How Doja Cat Went From Surreal Meme To Chart-Topping Megastar

Doja Cat's rise has been unlike anyone else's.

doja cat photo

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

To solidify her status as one of the biggest popstars on earth, Doja Cat has taken off to Planet Her.

There have been plenty of reasons to doubt Doja’s ability to win over the mainstream, but against all odds, she seems to have made it. She’s been cancelled, questioned, and generally met with confusion — but her absurd, genre-tripping music has proved, quite simply, too entertaining to ignore.

Without scaling back her bemusing behaviour on social media or confining to one genre, she’s defied expectations by moving from an internet joke to a legitimate superstar. She’s now the 11th most streamed artist in the world on Spotify and has three Top 5 records in the US to her name. Mentioned in the same breath as Ariana Grande and The Weeknd, she’s a bewildering household name, consistently viral on TikTok and now a commercial radio mainstay.

Only three years ago though, Doja was fighting for the spotlight. Her debut album Amala failed to find footing with the public — but a cow suit and some fast food changed that. With fries up her nose singing “Bitch, I’m a cow,” she had her first viral moment — the video now boasts over 90 million views on YouTube. At the time of its release, nobody would’ve quite predicted her metamorphosis into a genuine popstar.

She’s an amalgamation of all the popular genres floating around the internet, with an injection of the surrealist humour that populates some of the strangest pockets of the internet. And yet, she’s been able to package it for the mainstream.

Bitch, I’m A Cow!

Doja has been uploading music to the internet since she was 16, when she would rip beats from YouTube and record vocals on over them on Garageband. It didn’t make her an overnight star, but she made enough noise to sign with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records — before he was accused of alleged sexual assault by Kesha and removed from his post (more on that later).

Her debut Amala was a genre-hopping, inconsistent record that made her more of a cult icon than a star. According to Billboard, even after the album, her record label was unsure what she was. A rapper? An R&B star? A pop artist? Clearly now, a genre label for her is redundant, but we’re talking about 2018 — a time when the press was pitting Nicki Minaj and Cardi B up against each other as the only female rappers dominating the charts. You couldn’t simply rap without a label when competing as a female rapper was such a headline.

The internet rarely forgets, but it does get distracted.

It wasn’t until a novelty song called ‘Mooo!’ that people began to pay attention. Doja, donning a cow suit, a milkshake and fries, took to Instagram Live to write the song with 60 viewers. “Bitch, I’m a cow,” she declares in the song, shoving fries up her nose for the visual. It’s nonsensical and yet endearing — a bizarre capsule of meme culture and surrealist humour. In two weeks, the song gained nine million views on YouTube. “Nobody cared about me this way two weeks ago,” Doja told Dazed.

According to Billboard, it was at this point that the label started paying attention to her.

Before ‘Mooo!’ could even reach streaming services, however, Doja had faced the wrath of the internet. As is common practice now when an artist is on the rise, her social media was trawled for any wrongdoings — and she was quickly called out. In 2015, she had used the F-slur against Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt in a tweet. Doja was over, and she solidified that with her ill-conceived response of, “Lmfaooooooo,” followed by more F-slurs. More backlash led to a Notes apology but it was deleted the next morning as she cleared her whole Twitter.

The internet rarely forgets, but it does get distracted. In true Kanye West fashion, if you don’t acknowledge being cancelled you can’t really be cancelled. Instead of disappearing, Doja pushed forward. She released the deluxe edition of Amala led by the Rico Nasty-featuring ‘Tia Tamera’.

TikTok: Doja’s Time Arrives

‘Mooo!’ proved that Doja had what the internet wanted, but TikTok was still in its infancy then. It wasn’t until ‘Tia Tamera’ that the apps true potential started to be unlocked. Long before Doja was populating the app with absurdist content, users were beginning to use her music for dance challenges. Her bouncy, vibrant production coupled with her accentuated, colourful lyrics owed itself perfectly to TikTok and accidentally set the blueprint for the app’s favourite music.

‘Juicy’, from the deluxe version of Amala, became her first real hit as a dance challenge went viral. She capitalised on that success with her second record Hot Pink — an assured LP that bridged the gap between popstar and rapper without identifying her as exclusively one or the other. She switched up flows effortlessly delivering creamy vocals before cutting to punchy bars. You can take 30 seconds from many of the songs and be rewarded with a quotable lyric or noteworthy beat.

The initial singles failed to land, but then TikTok did its work once again. ‘Say So’ took off with another dance challenge propelling it into the Top 10 of the US charts. Minaj then jumped on the remix, inserting the pair into an important cultural moment as they faced off with Beyonce and Megan Thee Stallion for the top spot of the Billboard charts. Minaj and Doja took the win.

It was albeit a short-lived win, as she was soon cancelled again. Doja was accused of participating in racist chat rooms but swiftly responded with a trademark brazen response. “If you’re not an essential worker… and you’re trying to make me look like shit on the internet, good luck motherfucker,” she said. #DojaCatIsOverParty trended and then disappeared. ‘Say So’ spent 38 weeks on the charts. Doja Cat continued on.

It’s worth noting that ‘Say So’ gave Dr. Luke, AKA Lukasz Gottwald, his first significant hit since Kesha’s accusations. While most artists have steered clear of his production, he had a significant involvement in Hot Pink under the pseudonym Tyson Trax. Doja hasn’t so much dodged questions about him as much as flatly refused to address it. The criticism remains and yet, he appears three more times on Planet Her, this time as Dr. Luke.

Doja has an interesting way of dealing with criticism. In an era of Notes app apologies and half-hearted declarations to do better, she deflects and confuses. And somehow it goes away. When Nas tried to rope her into a beef by dissing her on ‘Ultra Black’, she responded by saying, “I’m so offended and upset by this song…Have you guys heard ‘Fruit Salad’ by The Wiggles?” Confuse and deflect. Beef squashed.

Ascending To Planet Her

While controversy has rumbled in the background, Doja has continued to build her presence as a popstar. Her performances have become captivating — must-see moments of any award show. At the Grammys, her live rendition of ‘Say So’ recalled the precision and decadence of early ‘00s popstars amongst a mostly dialled back program. At the Billboard Music Awards, she chanelled Chicago while at the MTV EMAs she took ‘Say So’ emo.

Off-stage, she’s just as delightfully unpredictable. She entertained during quarantine by reciting Roddy Richh’s ‘The Box’ while wearing chainmail. Her TikTok is like a left-field Adult Swim sitcom, making jingles about her cat or singing passionately about an open-headed hat. There’s barely any glimpse into her life as a high-profile celebrity and perhaps that’s why she’s so endearing.

When it does come time to be a popstar though, she’s great at it. Planet Her is her first chance to operate with the budget of one of music’s biggest stars and she’s taking all of it. As earth lost its sheen for her, she dreamt up a new planet ruled by females. It’s both surreal and empowered.

“I wanted to go outside of what I knew as pop aesthetic or rap aesthetic. I wanted it to feel different, I want it to feel otherworldly,” she told MTV.

The first single ‘Kiss Me More’ is a breezy, disco-tinged tune pieced together with SZA. Doja’s vocal is slippery while the rap verse has teeth. While most artists have to feature a rapper or singer to achieve those juxtapositions, Doja has them both within her. It’s the sort of versatility that Nicki Minaj displayed early on and she shouts her out on ‘Get Into It (Yuh)’ after an exciting flow switch. “Thank you Nicki, I love you,” she gushes.

Much like Minaj, she’s a master at bridging the strange and the familiar. ‘Get Into It (Yuh)’ recalls Playboi Carti’s truncated flow while ‘Naked’ is a pure pop performance. Just when she lulls you into a brief moment of calm like on ‘Love To Dream’ she whips it into a frenzy with a sex-charged rap verse delivered with alien-like vocals. Doja is for a generation that skips through playlists at a rapid pace. Just when you’re ready to hit next on a song, she switches it up, often giving you the thrills of three songs in one.

She’s just as likely to turn up at the Grammys dressed as a vagina as she is to dance with her cat on TikTok.

Planet Her, from its dramatic vocals to loosely conceptual narrative, is highly polished, cohesive pop, and yet there’s a human warmth to it. The era of relatability in pop stripped us of Minaj and Lady Gaga stunts in favour of perceivably down-to-earth stars like Ed Sheeran, Adele and, more recently, Billie Eilish. Doja somehow entertains the absurd and mundane. She’s just as likely to turn up at the Grammys dressed as a vagina as she is to dance with her cat on TikTok.

She’s able to beam down from another planet, acting as both your bestie and bizarre pop thrill seeker. Doja — like most of us — contains multitudes. When she’s bored by earthly happenings, she disappears into her head. Her ability to project those surreal daydreams into a song is what’s making her a superstar.

For Doja, Britney Spears-level stardom is the goal. Nowadays in pop, ambition is often tucked away, hidden behind award acceptance speeches that run like “I did not expect this AT ALL.”

Doja isn’t shy in her quest to get to the top. As she told V Magazine, “I just want to have the moment to say “It’s Doja, bitch.”

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. He also co-hosts the popular podcast Flopstars. Follow him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: David La Chapelle