Three years ago, Doja Cat released “Mooo!,” a self-produced music video in which the strange rapper donned cow pajamas, stuck french fries up her nose, and twerked against a green screen filled with bouncing anime titties and a leaping cheeseburger. “Bitch, I’m a cow,” Doja Cat rapped in her absurd chorus. Five months earlier, she’d released her debut album, Amala, a slow and sensible pop album with minimal mischief in its composition. “Mooo!” would make for a strange and drastic pretext for elevating Doja Cat—a sharp but otherwise conventional songwriter—to pop stardom.
The song’s significance was unquantifiable, 87 million views to date on YouTube notwithstanding. “Mooo!” didn’t even chart. Imagine if Ariana Grande licking that donut and muttering, “I hate Americans, I hate America,” rather than “The Way,” had made her a household name. Doja Cat said “Mooo!” and the music video was a joke. But in the moment it was easy to interpret Amala as commercial pop pretense and “Mooo!” as her true potential. Now having sent a half dozen singles to the top of the charts, on Friday, she released her third album, Planet Her. Here she burrows deeper into the pop landscape, so far removed from the weeb iconoclasm in her origin story.
Planet Her has a strong lead single, “Kiss Me More,” featuring SZA, charting in the Billboard top 10, and she’s got the beefcake Alex Landi costarring in the music video. She’s got songs with Ariana Grande (“I Don’t Do Drugs”) and the Weeknd (“You Right”), both high-key weirdos turned, for better or for worse, into pop industrialists. “I Don’t Do Drugs” is her best melody to date. She recruits Young Thug onto “Payday,” a quick and twinkling ditty powered by childlike falsetto from both performers. Likewise, “Naked,” “Get Into It,” and “Ain’t Shit” retain the irreverence of Hot Pink, her sophomore project that had burned much brighter than Amala and seemed built rather decisively and entirely for radio (the fifth single, “Say So,” featuring Nicki Minaj, took her to no. 1 on the Hot 100). But the soft and smoldering R&B center of Planet Her—“Love to Dream,” “You Right,” “Been Like This”—recalls her earlier approach on Amala.
Doja Cat is eclectic in a way that’s easy to take for granted in the streaming era; I might alternate between “rapper” and “singer” to describe her role on so many songs, and I can trace the rhythms back to all four hemispheres. That’s a lot of competing influences for one young performer to reconcile so casually, yet comprehensively, in herself. Her personality does at least shine through in her taste and her voice squeaking and cracking at the highest height of her hooks. She’s playful enough. Still, I hear these albums and know I’m being denied a full glimpse of the persona until I log into social media. There’s her keyed-up troll personality on Instagram Live, and then there’s the singer who wrote “I Don’t Do Drugs.” At least the Weeknd doesn’t jerk us around like this!
From the start, Doja Cat was exhilarating, yet messy. It wasn’t long into her pop stardom before she was accused of sniffing coke while ranting about the rapper Russ on Instagram Live (she later denied the drug use). Soon enough she was implicated in some incomprehensible web drama, supposedly flattering the alt-right and revealing some biracial self-hatred, summarized by the rapper N.O.R.E. in a beautiful tweet: “She in racial chat rooms showing feet!!!” In her weirdest crisis to date, Doja Cat took to Instagram Live for half an hour, launching into irreverent self-defense and thoughtful meta-commentary about public relations—all while wearing a T-shirt with “hentai” in big, blazing caps. These early embarrassments renewed the original intrigue: Who was this mischievous catgirl, born of the bleakest and horniest recesses of the Internet? And now what to do with her? It’s one thing for someone like Tyler, the Creator to embody these recesses in his rebellious, antisocial posture; his stardom has limits, even his hits chart only so high. What would turning Doja Cat into radio royalty mean?
Social media is at once her weakness and her strength: she’s now vaguely disagreeable to Twitter but otherwise flourishing on the strength of TikTok, far exceeding the earliest hype anyone might have drafted for her after watching the music video for “Mooo!” in 2018. In fact, Doja Cat seems determined to enforce a strict work-life balance on her albums. So many other pop stars use these projects to propagate a persona and its attendant melodrama. Every album from Drake, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West is, essentially, a lore dump. On her own albums, Doja Cat obscures and abstracts her personality into scant traces of her first impression: a little innuendo here and there. Granted, she’s been canceled 10 times over for her more provocative behavior and pronouncements. I can’t fault her for retreating into the pleasant generalities of pop music.
Doja Cat makes the most of those generalities on Planet Her. But while “Mooo!” was a joke, early beats like these bore a certain candor which Doja Cat’s music now lacks. I can’t listen to Planet Her and the earlier albums without wondering whether Doja Cat, as a pop star, will ever troll or spoof again. Would we even let her? What does she want for herself, musically? Maybe Doja Cat has the right idea about pop music: it’s escapism for the fans but escapism for the musician, too. No one aspires to spending the rest of their life in racial chat rooms showing feet. But we mustn’t forget where we come from.
Tyler, the Creator and Doja Cat released Call Me If You Get Lost and Planet Her, respectively, on the same day, and I toggled between them, contemplating the creative differences between a rap star permitted to outgrow his ugliest impulses over the recorded course of a decade and a rapper compelled to get her act together at once. “Love to Dream” makes for smooth sailing on Planet Her. But we could all use a little more cowbell.