Doja Cat went viral. Now what? A hip-hop meme star gets serious, sort of, for her second act
While Doja Cat was writing her second album “Hot Pink,” the 24-year-old singer and rapper quit smoking weed. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised that, when the clouds parted, she found her songwriting much improved. Like the old joke about the Grateful Dead fan who gets sober, once the drugs wore off, she had higher standards for music.
“My last album was me super high all the time,” the 24-year-old born Amala Zandile Dlamini said from Orlando, Fla., as she paused our phone interview to balance a pitcher of mimosas on a hotel bed. Last night, she’d performed as part of Spotify’s Rap Caviar Live concert in Miami. “When I stopped and did this album, I’ve never been more concise and clear and levelheaded. People will love me and hate me for it: ‘Why doesn’t she sound like she doesn’t know what she’s talking about anymore?’ I used to write stuff where it didn’t matter. Now there are things I believe in, that get me excited and piss me off. I’m actually reflecting on who I am as a person.”
For fans who know her from her ludicrous viral videos, don’t worry — there’s enough sex and candy-colored mayhem to go around on “Hot Pink.” A sense of humor like hers, not to mention her gender, can often provoke suspicion or outright dismissal in quote-unquote serious hip-hop circles but in today’s meme-driven fandom, that’s changing quickly. Doja Cat is managing to be absurd while keeping one eye on the whiplash movements of rap and digital culture in 2019. “Hot Pink,” due out on RCA Nov. 7, will prove if the real person behind it all can finally break through too.
“I thought it’d be cool to be that person smoking so much weed, that it was the only way to be respected,” she said. “Then I realized ‘Oh, yeah, I can just be myself.’ I’m making so much more music now.”
Doja is an L.A. native with a typically roundabout way into the music business here. Born in Tarzana, she moved to New York as a child with her artist single mother (her father is a South African actor and film producer; he wasn’t present growing up). Later she spent time in an ashram but waves past questions about it — “I hate telling that story” — and came back to L.A. as a tween and soon began posting demos on SoundCloud. Rihanna was a big influence as were the heady soul vibes of D’Angelo. Later, she got into Erykah Badu and Nicki Minaj, a clear influence on her wisecracking, sexually brash persona.
She first signed to a major label under Kemosabe, the now-disgraced producer Dr. Luke’s RCA imprint. (He is a credited writer on her 2018 single “Juicy,” which will appear on “Hot Pink” as a remix, but representatives did not reply to questions about any involvement on the new album.)
Her current pop star career broke wide last year in the way that almost all rappers do today — a viral video clip.
“Mooo!” was a psychedelically goofy visual that feels like Tim & Eric directing a PETA commercial made entirely from hentai clips — and has close to 58 million views on YouTube. The song — “Bitch, I’m a cow / I’m not a cat / I don’t say meow” — was an admitted “inside joke” that ended up whipping attention to her more traditional rap records, which pair the stripper-baiting trap of Megan Thee Stallion and Rico Nasty with a Bugs Bunny-ish sense of humor and ear for tightly wound, infinitely quotable lines.
Chance the Rapper and Katy Perry gave their approval on social media and helped rack up 40 million more views for her hit “Juicy,” where she takes standard booty-as-fruit imagery to its furthest possible reaches (a butt as a vivisected watermelon). Last year’s “Tia Tamera,” riffing on the ’90s throwback sitcom “Sister Sister,” has 31 million Spotify plays. Like many in her Gen Z cohort of entertainers, Doja has a talent for going extremely viral but a cynicism-bordering-on-loathing for having to engage with social media at all.
“At this point, I just do whatever ... I want, to my detriment,” she said. “I have a boyfriend [she’s been canoodling with indie musician Johnny Utah on Instagram] and want to kiss him all day. I don’t want to wake up at 6 a.m. just to let people [online] know I love them.”
Doja produced much of “Hot Pink” with longtime collaborator Yeti Beats. But that kind of No F’s Given, But Secretly Giving Lots of F’s attitude is what drew Ben Billions, who co-wrote and produced for Beyoncé and The Weeknd, to work on her new single “Rules” (video NFSW for language) with Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse, Miguel).
“I like how she gets into character and is not afraid to be assertive, demanding or comedic,” Billions said. He’d been a fan for years, but “Rules” was their first time working together, and it’s a centerpiece — lasciviously sexy (“Bobs on me like Dylan, blondes on me like Hilton”) and punchline-soaked but sincere about Doja being taken seriously as a young woman.
Her new song “Bottom Bitch” turns a dragged-out sample of Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again” into a night-riding, gender-flipping, endearingly vulgar statement of intent. The album sounds like how kids live now — endlessly referential, supremely confident in their sexual mores and yet laced with something like longing and a forced-on maturity.
Underneath all that, she also alludes to her South African heritage with unlikely but very modern production combinations.
“Yeah, this album is a lot more African influenced,” she said. “I can sample Blink-182 but put an African vocal sample in there. The whole song feels like you’re in a tropical forest.”
The LP is also a clean start from a nervous moment when, after some old teenage tweets using homophobic language resurfaced last year, Doja apologized and course-corrected. It was mild stuff by today’s cancellation standards, but when asked if young artists struggle with their whole lives being online from the moment they break, Doja flips from bawdy ex-stoner into brand manager.
“You’re not supposed to ask me about that. Nope,” she said, her voice rising sharply before going silent on the line.
A beat later, she was back in usual Doja mode, but it was obvious that her devil-may-care attitude is from a place of caring deeply about how she’s seen.
Doja can be both blissfully silly and meticulously rowdy. But the humor, even when it’s absurdist, is always smart in how it makes room for a real person, one that’s more complicated than even her own fans might have expected.
“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. I can talk about waffles and how much I hate spiders all day, but I can’t sit and write about heartfelt [stuff] unless I have the emotional space to do it.”
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