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From Meme Queen To Popstar: Revisiting Doja Cat’s Inevitable Breakout
For Women's History Month, GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the women artists nominated at the 2021 GRAMMY Awards show. Today, we honor Doja Cat, who's currently nominated for three GRAMMYs.
First-time GRAMMY nominee Doja Cat was on the cusp of gaining mass popularity in 2019 after the release of her sophomore album, Hot Pink, when her rise into pop stardom faced a roadblock. COVID-19 shutdown the world in early 2020 and the rapper/singer from Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, born Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, had to place the album’s accompanying tour, a promotional vehicle for the album, on indefinite hiatus. Dlamini had gone viral in 2018 thanks to her meme-worthy "Mooo!" music video, but Hot Pink had promising staying power and 2020 was putting that at stake.
But it would turn out that the new social-distanced reality only grew music’s presence online, and Dlamini’s Hot Pink leading single "Say So" thrived on social media—The song received a streaming boost months after TikToker Haley Sharpe created the song’s signature dance in December 2019. As fans surged TikTok to recreate the dance, the app became a new tool for artist discovery, and Dlamini’s e-girl aesthetic topped with her colorful, kitschy, comical looks strengthened her online presence. "Say So" continued to gain popularity after a Nicki Minaj feature on a remixed version shot the song to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in May 2020.
How did Dlamini manage to gain success amid the pandemic? The digital-driven mindset she developed early in her career was key.
Dlamini's rise to stardom wasn’t instantaneous, but like many other artists of her generation, internet fame was in her artistic DNA. When she was a teenager, she generated a small buzz on SoundCloud and it motivated her intention of becoming an artist after dropping out of high school at 16 years old. Self-taught at GarageBand and Logic, the rapper would scour YouTube for beats and instrumentals, using a built-in microphone to record songs that she would upload on her SoundCloud account. Often deleting songs shortly after posting, it was the marijuana-enthusiast ballad "So High" that remained on Dlamini’s page, landing her a joint deal with RCA Records and Kemosabe Records in 2014. The rapper’s debut EP Purrr! released in the same year made Dlamini an artist to watch. “So High” even graced a first season episode feature on Fox musical-drama series "Empire."
But despite her breakthrough and development as a signed artist, the attention on Dlamini fell flat as she took to the studio to revamp her style and creative approach. While the pivot from SoundCloud to a major deal was a triumph for her, there wasn’t a clear vision for her artistry. Taking ownership of her sexuality while remaining comedic, Dlamini refined her spunky charisma in preparation for mainstream domination. She became acquainted with a new team of producers and co-songwriters and continued working with Yeti Beats, who began producing for heri in 2013. Yeti Beats became Dlamini’s primary collaborator, masterfully capturing her unpredictability and eccentricity on wax.
In an interview with American Songwriter earlier this year, Yeti Beats spoke about his genre-crossing versatility and established rapport with Dlamini:
"When it comes to actually creating with [Doja Cat] though, I think what I try to do is just be prepared and make lots of different styles [and] collaborate with a lot of different producers and musicians, so that when she calls me and asks me, ‘Yeti what beats you got right now?’ I have fire to play for her—something unique and different and interesting."
After what seemed like a four-year hiatus, Dlamini released her long-awaited debut album Amala in March 2018. But it largely fell on deaf ears as it peaked at #138 on the Billboard 200 in 2019. Though songs on Amala were melodic and chart-worthy, without a concise marketing strategy and album rollout, Dlamini was back at square one. True to her internet origins, she was poised to meet the moment in August 2018 as she took to Instagram Live to collaborate on an impromptu song with her fans. Viewers commented their ideas using puns and metaphors while the rapper played a beat by producer Troy NōKA, but the humorous brainstorming session quickly became the impetus for Dlamini’s first viral hit. Writing and recording the song within six hours—along with creating a meme-inspired visual that circulated rapidly—"Mooo!" was the DIY springboard that made her a viral internet sensation.
"I’ve had [the] intention of making—like—meme music that would maybe reach a wider audience that would make people go, ‘What the hell is this? I should share this'" she told Genius’ Verified series in 2018. "I’ve totally thought that sh*t that I’ve made would go viral."
Although Dlamini originally considered "Mooo!" to be a "throwaway" the song caught the attention of critics and new listeners alike, and the rapper had her first experience in a popular light, confidently releasing a deluxe version of Amala in 2019. Bolstered with an album-version of "Mooo!" and body positivity anthem “Juicy,” Dlamini also had her first female-tag team collaboration with on-the-rise ferocious punk-rapper from the DMV Rico Nasty on "Tia Tamera," a euphemism likening their breasts to iconic twin actors Tia and Tamera Mowry.
With a new mainstream disposition thanks to a new production team, Dlamini returned to the drawing board for her follow-up album, even forgoing an overindulgence of smoking to redevelop her sound. Just one month shy of the release of sophomore album Hot Pink, predominantly produced by Yeti Beats and Dr. Luke, in late 2019, Dlamini spoke with Los Angeles Times about her new perspective:
"When I stopped and did this album, I’ve never been more concise and clear and level headed. People will love me and hate me for it: ‘Why doesn’t she sound like she doesn’t know what she’s talking about anymore?’ I used to write stuff where it didn’t matter. Now there are things I believe in, that get me excited and piss me off. I’m actually reflecting on who I am as a person."
Stepping up to the plate, Hot Pink was a reframing of Dlamini’s original meme-centric music, instead showing her versatility in hip-hop, R&B and pop. Still bubbly and humorous, the album proved Dlamini’s discipline as an artist and multi-genre reach.
When 2020 arrived, women in rap flourished online during the start of the COVID-19 quarantine and it was Dlamini who arguably led the pack with her sound. Hot Pink delivered several singles, but "Say So" was a standout hit.
When the remix with Minaj went head-to-head with fellow Megan The Stallion TikTok hit "Savage" whose official remix featured Beyoncé, the kindred spirit between Dlamini and Minaj was undisputed. The chart-topping smash continued to rise with Minaj on the track, eventually, the song gave Dlamini and Minaj’s their first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 after what seemed like a battle in women’s rap was a simultaneous victory between both songs.
The rapper continued her virality through consistent interaction with fans through Instagram and Twitter. Ultimately, it was Gen-Z favorite TikTok that jolted Hot Pink to #9 on the Billboard 200 chart, just five days after "Say So" landed on the Hot 100. She pumped out seven singles from the album and later on in 2020 marketed her first clothing line partnership with Pretty Little Thing, a company with a large Instagram presence.
Come November 2020, Dlamini nabbed accolades from the American Music Awards, People’s Choice Awards, MTV Europe Music Awards, and the GRAMMYs— "Say So" earned two nominations and she earned one for Best New Artist— while flawlessly becoming a household name.
In-house producer Yeti Beats remained as Dlamini’s wingman, sharing his reverence for her musical growth for American Songwriter:
"I consider [Doja Cat] a musical chameleon. It’s something that it took a while to develop what her sound and personality really was. The first EP that we did [together], she didn’t have any experience and it was kind of a new musical thing for us and these are time capsules. By the time we did [her] first album she had played on a handful of stages and then after the first album we toured a lot. When we got into the second album. It was a more confident character."
Dlamini’s rise to prominence speaks to her staying power and her ability to tap into today’s technology to reach new audiences—an indication of the artist she was destined to become. Being an influence of oddball female rap, Dlamini’s online and offline creativity transcends her stage presence, putting her ahead of the industry curve.