Doja Cat Is Here to Stay With Whimsical Wordplay and Bars That Bite
Nuthin' To Prove
Armed with whimsical wordplay, bars that bite and pop star potential, Doja Cat is here to stay.
Words: Stacy-Ann Ellis
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
A deep dive on any hip-hop lyrics site will verify this known truth: Rappers are obsessed with sex. Doing it, loving it, craving it, selling it. However, very few live and breathe it quite like Doja Cat does. “I view sex as an art,” she says from a cozy corner in Tiny’s & The Bar Upstairs, breaking down her love for lovemaking between sips of the Tribeca restaurant’s girliest concoction: vodka, sparkling rose, cranberry, vanilla, lemon and thyme. The smizing 24-year-old rapper, donning a black sheer bra top, painted-on patent leather pants (think “Scream”-era Janet and Michael Jackson) and a pink wet-n-wavy bob, purrs at the waiter when he reappears for food orders. He blushes in delight, taken aback. Doja, flirtatious right down to her fingertips, has that effect on people.
“Being a Libra, I’m romantic and I’m heart eyes all the time,” she admits, getting back to her specialty subject matter. “People are like, ‘All she writes about is sex.’ Yeah... ’cause I be fucking. You would not be here if your mom wasn’t fucking. It’s fun because there’s more than just that one thing to write about. There’s talking dirty, positions, wet dreams, kinks…”
It’s only right, then, that hours later she’ll celebrate the release of Hot Pink, the follow-up to her eponymous debut album, Amala, in erotic fashion at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan. On a brisk November night, hypebeast-adjacent twentysomethings pile into the erotic carnival exhibit, which offers titillating entertainment to complement the album experience: a bouncy boob house, a glory hole equivalent of whack-a-mole, a nimble trio of pole dancers clacking clear pleaser pumps to the beat of raunchy album cuts like “Cyber Sex.”
“We freak on the cam/Love at first sight, just a link to the ’Gram/Pussy all pink with a tan/And I play with it ’til my middle fingers are cramped up,” the speakers blare, to which the dancers allow guests to tuck squared $20s into their skivvies. This is Doja Cat’s kind of party.
Funnily enough, these sort of overtly sexual songs are the same ones that Jermaine Dupri balked at months prior. “I don’t think they’re showing us who’s the best rapper,” he told an interviewer when asked which women in rap caught his attention last July. “For me, it’s like strippers rapping. I’m not getting who’s the best rapper… At some point, somebody’s going to have to break out of that mold and…rap about other things besides that.” Among the ladies who gave Dupri a tongue-lashing via social media—Cardi B, Rapsody, Kamaiyah—Doja had fun responding to his blunder. “The entertainer in me was like, Just say something funny,” she says now, recalling the wacky string of Instagram response videos to JD that she posted that same month. “Make this a lighthearted moment and give people a platform.”
At the time, she’d rattled off a laundry list of overqualified peers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: Tierra Whack, Little Simz, Young M.A, Azealia Banks, Leikeli47, Lady Leshurr and Rico Nasty, her “Tia Tamera” co-star. But while she was irritated with Dupri’s ignorance, she understood his intent. “He was doing something good, but he didn’t do it in the best way he could have,” she says. “He could have maybe said, ‘These people are fantastic. I want [them] to have more shine. They are underrated.’ But he said, females kinda suck right now. He was being a butthead in his approach.”
Born Amala Zandile Dlamani, Doja Cat is part of a class of women in hip-hop bending, breaking and stomping on all the rules. Yeti Beats, her long-time collaborator and DJ, has witnessed first hand Doja’s penchant for doing things left of center. (Over the past six years, he has executive produced three of her projects: 2014’s Purrr! EP, 2018’s Amala and 2019’s Hot Pink.) For many, Doja Cat’s introduction came in the form of one of the most unique, if not puzzling, music videos to hit the ’Net.
“‘Mooo!’ was the prime example of her amazing talent and personality coming together to create a moment,” he says over the phone, recalling the low-fi clip that has amassed well over 58 million views on YouTube since its August 2018 posting. What started off as an act of boredom while cooped up at home with some beats, a cow-print costume and WiFi connection, turned into what Yeti describes as a blessing.
“She didn’t expect it,” he continues of the video, in which Doja twerks while sipping a milkshake, while hentai boobs and cartoon cheeseburgers bounce in the background. “She was FaceTiming me while she was making it and played it back for me. I was like, man, this is so stupid and funny. We should send this to Adult Swim. That was my first reaction.”
Even as a self-described internet kid, going viral was never the goal. Prior to the hit, she was a low key signee to Kemosabe Records (an imprint of RCA Records) still in the slow-burn phase of her career. Since signing in 2014, she hadn’t had any big swings with her projects, but she had what she calls a “cute following” and was planning a tour with old material, hoping tickets would sell and working on songs that would eventually make the cut for Amala. “Mooo!” was, in essence, a water break.
“We were still trying to work,” Doja says. “We were still trying to plan a tour. I was in a good headspace and then boom, that shit blows up.” The song, which was included in the March 2019 deluxe version of Amala, also doubled as a wake-up call for her label to start cranking the machine. “When we first started working with her, she was very much trying to figure out her exact sound and the space that she wanted to go,” RCA co-president John Fleckenstein says over the phone. “Frankly, ‘Mooo!’ was that moment where everybody [at the label] stopped and paid attention. That was the real galvanizing moment where we realized the potency she had.” Doja’s sudden exposure soon raised a flurry of questions: Where did this girl come from? Can she make real music? Are we supposed to take her seriously as a rapper?
“Deep down, I take myself very seriously, but on the outside I like to make people feel like it’s OK to be who the fuck you are because that’s what I do,” she says, answering the latter. “I think it’s OK to be lighthearted in your career. Don’t be afraid to relax and make a fucking joke once in a while.”
Doja comes from artists. She was raised by her mother, an accomplished painter and part of the reason why, before discovering music, Doja wanted to be a makeup artist. Although she was born in Tarzana, Calif., she spent long stints in Rye, N.Y. and in an ashram in Sherman Oaks, Calif. before finally settling in L.A. It’s there that she embraced the paternal side of her talent pool. Her father is Dumisani Dlamini, a South African actor and dancer known best for his role in the 1992 film Sarafina!. Although Doja has never met him or responded to his distant complimentary tweets and IG comments, she credits him with her gift of movement. “God bless him,” she expresses, without a trace of malice. “He’s so talented. If I get any ounce of anything of talent and dancing, it’s from him.”
Up until she dropped out of high school in 11th grade, she channeled dance as her outlet, ditching the skateboarding habits she picked up as a preteen. She’d taken ballet, tap and jazz as a kid, but dove into the world of hip-hop with a competitive popping and breakdancing crew.
It’s part of the reason why she has no reservations about calling herself a woman in hip-hop, no matter the pushback due to her perceived pop sound. She raps, she writes, she sings, she produces, and the heart for it has always been there. “Sometimes it’s hard for some people [to understand me] because I do out-of-pocket shit all the time,” Doja says. “I’m a little weird, and sometimes hip-hop is a little bit more streamlined. It’s formulaic, and I have to respect that. Honestly, I’m 50/50. I do pop music and I rap on top.
Doja Cat’s quirky brand of rap-pop music has undergone quite the metamorphosis since “So High,” the Purrr! single revealing a diamond in the rough. (“I’ll never forget the first time I ever heard ‘So High,’” Yeti remembers. “The fidelity of the recording didn’t matter. You could hear that it was a great song.”) Much of Purrr! boasted tepid, echo-chamber production and the relaxed talk-singing of your average weed-smoking SoundCloud artist—material that was technically good but could have come from anyone.
Doja is the first to admit that some of her older material was mid, at least compared to Hot Pink. Phasing out of Purrr! mode and into Amala is a creative line she still blurs. “I didn’t understand what the current sound was,” she says. “I was really out there, mentally. I wasn’t in tune with what the fuck is really going on. I was just doing my own thing. Sometimes it was cool, but some of [it] sounded very boring.”
Amala got a bit closer. The LP’s deluxe version housed sticky breakout hits “Go To Town,” pre-Tyga “Juicy” and the animated “Tia Tamera.” Beats became more boisterous, personality punched through her lyrics and vibrant videos like the “Juicy (Remix)”—the lust-worthy fruits-n-booty flick that amassed more than 46 million views—posited Doja as a total-package entertainer. The visual also proved to be a save from a PR disaster a year earlier: A 2015 tweet of her using homophobic language resurfaced during the height of cancel culture. While she initially defended her usage of the slurs, she later issued an apology.
“Juicy” success aside, Doja has been vocal about her disappointment with Amala, so she made up for it with Hot Pink, named for her favorite color and eternal mood, picking every single song with precision and care. “Hot Pink represents love, sex, romance, passion, anger, fire,” she explains. “I wanted that combination of feelings and emotions.”
Whereas “Mooo!” shows off her quirk and humor, Hot Pink is a display of her visual prowess and mic skills. To put it lightly, Doja Cat raps in technicolor, and the new LP is a grabbag of hues all threaded together by her playful, electric delivery. Production from Yeti, The Arcade, Salaam Remi, Ben Billions and Tyson Trax ensures that every beat encompasses a separate energy. Doja pivots from spooky, Drake-esque R&B (“Streets”) to Auto-Tuned alt-rock (“Bottom Bitch”) to funky, futuristic disco (“Addiction,” “Say So”) with ease.
Both Doja and Yeti consider “Won’t Bite,” which samples Harry Belafonte’s “My Angel (Malaika),” to be one of the album’s standouts. The African-inspired track, complete with subtle howls and yelps baked into production, was made with Donald Glover’s handiwork in mind. “‘Won’t Bite’ has that Childish Gambino, ‘This Is America,’ African choir thing, but then it also has a trap vibe,” she says. “It’s very victorious, it’s very strong, it’s very wacky.” The Smino feature was just a cake topper—a simple DM from Doja led to both a guest verse and a friendship.
A more high-profile get was Gucci Mane’s placement on the pop chart aspirant “Like That.” The Atlanta rapper’s name was blurred on the album’s initial tracklist, making his appearance a surprise to fans. “People thought it was Nicki; they thought wrong,” Doja says with a shrug. “I wish there was a Nicki feature.”
It isn’t too much of a stretch to assume the pairing. While the sounds of Amy Winehouse, D’Angelo, Patrick Watson, Mika, Lily Allen and Rihanna floated around her childhood bedroom, it was music from Kelis, Gwen Stefani, Busta Rhymes, Christina Aguilera, Pharrell and Nicki Minaj that stuck to her bones. Emphasis on Nicki Minaj. “I used to make music videos to Nicki’s music,” she tells. Doja doesn’t shy away from the Queens rapper’s influence on her—that much is clear in their similar cartoonish rap deliveries and whimsical sartorial selects—but she is wary of how she consumes new talent. “I absorb a lot of it myself,” Doja says, referring to her tendency not to listen to her female rap contemporaries. “I try to be careful so that I can give people the most original content because I know how much I sound like other people sometimes.”
Regardless, she’s thrilled to be in good company. “I’m happy that I can have a relationship with Rico [Nasty] the way that I do,” she says. “I’m happy that I can love Kash Doll as much as I do. I feel lucky. It’s a great fucking era to be a female rapper. I love that women are being good to each other right now because it’s more saturated and no one has time for the bullshit.”
Especially not her. With more than 2.3 million followers on Instagram and Twitter combined—all of whom she checks in with daily via lively livestreams—Doja knows that her fans are excitedly following her go from meme girl to rap phenom to pop star. So is her music family. “I get goosebumps when we perform songs on stage, and I see the reaction when we play in Australia, Japan, Hawaii, Canada or somewhere random where you wouldn’t expect the music to have traveled yet,” Yeti says. “But [Doja] draws thousands of people and they know all the words to the songs. It’s surreal.”
Back at Tiny’s, behind the restaurant’s pink brick exterior, Doja is on the last swig of her second drink. Despite snacking on a burrata, the haze of day drinking has started to set in. When asked if she’s going to retreat for a nap, she shakes her head, citing a checklist of things to do before tonight’s release party. Being tipsy doesn’t stop her clearheadedness on the tasks laid out ahead of her, both short and long-term.
“I never stopped thinking about what I can do next,” Doja affirms. “So, as much as I may seem like I’m kind of going throughout life blindly, I know what I want.”
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