ramona Rosales

Instead, she doubled down creatively with a run of clever music videos, star-powered collaborations and showstopping performances, including at last October’s Billboard Music Awards, where she delivered a three-song medley referencing the musical Chicago. Meanwhile, she wrote the songs that would become her third album, Planet Her, which will mark her official transition from viral internet weirdo to full-on pop star.

None of this came as a surprise to Doja’s tight-knit crew, which includes a four-person co-management team, creative director Brett Alan Nelson, choreographer Fullout Cortland and labels RCA Records and Kemosabe Records. That holistic group of managers — comprising 10Q Management’s Lydia Asrat and Josh Kaplan, and SALXCO’s Gordan Dillard and Wassim “Sal” Slaiby — knows Doja in and out. Asrat, for one, has worked alongside her since 2016, when the then-20-year-old was camping out for months on a tour bus shared with another then-underground multihyphenate. (Perhaps the name Lizzo rings a bell?)

Behind that infrastructure is something of a paradox: Despite the experience the co-managers bring to the table, each seems keenly aware that the best strategy is usually to let Doja be Doja. “I felt from the moment I met her that she was going to be a superstar, because she has this drive and vision about her music that no one can modify,” says Asrat. “Doja, from the beginning, has been the mastermind behind everything.”

Ramona Rosales
Kenzo top, pants, and boots; Lillian Shalom and KHIRY rings from The Residency Experience.

On occasion, letting Doja do her thing involves getting a phone call where she announces, “Hey, I’m going to make a song about cows.” Asrat laughs remembering that day in 2018: “She was like, ‘I ordered a burger, a milkshake, a cow suit,’ and I was like... ‘OK? Go crazy? I don’t f--king know!’ ” Cue Doja on Instagram Live, LARPing as a cow for an audience of 60 viewers. By the end of the day, she had written full lyrics (“Got milk, bitch? Got beef? Got steak, hoe? Got cheese?”), produced a beat, recorded it all and filmed a music video in her bedroom complete with a DIY green screen, in which she shoved French fries in her nose as pixelated cheeseburgers and anime bosoms bounced in the background. The video almost instantly exploded online, and “Mooo!” became the hot topic on the internet for weeks. The YouTube video now clocks in at nearly 85 million views.

What seemed like viral marketing genius could more accurately be chalked up to a whim and a craving for cheeseburgers — though, as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” proved seven months later, no one knows virality better than a troll. And letting Doja be Doja has not always led to such fortuitous moments. In the wake of her breakthrough with “Mooo!,” old tweets of hers using homophobic slurs resurfaced; her apology included musings such as, “Do I hate gay people? I don’t think I hate gay people. Gay is OK.” Last year, videos leaked from an alt-right-adjacent Tinychat chatroom showing Doja unleashing racial slurs.

In a 2019 interview with Paper, she owned up to her “sh-tposter” habits: “People would pick on me and use horrible, horrible language ... So I became the person who would make offensive jokes and do things sort of out of the box.” Those controversies have mostly seemed to slide off her back — maybe because, in a landscape of ghostwritten Notes app screenshots, her apologies (such as they are) feel immediate and, well, real. “I just don’t want to be the person who f--king bullsh-ts you,” said Doja on Instagram Live following the chatroom scandal. “Because I know that what makes me happy is that you guys are happy, and you know what the f--k is real.”

“Doja’s ultimately a native of the digital space,” says John Fleckenstein, who has been with RCA since 2015 and became COO early this year. “The whole ‘Mooo!’ exercise was a great example of her nailing the thread in the conversation that was going on with her fan base, diving into that culture — which is cut-and-paste and crazy and weird and trolling and all of the stuff that goes on online,” he adds with bemused admiration. “That’s where the groundswell came around her. And then the second part of the story is about what started to happen after that.”

If there’s any doubt that an avowed sh-tposter can become a top-tier pop singer, it hasn’t occurred to Doja, who certainly doesn’t think it’s incompatible with, say, appearing on Instagram Live dressed as Joan of Arc while reciting Roddy Ricch lyrics in a medieval-sounding British accent. “I feel like people separate the pop star from the very humane, normal internet teen goofball kind of girl,” says Doja. “And I feel like they complement each other. There is no separation, in my opinion. I always looked at myself like, ‘I can do it.’ But I feel like people thought I was this goofy girl, and that’s all I could ever really be.”

Despite her affection for what she calls “meme music” — she once made a song devoted to the timeless question of waffles versus pancakes — Doja’s archive of pop, R&B and hip-hop bona fides well predates her viral breakout. Before “Mooo!,” she had amassed a small but devoted fan base who hung upon her every upload, allowing her to sell out all but one stop of a 50-city club tour supporting Amala, her 2018 full-length debut. Making absurdist novelty freestyles served as a useful creative counterpoint to more serious songwriting. “To get me out of this weird, cocky mindset, I felt like I needed to do goofy sh-t to level my mind and keep myself sane, in a way,” says Doja. “I’ve been obsessed with comedy my whole life — I grew up on Jim Carrey films and stuff like that. So I knew I wanted to incorporate that and make other people feel like they had something to go watch when they needed a laugh.”

Ramona Rosales

She’s known to play video games with fans on Twitch, tweet trippy non sequiturs (“what if i had eyes on my knees”) and post self-made SoundCloud loosies like March’s “TRASH MAN,” a house jam about, well, the trash man. “It hit me when we did the Billboard Music Awards and I watched the show afterward,” says Cortland, who first worked with Doja on last June’s “Like That” video. “I was like, ‘This is the same girl I used to watch online with a Mario mustache making beats with a Pikachu triangle bra on!’ I just busted out laughing for five minutes straight, I kid you not. It’s just so funny how the universe works.”

Talent aside, this is Doja’s charm: To her fans, she is proof that there’s room for the weird kids at the top. “I live for it when a pop star comes off as, like, a deity,” gushes Doja. “They carry themselves as very mysterious, and you’ll never know anything about them, only that they’re incredibly talented and always have profound sh-t to say. I love that, and I always wanted to be like that, but I just don’t really give a f--k. And I think it’s important for me to not put that pressure on myself or that will eat me alive. If I can just be myself, that’s probably the best thing for me.” So far, as usual, she seems to be right.


Among her panoply of onstage appearances over the last year, the one that cemented Doja Cat’s Main Pop Girl status didn’t initially look like a Doja Cat performance at all; had Grammy Awards host Trevor Noah not announced her name, people might not even have recognized her. Covered head to toe in black latex, Doja appeared silhouetted in a row of dancers, just barely lit by lasers. “I’ve been preparing,” she purred. “Grammys, welcome to Planet Her.” She then launched into one of her many live reimaginings of “Say So” — this one with sex-robot choreography and a glitchy EDM breakdown.

Given that ultra-polished performance, it feels like divine comedy that the super-low-fi “Mooo!” was what got RCA to sit up and pay attention to Doja. Before then, the label wasn’t exactly sure what to do with her: Was she a rapper? An R&B singer? A pop star? “I would play her for people all the time, and it was strange to me how some people didn’t seem to get it,” says songwriter-producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, the former head of Kemosabe Records, over email. “It’s like people weren’t listening with their ears but were more concerned about how many followers she had. I don’t know how it happened, but she just got better and better, and one day, she was like, totally there.” (In 2014, Kesha sued Gottwald, alleging sexual assault and emotional abuse, among other claims; Gottwald filed his own defamation and breach of contract suit against her that is still ongoing. Because Doja’s commercial success occurred in the wake of that, she has faced some criticism for working with Gottwald. In early 2020, she liked tweets pointing out that she had signed with him before the suit; she didn't speak further about their working relationship in this interview.) Fleckenstein recalls an RCA meeting, just post-“Mooo!,” where Doja played the songs that would become Hot Pink. “We were just blown away,” he recalls, “and I think that’s when things started to kick into the gear you’re seeing today.”

Ramona Rosales
Robert Wun top and pants, Alan Crocetti earrings, Corey Moranis and Lorette Colé Duprat jewelry.

From the beginning, the arc of Doja’s life path has veered left of center. Born Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini in the Los Angeles suburb named after Tarzan, she spent a good deal of her childhood living in the mountains on an ashram, a commune where she, her parents and her brother practiced Hinduism, wore head-covering scarves and sang devotional songs called bhajans at temple. Both of her parents are artists: her mother a Jewish painter, her father a South African Zulu actor-filmmaker. “There were snakes and coyotes and mountain lions and everything. It was wild, but it was really beautiful and peaceful most of the time,” says Doja. “But as a kid, I wanted to do whatever I wanted, and it felt a little too controlled.”

When the family moved to the predominantly white suburb of Oak Park — the ashram was mostly Indian and Black people — the transition wasn’t easy. “It was really rough for me at times,” admits Doja, noting instances when classmates were racist toward her and her brother. In school, she was placed in special ed classes; outside, she skateboarded and competed in a local dance crew. By 11th grade, Doja had dropped out and fallen headfirst into music, spending her days writing and producing songs on GarageBand in her bedroom, oftentimes live on social media.

Was her early music good? “So ... no,” says Doja with a laugh. “But I saw potential in myself even though I was still aware it wasn’t good. And I really wanted it.” She focused on visuals as much as the music itself, toiling over DIY music videos for her own songs or Minaj covers, unplugging her massive desktop computer and moving it from room to room to get different shots. In 2013, through Facebook, she befriended Yeti Beats, a DJ-producer who has collaborated with her ever since. With Yeti, Doja found herself in an actual studio for the first time, free to explore whatever she wanted. Occasionally, she would bring her cat, Alex, to sessions on a leash.

At around the same time, a self-produced song she had casually posted on SoundCloud, “So High,” caught Gottwald’s attention. In 2013, he signed then-17-year-old Doja to Kemosabe and to his publishing company, Prescription Songs, and released her debut EP, Purrr! By the time co-manager Kaplan joined Doja’s team, he saw the low-stakes “SoundCloud rapper mentality” limiting her. “People at the label knew she was talented, but they just didn’t put anything behind her because she had the ‘So High’ success on SoundCloud, and that was how she was being identified.” The question was how to nudge her toward her full potential. “Everybody always says, ‘Oh, yeah. I knew she was going to be a star,’ and all that good stuff, but there’s so much luck and timing with those things,” says Kaplan. “But did she have the talent? A million percent, yes. I knew if we could position her in the right way, yes, she’s a pop star.”

Singles like “Tia Tamera” with Rico Nasty and “Juicy” with Tyga were a legitimizing force. (The latter marked her first Hot 100 entry.) But it was Hot Pink, released in late 2019 — a sultry, eccentric collection of genre-spanning bangers on which she slipped easily between singing and rapping, as though she were featuring on her own songs — that showed Doja had real range. A TikTok dance challenge sent the disco-inspired “Say So” soaring up both the pop and R&B/hip-hop charts. When the song’s Minaj remix reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, it was the first time a female rap collaboration had done so, paving the way for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” a few months after. Over a year later, TikTok again fueled a Hot Pink track’s blowup on the chart, when the Silhouette Challenge helped propel “Streets,” a slinky deep cut, to No. 16.

“There are agencies that have been like, ‘We’ll get you a bunch of TikTok hits,’ but that is the biggest bunch of bullsh-t I’ve ever seen — it doesn’t work like that,” says Kaplan. “It’s just fans attaching to a song.” Still, the team’s response to the Doja-centric challenges was canny — including casting Haley Sharpe, the TikTok user who created the “Say So” dance, in the official music video, and later featuring her striking a Silhouette Challenge pose in the one for “Streets.” “She’s a very well-rounded artist, so every record kind of broke differently,” says Slaiby of Doja, noting how her swaggering club banger “Boss Bitch” broke after it was featured on the soundtrack to Suicide Squad spinoff Birds of Prey. “You’ll see her in different pockets, and a lot of the time, it’s through her fans reaching out to her. There is no one formula for every song.”

It was her marathon of “live” performances throughout the pandemic that proved Doja not only had staying power but star power, too. From The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to the Grammys, she performed no less than six discrete versions of “Say So,” conspiring with Cortland and creative director Nelson (who formerly styled Minaj) to ensure each felt fresh and unexpected — and showing off her own stage chops in the process. On the virtual stage of the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, “Say So” became a neon cyberpunk fantasy; for MTV’s Europe Music Awards, the trio reimagined it as a metal song, with Doja swaggering and headbanging in front of a full band. “I’ve been able to create different worlds with her,” says Nelson. “It brings me joy because growing up watching these huge pop stars perform on television, there was always an art to the show, and I feel like recently, people have kind of lost the artistry of performing.”

If anything, the COVID-19 lockdown allowed the team more creative focus. “We were able to do things I don’t think we would ever have the opportunity to do without the pandemic,” continues Nelson. “For the VMAs, for instance, we built our whole performance on an [extended reality] stage where we built a world around us rather than having to build a practical thing onstage — which brought in this sense of technology and weird computer things that just fit so well with Doja, because she ultimately is a child of the internet.” Amid a landscape of both crackly Zoom streams and immaculately rehearsed virtual spectacles, they saw Doja’s onstage dynamism as capturing the kind of raw, live concert experience the world was missing. “We just wanted people to have the essence of a live show,” says Cortland. “A lot of people were doing things that looked like music videos, but we wanted it to feel like there was an audience, and she was giving it to them.”

At first, Doja wasn’t quite sure what to do for the Grammys. “I felt like we’d covered all bases — we’d tried every f--king thing because I did that song like 500 times,” she says. “But then I was like, ‘We need a robotic EDM kind of thing, something with a raver vibe, something that feels sexy and edgy and sleek and dark, but also crazy colors, like an action film.’ ” If viewers caught Janet Jackson vibes in the powerful, quasi-militaristic dance steps, it wasn’t by accident.

“If you know anything about pop, if you know anything about Black women in pop, then you know Janet definitely holds that strength,” says Doja. “I love that about her, and I wanted to have that moment as well.” At the start of the performance, she’s just a shiny latex silhouette — she could be anyone. When she finally steps into the spotlight, holding the imaginary audience with just her gaze, she couldn’t be anyone but Doja Cat.


Doja had no trouble staying eye to eye with her fans throughout the pandemic: Having spent her entire career chatting with them through a screen, she has happily let them watch her play Fortnite or Little Nightmares, freestyle impromptu jams or do surrealist makeup with weird music playing in the background (her latest hobby). “When you can’t do shows and you can’t show your personality through live performance, you have to rely on the music and the internet,” says her co-manager Dillard. “The ones who had amazing music and understand the internet are the ones who won during the pandemic.” Fleckenstein calls Doja “probably the best example of someone really understanding how to move in today’s marketplace. I think that will be forever a bar in how to communicate with fans.”

Ramona Rosales

If a Doja Cat cultural saturation point exists, she has yet to reach it. Following last year’s run of “Say So” performances and chart hits of her own, she scored a best new artist Grammy nomination and jumped on a couple of massive collaborations — featuring alongside Megan Thee Stallion on Ariana Grande’s “34+35” remix and joining Saweetie for her ride-or-die anthem “Best Friend.” In partnership with Intellectible Holdings, she just launched an NFT marketplace called Juicy Drops — another move, she said, toward being "able to make all decisions related to my creative vision and help other artists do the same." Later this year, she’ll announce an expanded tour — one hitting rooms bigger than the 2,000- to 3,000-capacity spaces planned pre-pandemic. And since she hasn’t yet worn out her welcome, the next step in the Doja glow-up is nigh.

On Planet Her, which is due this summer, Doja tones down the genre-hopping experimentation of Hot Pink, but she doesn’t sacrifice its playful versatility, celebrating her femininity and reveling in her sense of humor on tracks like “Need To Know.” (“I heard from a friend of a friend/That d--k is a 10 out of 10!”) She carefully selected the album’s big-name features, including The Weeknd (Slaiby’s star SALXCO client) on the steamy second single, “You Right.” “Doja is a star, and has created a unique universe you just want to lose yourself in,” says The Weeknd. “She’s got such drive and vast creative vision that we will be seeing her impact for a very long time to come.”

Lead single “Kiss Me More” (featuring SZA) might give the best sense of Planet Her’s head space. A punny groove about, well, kissing — which just debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 7, becoming Doja’s second top 10 on the chart — its video is bathed in pastel hues and high-femme futurism, and while it’s over-the-top sexy, it still ends with Doja and SZA cracking each other up while playing a video game in a galaxy far, far away. “We both think outside the box and don’t mind experimenting or confusing others in the process of creating,” says SZA. “Her mind is one of my favorites.”

Creative director Nelson was initially worried when Doja told him she wanted the Planet Her era to feel space age. “My worry was that other people have done that, from Lady Gaga with Chromatica to Beyoncé wearing the metal Thierry Mugler robot pieces — we’ve all seen futurism,” he recalls. “But we’re doing a style of futurism that feels fresh. We don’t know what our actual future holds, so we are making what Doja Cat’s future is. It doesn’t feel like we’re paying homage to something; it doesn’t seem like we’re on the same Pinterest board as everyone else.”

Ramona Rosales

For Doja, it’s the first record that feels fully her own — instead of striving to be a certain kind of pop star, she’s simply embodying one. “I think in the beginning, I was just trying to be solid and be what a pop artist already was: what I’d seen on TV and what I thought was the right thing to do,” she says, lounging in bed, burned out but confident. “But as I move on into this Planet Her era, I want to introduce things to people as opposed to just re-create and rehash. It’s just more inspiring to start from a more innovative spot.”

It feels like a win for the weirdos, for anyone who related to Doja back when she was just a girl messing around online. “All the goofy kids, or the kids who don’t put themselves on a pedestal, or are just not normally accepted — I feel like making that example is good for those kids,” she says. “Because maybe they felt like they could never make it in an industry where everybody is so serious. It’s important that they know they have a lane.” Welcome to Planet Her: You may have met its queen with French fries in her nose, but now she’s on top of the world. It happens.

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2021, issue of Billboard.