album review

Doja Cat Refuses to Be Dragged Down to Earth

This week the 25-year-old performer rewards fans who have stuck with her with Planet Her, her third and best studio album to date. Photo: David LaChapelle

When Nicki Minaj released her sophomore album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded in spring 2012, it was a bold experiment, one-half slick dance-pop songs like “Pound the Alarm” and one-half killer-rhyme workouts like “Come on a Cone” and “Beez in the Trap.” It was a peculiar time for mainstream hip-hop: The Billboard charts were just starting to tabulate streaming data, Black music’s grip on the charts seemed to be slipping, and elsewhere, big-tent EDM was ascending. This sent savvy commercial artists like Usher and Rihanna lurching for club hits. Nicki’s glossy lead single, “Starships,” charted globally, though not without complaint from hip-hop fans, who felt she was pandering. Nicki would never push that far again on a studio album, but others who followed have taken cues from what she learned. Pop, rap, R&B, and dance music get along much better now thanks to the work of performers like Drake, the Weeknd, and Ariana Grande; on songs like “Passionfruit,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” and “7 rings,” the cutting-edge production of contemporary hip-hop and R&B meets pop’s market-tested pliability. The artists coming up in their wake are even more versatile. Lil Nas X turned the tables on the country singers cribbing from rap with “Old Town Road,” then flirted with the sounds of flamenco and pop-rock in subsequent hits. Saweetie is on songs with everyone from Little Mix to Gwen Stefani this year. And then there’s Doja Cat — the always entertaining, occasionally frustrating star who is piecing together a body of work that feels like the logical conclusion to what Pink Friday first attempted.

Many different sounds converge on Doja Cat releases like 2018’s Amala and 2019’s Hot Pink, just as many wires have crossed in her life. She is the daughter of Jewish and South African parents who split her young years between New York and California, a classically trained dancer with experience in underground competitions, a pothead battle rapper who can carry a tune, a chat-room enthusiast, and a self-taught songwriter whose skills in GarageBand and Photo Booth produced a 2018 novelty single called “Mooo!” (“Bitch, I’m a cow!”). This week, the 25-year-old performer rewards fans who have stuck with her since that viral hit, and beyond, with Planet Her, her third and best studio album to date.

Doja’s 2019 release was a glut of plastic funk-pop tunes produced by Dr. Luke, whose scandal-ridden career was revived by Doja’s single “Say So” (on which he’s credited as Tyson Trax) and whose Kemosabe Records has been involved with all three Doja Cat albums. Since then, it’s clear that Doja has been making strides in her craft — you could hear it in the old Broadway glamour of her medley at last year’s Billboard Music Awards and in the futuristic B-girl style displayed in March when she performed at the Grammys and beamed viewers up to her next world. On Planet Her, she casts a wide net, gliding effortlessly from one style to the next. In quick succession, she sends us the romantic Afrobeat anthem “Woman,” the airy reggaeton song “Naked,” the hyperpop banger “Payday,” the squeaky swag rap “Get Into It (Yuh),” the lilting bedroom jam “Need to Know,” and the perfect pop-rap ballad with Grande, “I Don’t Do Drugs.” Like a runway show where every look clicks, Planet Her makes a case for Doja as our new ice-cool pop-queen supreme. She shape-shifts her way through fleet rap verses and soaring hooks, warping her delivery a little or a lot as the song demands. “Get Into It (Yuh)” takes its inspiration from manic early Nicki verses (and shouts her out by name at the end). On “Payday,” Doja nearly outweirds Young Thug, the king of delightfully odd vocal deliveries. Ari’s in her element on the bubbly “I Don’t Do Drugs.” Left to her own devices, Doja is a veritable toy chest of ideas. She plays well with others as long as they are capable of keeping up.

As with Grande’s thank u, next and Sweetener, brevity is Planet Her’s secret weapon. These songs all bounce before you get too comfortable, while containing enough vocal intrigue to power a TikTok trend or two. There are times when you wish they boxed in a higher class. In the opener, “Woman,” Doja outlines the different roles she inhabits: the businesswoman, the lover, the captivating dancer, the mean girl. She details the stresses that make life difficult for talented professional women, showcasing a knack for heady message rap that she never follows through on. Planet Her’s pacing slows in the middle, but even then it doesn’t lose much steam: The maudlin “Love to Dream,” “You Right,” and “Been Like This” still blow by too quickly to grate. Doja is a blast even when it feels as if she’s barely trying. The deep cut “Imagine” — the zillionth batch of sultry pickup lines this album has to offer — entertains without saying all that much.

Is Doja Cat writing just to make bops, or is she so anxious to show off everything she’s capable of that versatility becomes the album’s thematic core? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to read her in general. Facing a torrent of online controversies, she’s reaching the strange space where Drake was in 2013: It’s unclear whether she is exceedingly memeable in a way she can’t help or if she’s masterminding a campaign of terror. Shit just works out for her. You cannot buy the bizarre but ultimately favorable press Doja earned last year with the flap over whether she was “showing feet in racial chat rooms” — where the performer’s dalliances in fringe online spaces came into question — or the carefree insouciance of her response, the snide Instagram Live mea culpa, the diss from Nas, and Planet Her’s funny sorta-clapback, “Ain’t Shit,” whose chorus contains a veiled pun on his name (“niggas ain’t shit”).

Like Lil Nas X, Doja is taking the shitposter’s approach to a career in pop. No attention is bad attention. No outrage lasts longer than a few days. Dr. Luke has been accused of assault by the singer Kesha, but working with the former hitmaker is not hurting Doja’s career. She may be chaotic, but she’s also too slippery and too clever for anything to stick. It didn’t matter that her apology for using gay slurs contained another gay slur. (Truthfully, it doesn’t matter what smoke people have for you if you produce hits: Kanye fans remain loyal after years of awful politics; Morgan Wallen is back on country radio after being banned this past winter for using racist language.) Doja Cat is bucking the misconceptions about zoomers and wokeness that posit the next generation as puritans who think their favorite famous people are supposed to reflect their morals back at them. She’s online enough and smart enough to know that the only fate worse than being deemed “problematic” is looking too bothered, too earnest. She knows she doesn’t have to play by anyone else’s rules. It’s almost as if she has internalized what did and didn’t work for her predecessors and is now mixing and matching the parts that intrigue her most. It’s annoying. But it’s also exciting.

Doja Cat Refuses to Be Dragged Down to Earth