Three weeks ago, Doja Cat, the Grammy-winning-rapper-slash-internet-darling who boasts 22 million TikTok followers, 10 Grammy nominations, and Spotify’s title of most popular rapper (which she recently nabbed from her fellow Jewish rapper Drake), burst onto Twitter to announce that music is dead. To be precise, she tweeted, “i fuckin quit i can’t wait to fucking disappear and i don’t need you to believe in me anymore. Everything is dead to me, music is dead, and i’m a fucking fool for ever thinking i was made for this this is a fucking nightmare unfollow me.”
The proclamation came after a fracas in Paraguay, where the rapper’s appearance at a music festival was canceled due to heavy storms. When upset fans complained on Twitter that Doja seemed insufficiently disappointed by the cancellation, the habitually high millenarian post-millennial replied to one stung tweeter with “I’m sorry,” prompting another fan to post a photo of Doja’s face emblazoned with “PUBLIC ENEMY #1” with the caption “it’s too late to apologize”… leading Doja to respond “I’m not sorry.” Cue the Twitter rant about everything being dead, and Doja’s subsequent Twitter name change to “I quit,” followed by Doja saying she’ll no longer take photos with fans, topped off with “This shit ain’t for me so I’m out. Y’all take care.”
A few days later, Doja Cat reemerged with a string of now-deleted tweets expressing gratitude for the opportunities her fans have given her, sparking speculation that she might not be serious about her withdrawal from music—which she quickly shut down by responding to one such article with a simple “yes the fuck i am.”
Given that she’s performing at Coachella and Lollapalooza, and also that she’s going on tour in July alongside the Weeknd, it is conceivable that Doja Cat was simply acting out in the social media mirror and didn’t mean to put anyone’s bankroll at risk. Indeed, she says she will honor all of her obligations before stepping out of the spotlight. But to those who have followed her meteoric, chaotic, meme-fueled rise to fame, her frustration feels like the logical progression of a career spent chafing at, while coming to embody, a puritanical-yet-deranged age in which the internet giveth and the internet taketh away. For a night at least, Doja was simply getting some of her own back.
Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, otherwise known as Doja Cat, was born in Los Angeles to a Jewish mother and a South African father of Zulu descent. Her father, a performer best known for his role alongside Whoopi Goldberg in the 1992 musical Sarafina!, moved back to South Africa shortly before her birth, citing homesickness. He claims to maintain a healthy relationship with his children; Doja maintains that she doesn’t know him whatsoever, save for his regular appearances on her social media: “My dad’s proud of me … He’s all over my Instagram. But what’s funny is I never met him. He’s all in the comments like “My African Princess!” And I’m like, ‘Whaaat?!’”
With her father out of the picture, Doja was sent to live with her Jewish maternal grandmother, an architect and painter, in Rye, New York. She lived there until she was 8, when she joined her mother and brother at Sai Anantam Ashram, a practicing commune in the Santa Monica Mountains founded by the late jazz musician Alice Coltrane, whose Sanskrit name is Turiyasangitananda. There, she took Indian classical dance lessons, wore headscarves, and participated in afternoon ecstatic-chanting services, where she learned she could rap.
A lifelong rebel, Doja found the ashram restraining, particularly as a self-described “hyper” kid. Yet the world outside the ashram’s gardens could be even more challenging. When her family eventually moved to the upper-middle-class LA suburb of Oak Park, she and her brother were some of the very few mixed-race kids in the predominantly white and Jewish area. “People were very racist and rude and unhinged and weird,” she told Rolling Stone.
Doja dropped out of high school at age 16, citing her struggle with ADHD. She describes her life during that period as “messy,” holing up in her room, staying up all night, and sleeping on the floor. She spent most of her time on the internet, messing around in online chat rooms, scouring YouTube for beats and instrumentals, and uploading her songs to SoundCloud, all while smoking an ungodly amount of weed. (Her stage name Doja comes from her self-described “heavy addiction to weed culture.”)
It was on SoundCloud where she got her first break, after her song “So High,” a trippy electro-pop melody with lyrics that now make her cringe, caught the attention of her now-longtime producer Yeti Beats, who was captivated by the underwater uniqueness of her voice. In 2013, he signed Doja to the RCA imprint Kemosabe Records, with which she released her debut album in early 2018, an album that failed to chart in any market and she now openly disdains. She says that the label “paid it almost no support” and that its quality was diminished by the fact that she was high during most of its recording.
Doja’s first breakthrough moment came in August of 2018, when she released “Mooo!,” a strangely catchy song with lyrics like “Bitch, I’m a cow” and “These heifers got nothing on me.” The song features an accompanying video in which she wears a cow costume, dances around her bedroom with french fries stuck up her nostrils, and sips on a milkshake in front of a glitchy homemade green screen with images of bouncing anime boobs. The video, which she says took 12 1/2 hours to make and was inspired by her Instagram live sessions with fans jokingly kicking around beats, went viral almost instantly, racking up over a million views within six days.
This was the first peek into one of the truest sources of Doja Cat’s success—she’s spent a lot of time messing around on the internet. Accordingly, she’s well-versed in the mischief and transience of the digital age, and she’s equipped with the quick wit and the even quicker-on-the-uptake momentum to take advantage of its powers. Her second album, Hot Pink, came out in November of 2019 to largely favorable reviews and commercial success, peaking at No. 9 on the U.S. Billboard 200. But once again it was the viral appetite of the internet that took the project to another level: Her bubblegum pop meets ’70s funk single “Say So” blew up on TikTok after one girl’s dance routine set to it went viral, spawning thousands and thousands of recreations, including by Doja herself. The song became her first No. 1 hit, setting the tone for a subsequent trajectory in which nearly everything Doja touches turns into musical internet gold.
Her third studio album, Planet Her—a June 2021 project inspired by Doja’s “space age” vision of a place where “all races of space exist and its where all species can kind of be in harmony”—features her experimenting with an expansive range of genres and lyrical themes. Her recording engineer, Rian Lewis, notes that all the harmonies, complex stacks, and background vocals in character voices were squarely Doja’s ideas. At last count, five tracks from the album (including one nonsingle, “Ain’t Shit,” which she premiered over Instagram livestream) have gone massively viral, propelled in no small part by more TikTok dance challenges.
It’s not just Doja’s music that gets so widely shared these days, it’s also her “content”: the TikToks making fun of cringey men offering harebrained dating advice; the tweets like “i love boobs so much fuck”; the Instagram posts with polished photos with captions like “if u got unfollowed it’s because I got a stick up my ass and all I wanna see right now is furniture.” Her online persona, tweeting PR-team-approved messages about global starvation one moment and “if ur reading this shut the fuck up” the next, is one part megastar and three parts experienced shit-poster, freewheeling and bold and constitutionally incapable of things we’ve come to expect of our major celebrities, like “earnestness” and “branding” and “staying on message.” It’s nearly impossible to figure out what she really thinks or feels (including about big Issues; she almost never speaks about politics) but her barrage of trippy pop and somewhat explicit ramblings, sincere or not, is vastly more interesting than the canned politics of many of her better-groomed peers.
Of course, as anyone who has logged into a computer over the past five years could tell you, a proclivity for irreverent humor isn’t exactly a recipe for smooth sailing at the moment, even for social media natives. Doja has navigated more than her fair share of controversies, having issued a slew of public apologies—after searches of her Twitter history revealed that she’d once used an anti-gay slur, and after a March 2020 Instagram live culminated in her saying COVID was just a flu, and after a 2015 song called “Dindu Nuffin” (an alt-right term mocking Black victims of police brutality who maintain their innocence, which she said she tried to invert and reclaim in the song) resurfaced on the internet during the George Floyd protests. Though at the same time it also seems fair to say that any one of these controversies would have sunk a less authentic-seeming performer.
There is also the matter of her longtime producer. Doja’s label, Kemosabe Records, was formerly run by Dr. Luke, who around the same time he signed Doja started his now-notorious legal battle with the singer Ke$ha, who claimed that he sexually and mentally abused her for years during their time working together. Amid the lawsuit, Dr. Luke withdrew from the music scene, stepping down from his role at Kemosabe and adopting a pseudonym for future work. The case against Dr. Luke was dismissed in 2016 on the grounds of insufficient evidence, but the stigma still stuck.
Shortly after being cleared in court, Dr. Luke began a full-throated comeback which is undeniably linked to Doja. He has five credits on Hot Pink, including on the massive hit “Say So,” and has been nominated for three Grammys for that album and Planet Her. Doja has rarely addressed her lengthy affiliation with the producer until she was asked by Rolling Stone last year whether she would follow fellow female rapper Saweetie in refusing to work with Dr. Luke again. She hedged a bit, telling the magazine she “didn’t think” they needed to collaborate anymore, then added with a laugh that “it was definitely nice” of her to work with him.
This combination of edge-lord posting and her refusal to publicly disavow a famously skeevy producer has given rise to an inevitable discourse about whether Doja Cat is “uncancelable.” The answer, clearly, is yes—her fans recognize that most of her so-called scandals are silly, accept her apologies for the ones that aren’t, and appreciate her unfiltered zaniness much more than they would identify with a sleek PR powerhouse. If anything, the better question is how much more patience she has for the constant neck-breathing and tone-policing that comes with being a very online star.
Let’s hope that her patience doesn’t run out any time soon, because Doja represents everything that is fun and hilarious and exhilarating about the internet age. Despite every poorly executed or politically motivated attempt to regulate the online sphere, it’s still basically the Wild West, a lawless space where deranged memes and trangressive humor and utter wackos abound. This comes with obvious pitfalls—yet another Doja controversy went down in 2020, when old videos surfaced of the singer in a web chatroom occasionally frequented by alt-right trolls. Denying that she’d been personally involved in racist conversations, she hopped on Instagram Live to respond to the videos: “I learned that there are racist people who come in and out of the chat,” she said. “They’re there. They happen, and then they’re banned. The idea that this chatroom is a white supremacist chatroom is … I don’t understand it in any way.”
But it also means that there is ample space in this freewheeling, weirdo-filled internet landscape for the sort of sharp, hilarious, out-of-the-box creation that is sorely missing from the humorless monolith of modern American culture. From Hollywood writers’ rooms to journalism to Oscar-winning movies, American media is as blandly one-note as it has ever been. So it’s no wonder that the Gen Zers in Doja’s fanbase would likely rather watch a 45-minute YouTube video of an influencer rambling to the camera while she drinks an iced coffee than the new inclusive version of Sex and the City. The informality of the internet provides a space where people can be candid and unfiltered and genuinely authentic, which is what any young person hungers for, and is also the opposite of what American institutions are currently serving up. Young people don’t see themselves in, or aspire to be, the mega-woke teens in the latest reboot of Saved by the Bell—they’d much prefer the unapologetic messiness of the TikToker making fun of herself for crying over a man who didn’t even know what the word “mandatory” meant. In her unfiltered candor, that girl feels like an actual person, with the sort of anxieties and blunders and mundane problems that exist in the real lives of young people, who actually don’t spend their time leaning on lockers and conversing about privilege.
With her own unfiltered authenticity, Doja Cat is truly a star for her generation. She has her finger on the pulse of the same weird riffs and momentary internet fixations, and she is conversant in the cultural lexicon that actually animates and entertains her fans. And it’s not because some label executive is forcing her to be in the name of “expanding her reach”; it’s because at her core she’s a mildly horny internet lurker just like so many of us. (An excellent example: Last week, a TikTok was going around in which a girl sporting the smallest dress and the biggest boobs humanly imaginable did a dance with her friends, which was filmed sideways. The video, with almost 7 million likes now, was full of comments saying things like, “I’ve never turned my phone so fast smh.” Just yesterday, Doja posted her own TikTok ogling the video with her phone turned to the side.)
The mildly horny internet spirit is a key part of her lyrics, too: “I heard from a friend of a friend that that dick was 10 out of 10”; “Met him on Tinder, he just swiped left on bitches”; “Ten-page text, shoulda wrote a book, coulda made a bag.” Doja is talking about sexuality in a vocabulary that is current; she’s steeped in the sort of cheeky, genuinely funny—not just shock-value explicit—self-deprecating but also self-aware (what woman hasn’t dashed off a lengthy text in a fit of rage only to bemoan the moment of weakness to their friends later?) tone that characterizes the online conversation about sex and dating.
As always, she’s in on the jokes—which are a lot more than just jokes anyway. Doja is arguably the only modern superstar who delights in being on the outside of the blob that is the American political-cultural complex. Her forays into edgy bits or Twitter transgression aren’t just snarky self-amusement; they’re an embrace of the aesthetics of outsiderism in a way we haven’t seen for years, and certainly not from our micro-managed, media-trained megastars. With the crystallization of our media into one corporate-backed, diversity-consulted, montonous superstructure, there hasn’t been space for an American counterculture to flourish in a long time. But Doja Cat, lurking in her chat rooms and twerking in her cow costume, might just be the closest thing to it we have seen.
Perhaps the most classically online thing about Doja is her pace. She moves at the breakneck speed that feeds the life cycle of the internet, from hopping in on the latest viral TikTok to retweeting 20 things about Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza. This is also true for the speed with which she (and her audience) moves past her sudden outbursts and incidents, blowing up for a few content-and-emotion-filled days before issuing the appropriate degree of apology and then moving onto the next thing without any of the now-requisite “taking time to reflect” or “stepping back to consider the harmful effects of my actions.” There’s a strange optimism to be found in the way she has been able to keep moving forward. Hearing major celebrities fall all over themselves to atone for their sins is tiresome and boring, and the last people who want that are fans of a woman whose rise to fame can be traced back to a viral video of her twerking in a cow costume.
Not surprisingly, even after Doja’s dramatic announcement that music was dead and she was gone, she returned to her regularly scheduled programming almost immediately. She addressed her statement live on TikTok one night with the following: “English isn’t my first language. Neither is any other language. I don’t speak any language well. So I just mean that I’m gone, I quit. It doesn’t mean that I quit, but I fuckin quit, I quit. You see what I’m saying?” She also sent out a few April Fools’ tweets that her account had been hacked by Nicolas Cage. In the comments, a couple people asked her not to quit, but mostly they just joined in on the jokes (“so this is what ur gonna do when ur retired,” one comment read. “So what are your opinions on the Treaty of Versailles?” asked another.)
A week after the tweetstorm, she performed at the Grammys, where her single “Kiss Me More,” featuring SZA, won the award for Best Pop Duo—though she was in the bathroom when the prize was announced and had to sprint onstage. As she accepted her award, blinking back tears, she said, “I like to downplay shit, but this? This is a big deal.”
If Doja Cat’s shit-posting, meme-driven success within the ever-faster ecosystem of the internet offers any generational lessons, one might be that people respond to authentic style, even when it’s somewhat deranged and incoherent. Another might be that culture wars can in fact come second to having fun and making cool new stuff, if that’s what you actually care about doing.
Ani Wilcenski is Tablet’s Audience Editor.