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From Meme Queen To Popstar: Revisiting Doja Cat’s Inevitable Breakout
Doja Cat’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
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.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Ray Tamarra/Getty Images
10 Must-See Music Documentaries Arriving In 2023: Nicki Minaj, Johnny Cash, The Making Of 'Thriller' & More
To kick off the new year, GRAMMY.com has rounded up music documentaries to be released in 2023 that follow the lives and careers of artists like Failure, Dionne Warwick, Leonard Cohen, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and more.
Get your queue ready. From folk and outlaw country music, to classic rhythm and blues and hip-hop, there is a robust slate of music documentaries dropping in 2023 that will satisfy any music lover.
For alt-rock fans, the Failure documentary explores the evolution and impact of the influential rock band known for their experimental sound. If hard-hitting country is more your speed, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon and "They Called Us Outlaws" offer a no-holds-barred look at the artists who drove the vibrant sound of the genre.
Hip-hop fans can enjoy a deep dive into Nicki Minaj's journey to rap superstardom in her six-part docuseries. Or, take a behind-the-scenes look at the hip-hop group Little Brother and the challenges they faced while striving to become world-famous emcees.
Below, check out this guide to 10 can't-miss music documentaries coming your way in 2023.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
Featuring appearances from Bob Dylan, Brandi Carlile, the late Jeff Buckley and more, this documentary examines the life and times of prolific singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen through the lens of his famous song, "Hallelujah."
Despite its current status as one of the most notable tracks in music history, "Hallelujah" — which was featured on Cohen’s 1984 album, Various Positions — was not an instant hit. It wouldn’t receive global recognition until nearly a decade later, with the release of Buckley's now-ubiquitous cover. While the world may have been slow to embrace the song, Cohen says Dylan immediately saw its greatness.
"It took a long time. I think the song came out in '83 or '84, and then the only person who seemed to recognize the song was Dylan," Cohen said in a 2009 interview with Q TV. "He was doing it in concert. Nobody else recognized the song until quite a long time later… almost 10 years later."
Directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, Hallelujah dives deep into the song’s themes, exploring how artists covering the track have interpreted its meaning. The doc also features exclusive concert footage, performances, and interviews with Cohen's former collaborators.
After a brief theatrical release, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song is available on DVD and various streaming platforms.
As Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden helped grunge and alt-rock break into the mainstream in the ‘90s, a trio from Los Angeles was also making noise. Failure began to capture attention with the release of their beloved 1994 sophomore album, Magnified. (Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Tool’s Maynard Keenan and Stone Temple Pilots' Dean DeLeo are among the group’s most notable fans).
Dropping in 2023, this official documentary offers an in-depth look at the band’s formation, evolution, label issues, impact and influence — with testimonials from Keenan, DeLeo, Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams, Keenan, Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee, Mastodon’s Troy Sanders, and actor/musician Jason Schwartzman.
In the doc, Sanders opens up about what the band meant to both him and his band: "The art that Failure has made is very authentic to me," he says. "In a world of rock ‘n’ roll, I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for bands like Failure. I feel my band Mastodon has kind of followed the footsteps that they’ve laid before us." Adds Williams, "I never really heard anything like that. It changed how I thought about music. And it kind of made me — more than ever — want to be in a band."
Johnny Cash: The Redemption Of An American Icon
With appearances from Marty Stuart, Wynonna Judd, Alice Cooper, Tim McGraw, and Sheryl Crow, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon focuses on the spiritual and emotional challenges that the country legend faced at the height of his career. This in-depth documentary also includes never-been-heard recordings of Cash as he discussed his darker moments, learning how to navigate fame, reckoning with past failures and recommitting to his Christian faith.
"He was darkness and light living in the same body. And one fought against the other," sister Joanne Cash Yates recounts in the trailer. But, adds Crow, "He faced himself. He faced his temptations. He faced his worldliness and came out wanting to be right with God."
If you missed the documentary’s limited December 2022 release, check it out in January 2023 when it drops on various streaming platforms.
On the heels of the iconic album's 40th anniversary, GRAMMY-winning documentarian, music historian and author Nelson George announced that he’s hard at work on an official documentary about the making of the King of Pop’s legendary 1982 opus and groundbreaking short film.
"The release of 'Thriller' redefined Michael Jackson, taking him from teen star to adult superstar, who composed memorable songs, sang beautifully and reached the highest level of on-stage performance," George said in a statement. "The album, and the short films they inspired, created a new template for marrying music and image. It’s been a privilege to explore this extraordinary album and revisit its magic."
Featuring exclusive footage and candid interviews, the 2023 documentary will also focus on Jackson’s skyrocketing career at the time of the album’s release and its impact on the world and popular culture.
"They Called Us Outlaws: Cosmic Cowboys, Honky Tonk Heroes And the Rise of Renegade Troubadours"
Written and directed by Eric Geadelman, "They Called Us Outlaws" is a six-part film that explores the early 1970s origins of the country subgenre and the artists who made it famous: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and David Allan Coe.
At the time, Jennings and Nelson were upset with the Nashville music scene and its creative limitations. After cutting ties and leaving town to find a better way forward, the two musicians eventually reunited in Texas, where they built a rabid following by playing their own brand of country, on their own terms. That music would become known as "Outlaw Country"— a label that wasn't particularly embraced by many of the genre's artists.
This 12-hour film series examines the unique circumstances that led to the birth of the sound, as well as the artists' relationship with the "outlaw" label and how it influenced the way they were received. The documentary also features appearances and performances from a stacked lineup of country greats, including Nelson and Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Church, Miranda Lambert, as well as singer-songwriters Tyler Childers and Charley Crockett and Guy Clark.
"Nicki: A Six-Part Documentary Series"
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of her debut studio album Pink Friday, GRAMMY-nominated rapper Nicki Minaj announced plans to release a biographical documentary in November 2020 — to the delight of Barbs everywhere. Yet there was no news about the film until July 2022, when Minaj surprised fans by posting a teaser from the project on her Instagram, along with an explanation for the delay:
"Coming out SOONER THANK YOU THINK. I took some time to perfect this very intimate, delicate, electrifying, inspiring body of work," Minaj wrote. "As I decide on a home for this
project, I can’t help but reflect on what I’m including in this doc. Some things are so personal, it’s scary. It’s like NOTHING you’ve seen before & I need it to be handled with care. Love you so much. Thank you for the continued support."
Executive produced by Minaj, "Nicki" will focus on her personal and professional life, and the challenges of working in a male-dominated music genre. The docuseries was initially set to drop on HBO MAX, but Minaj and Bron, the film’s producers, decided to look elsewhere to find the right home for the docuseries.
May The Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story
In March 2022, fans of Little Brother were treated to a surprise when Phonte released the first trailer for an official documentary about the influential hip-hop group on his Instagram page. "Been working on this one for 5 years and calling it an 'emotional journey' is a big understatement," he wrote in the caption.
Slated for release in 2023, the documentary will include live performances, a behind-the-scenes look at the trio's production process, interviews with Phonte, Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder, as well as appearances from Questlove, Drake, and Doja Cat, who discuss the group's influence and impact.
Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over
From awards and hit records, to activism and philanthropy, this deep dive into GRAMMY-winning singer Dionne Warwick's life and work is a heartwarming celebration of the icon's astonishing six-decade-long career. The documentary follows Warwick's path to barrier-breaking greatness, touching on her gospel roots and her fateful audition to be a backup singer for Burt Bacharach in the early 1960s — the starting point of her rise to superstardom.
The doc also explores the singer's activism and advocacy for the Black and LGBTQ+ communities, philanthropic work—she's raised millions for AIDS research—and the impact her music had on listeners from all walks of life in the racially divided '60s.
Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over — which premiered on CNN on New Year’s Day — features appearances from Gladys Knight, Quincy Jones, Bacharach, Elton John, Berry Gordy, Snoop Dogg, Bill Clinton, Alicia Keys, Smokey Robinson, and others.
Biography: Ol’ Dirty Bastard
There have been several unofficial documentaries about the late rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard (born Russell Jones), but 2023 will see the release of "Biography: Ol’ Dirty Bastard," the first-ever film authorized by his estate. Set to be released on A&E Networks, the doc will feature interviews with the Wu-Tang Clan rapper's peers, family, and wife, Icelene Jones — who allowed filmmakers Sam and Jason Pollard to use never-been-seen footage for the two-hour documentary.
“I am thrilled to tell the full story of my husband. With this documentary, the world will learn about the son, the husband, the father, and the artist,” Jones wrote in a statement.
ODB's life was previously dramatized for RZA and Alex Tse's Hulu series, "Wu-Tang: An American Saga," which centers on the group's formative years. And on the film side, RZA has been developing a biopic about the late rapper's life since 2018.
When setting out to develop a documentary about a musician who has defied convention throughout his five-decade career, director Gary Hustwit knew the standard doc format was out of the question. To capture the distinctive, non-conforming essence of Brian Eno — an original member of Roxy Music and inventor of ambient music and the Microsoft Windows 95 startup sound — Hustwit is utilizing "groundbreaking generative technology" to allow viewers to choose their own ending and plans to release the documentary on multiple platforms.
The film, which drops in 2023, will also explore areas close to Eno's heart, including creativity, sustainability, and social equality, and offer viewers a glimpse into his personal archive of unreleased music and concert footage.
Photos: Emma McIntyre/BBMA2019/Getty Images for dcp; Doug Peters/PA Images via Getty Images; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images; Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET; Samir Hussein/WireImage
2022 In Review: 6 Trends That Defined Rap
This year has been one of transition, where old school came back as the genre's freshmen stood poised to take over. GRAMMY.com revisits six rap trends from 2022 that spawned from multiple generations of artists.
In 2022, rap seemed to be slowly evolving into something new. It was a year when long-gestating regional and cultural trends reached a new fever pitch. Savvy listeners seemed more focused on the emerging voices who were breathing fresh life into the form, even though established stars continued to earn critical and commercial acclaim.
This trajectory resulted in the sense that the past year has been one of transition, and that 2023 will be an even better season where the genre's freshmen are poised to take over. Only time will tell, but while you wait for the first fire releases of the next year, revisit six rap trends from 2022 that spawned from multiple generations of artists.
Jersey Club Goes Beyond The Garden State
Every few years, the rap community rediscovers the pleasures of flowing over electronic beats. In 2022, the sound of the moment was Jersey club, a hybrid of house and bass music that fueled scene leaders such as Bandmanrill (who released his debut album Club Godfather), DJ/producer Uniiqu3, and Unicorn 151 aka Killa Kherk Cobain. Meanwhile, a parallel wave developed in Philadelphia with tracks like 2Rare’s "Cupid" and Zahsosaa, D Sturdy and DJ Crazy’s "Shake Dhat."
Jersey club inspired mainstream artists as well. Drake pulled from the sound on his dance-music opus Honestly, Nevermind, and collaborated with 2Rare on the hit single "Sticky." It also fueled club-ready remixes like Coi Leray’s "Players (DJ Smallz 732’s Jersey Club Remix)."
Women Unite For Posse Raps
Anyone who fondly remembers women-only ciphers such as Brandy’s "I Wanna Be Down (Remix)" and Bahamadia’s "Three the Hard Way" will delight at how the format is making a comeback.
For "Super Freaky Girl (Queen Mix)", Nicki Minaj gathered an all-roster that included JT from City Girls, BIA, Katie Got Bandz, Maliibu Miitch, and Akbar V. On "Shabooya," producer Hitkidd gave mic time to Memphis rappers Gloss Up, K-Carbon, Slimeroni, and Aleza. Meanwhile, ShantiiP collaborated with Kash Doll, Rubi Rose, and Dream Doll on her "Abow (Remix)." The nascent trend demonstrates how women have begun working collectively again — with or without the boys’ help.
Rap's Nepo Babies Come Of Age
It’s not unusual for children of famous rappers to follow their parents into the business. Past years have seen the emergence of scions such as Droop-E (son of E-40), Lil Tracy (son of Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets), Cory Gunz (son of Peter Gunz), and Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith). But 2022 may be the first year where a second-generation rapper arguably exceeded her father’s mainstream appeal.
Coi Leray scored a Billboard top 40 hit ("Blick Blick" with Nicki Minaj) — a feat her estranged father Benzino never managed — while releasing her debut album, Trendsetter. King Combs hit number one on Billboard’s Mainstream R&B Hip-Hop Airplay chart, surpassing famed father Sean "Diddy" Combs' latest single "Gotta Move On" in the process.
Back To The Old School
When Mount Westmore’s Snoop, Cube, 40, $hort hit the Billboard top 200 albums chart in early December, it was yet another sign that golden-era artists are issuing quality albums, albeit on a smaller scale than their career peaks.
Still, in an era when rap fans are all too aware of how middle-aged hip-hoppers seem especially prone to the ravages of time — rest in peace to DJ Kayslay, Coolio, and Don Newkirk — it was heartening to see musicians in their 50s continue to hone their craft. Examples include Chill Rob G of "The Power" fame, who dropped Empires Crumble on Chuck D’s SpitSLAM label; KRS-One’s IMAMCRU12, Diamond D’s The Rearview, Daddy-O of Stetsasonic’s First Team, Frukwan of Stetsasonic and Gravediggaz’s Nightmare in B-Minor, and Tragedy Khadafi’s Immortal Titans Vol. 2. Meanwhile, Dr. Dre prefaced his triumphant showcase at Super Bowl LVI with his EP-length soundtrack for "Grand Theft Auto: The Contract."
As the genre moves into its fifth decade and beyond, here’s hoping its pioneers continue to evolve along with it — without dying before they grow old.
Here Come The Big Steppers
"Big steppers" is an old-school phrase that means exactly what it says: someone whose sheer presence leaves an impact. In recent years, the phrase has percolated through rap songs by Youngboy Never Broke Again, Young M.A ("Big Steppa"), Roddy Ricch ("Big Stepper"), and Stunnaman02 & Quakebeatz ("Big Steppin’").
The term seemed to peak in usage in 2022, thanks to Kendrick Lamar, who used the phrase multiple times — including on "Worldwide Steppers." The track is both literal through the sound of tap dancers, and metaphorical in the sense of Lamar navigating the earth through the prism of his career. Meanwhile, deep album cuts like Rome Streetz’ "Big Steppa" and Yo Gotti’s CMG Crew ("Steppers") put a vintage spin on boasts of being the big men on rap’s campus.
DJ Drama Connects With Everybody…Again
In 2022, DJ Drama was a one-man wave, reconnecting rap with its dirty South roots. The Philadelphia-raised, Atlanta-based DJ was one of the biggest names during the height of the mixtape boom in the mid-to-late aughts, hosting dozens of projects a year with soon-to-be famous acts like Young Jeezy (2004’s Trap or Die) as well as established stars such as Lil Wayne (the Dedication series) and Pharrell Williams (2006’s In My Mind: The Prequel) through his Gangsta Grillz and Aphilliates imprints.
While DJ Drama hasn’t disappeared in the years since, 2022 may be the first to find Drama approaching the productivity of his most successful era. He helmed a critically acclaimed mixtape with Baton Rouge’s Youngboy Never Broke Again (Ma’ I Got a Family), helped promote rising stars like Oakland’s Symba (Results Take Time) and Detroit’s Icewear Vezzo (Paint the City), worked with New York rap star Dave East (Book of David), and scored a chart-topper with the Dreamville crew’s D-Day: A Gangsta Grillz Mixtape. He even reunited with Jeezy for Snofall, a throwback to the latter’s trap glory years. Working with artists from different regions and generations, Drama proved he still has plenty of genre-wide impact.
Photo: (L-R) Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Live Nation, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic, Courtesy of Christina Aguilera, Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
2022 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Pop Music
Pop music continued to showcase its versatility this year, with newcomers and legendary mainstays alike shaking up the industry — which has led to major hits and even bigger cultural moments.
If there's one word to describe this year in pop, it would be "unpredictable." Take fan favorites Beyoncé and Rihanna for starters: as fans began pondering when they'd hear new music again, both superstars made significant returns to their solo artistries, further elevating their statuses as elite pop divas.
Pop's unexpected nature is what makes it so beloved, especially in 2022 as artists showcased just how far their versatility can stretch. TikTok showed off its influence once again, with songs like Nicki Minaj's "Super Freaky Girl" birthing endless viral dance challenges. There was plenty of dancing outside of TikTok as well, as artists like Drake, The Weeknd and Beyoncé had everyone grooving under the disco ball.
From pop stars unleashing their naughty sides to singles that transported us back to the '2000s and beyond, there were several major moments in pop music this year. Dive into eight of the genre's most dominant trends below.
Y2K Pop Divas Made Comebacks
Throughout 2022, the influence of late '90s and early '00s culture was reflected on fashion runways, TikTok and even a multitude of television reboots. So it was only natural that it also seeped into the music realm, with some of the era's biggest pop stars having a refreshing revival.
More than two decades after the release of her debut Spanish-language album Mi Reflejo, Christina Aguilera returned to her Latina roots (Aguilera's estranged father is an Ecuador native). The long wait was worth it, with the star sounding more confident than ever before as she celebrated her rich heritage. After starting this new era with the female empowerment anthem "Pa Mis Muchachas" (alongside fellow Latina artists Becky G, Nicki Nicole and Nathy Peluso), Aguilera continued to flex her versatility and vulnerability with songs like the impassioned Mexican ranchera "La Reina" and the somber "No Es Que Te Extrañe" that found the artist healing her childhood trauma.
Y2K pop sweetheart Mandy Moore, who returned after an 11-year music hiatus with 2020's Silver Landings, kept the momentum going with her seventh album In Real Life. The folk-inspired record showcased Moore's strength as a songwriter and new motherhood.
But arguably the most unexpected return came from Britney Spears. Following the official termination of her conservatorship last November, the pop star freed herself from a decade of restrictions. Spears found her way back to the studio for the first time since the release of 2016's Glory album, and joined fellow pop legend — and longtime supporter — Elton John for "Hold Me Closer." The song draws elements from John's classics like 1971's "Tiny Dancer," 1976's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and 1992's "The One," but adds a modern twist with shimmering dance melodies. "Hold Me Closer" debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, proving that Spears can still score a hit with ease.
R&B Artists Danced Under The Disco Ball
Pop has seen a disco revival seeping in over the last few years (even including the return of ABBA!), but what made this year so different is witnessing more R&B-leaning artists putting a fun spin on dance music as a whole.
Leading the charge was Beyoncé, who ignited a full-on dance party with her latest album (and first since 2016's Lemonade). After trying her hand at Afrobeats with 2019's soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift, Queen Bey transformed into Queen of the Dance Floor with 16 hip-shaking tunes whose influence call back to Studio 54 and Black ballroom heydays. The album is not only a tribute to her late Uncle Johnny (who she credits for introducing her to house music), but Black queer culture as a whole.
Nearly two years after 2020's After Hours, The Weeknd aptly kept the club open until sunrise with his fifth album, Dawn FM. Jam-packed with '80s elements from new wave to synth-pop, the record is an energetic joyride kookily narrated by comedian Jim Carrey.
While he's widely known as a rap superstar, Drake channels his R&B crooning alter-ego from time to time. His seventh album, Honestly, Nevermind, arrived as a surprise in June — and he was clearly ready to kick off summer with a party. The album found the artist at the center of the dance floor as he explored house music with bouncy songs like "Sticky" and "Massive." The experimentation paid off: the album became Drake's 11th Billboard 200 chart-topper.
Throwback Samples Were Inescapable
While sampling is more of a historical music staple than a trend, this year many artists had fun traveling back to the '70s, '90s and early '00s to add nostalgic doses into their hits. Beyoncé evoked the spirit of Donna Summer on "Summer Renaissance," which pulls from the disco queen's 1977 jam, "I Feel Love." Elsewhere, Charli XCX lifted the Stonebridge Mix of Robin S.'s 1992 "Show Me Love" for her own dance floor hit, "Used To Know Me," while NYC-based EDM duo Sofi Tukker sampled Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" for their infectious tune "Summer In New York."
Throwbacks were perhaps most predominant within mainstream rap hits. Tyga's "Sunshine," a collaboration with Jhené Aiko and the late Pop Smoke, samples Lil Flip's 2004 hit of the same name, while Jack Harlow used Fergie's 2006 No. 1 smash "Glamorous" to create his own hit. Rap newcomers Armani White and Central Cee also traveled to the early '00s, with the former's N.O.R.E. sample heard throughout his debut single, "Billie Eilish" and the latter using Eve and Gwen Stefani's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" for "Doja."
Nicki Minaj and Yung Gravy took us back to the '80s, as Minaj flipped Rick James' 1981 single "Super Freak" into "Super Freaky Girl, and Yung Gravy's viral "Betty (Get Money)" was based on Rick Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up."
Artists Tapped Into Their Edgy Sides
Pop music can surely be wholesome, so it's always fun when artists try their hands at edgier sounds. Sam Smith has long proven they can do more than a heartfelt ballad, and their TikTok anthem with Slut Pop star Kim Petras found the pair at their naughtiest.
Dove Cameron shed her Disney Channel beginnings with February's "Boyfriend" single, which celebrated her queer identity with dark, spine-tingling production. She raised the intensity levels with August's "Breakfast," which flipped gender politics on its head.
Maggie Lindemann also traded pure pop for pop-punk for her debut album, Suckerpunch. Continuing the Gen Z angst that rattled 2021, Lindemann unapologetically rebels against the music she was previously associated with thanks to singles like the nostalgic "Cages" and the incredibly flirtatious "She Knows It."
Even Taylor Swift got in on the fun. The singer, who previously showcased her edgy side with 2017's reputation, further leaned into that style with her hazy tenth album, Midnights. A complete left turn from 2020's folk-inspired LPs, folklore and evermore, Midnights captured the restlessness, revenge fantasies, self-criticism, and curiosity that come with what she detailed as "13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life."
Black Pop Divas Made Long-Awaited Returns
After Rihanna and Beyoncé officiated their pop icon statuses with 2015's Anti and 2016's Lemonade, respectively, the two opted to take mini hiatuses from solo music. Beyoncé steadily remained in the music sphere, hopping on several collaborations including a remix of Megan Thee Stallion's 2021 hit "Savage." The song scored GRAMMY Awards for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, the latter of which helped crown Beyoncé as the artist with the most wins in GRAMMY history with 28. (She followed up the achievement by recording "Be Alive" for the King Richard soundtrack, which earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song.)
But Beyoncé focused the spotlight back on herself with her seventh studio album. The July release was a pop culture phenomenon, weaving itself into casual conversations, memes, TikTok dance challenges and more. The album is a celebration of not only Beyoncé's career, but Black influence on dance music as a whole.
Rihanna was more quiet following Anti — only appearing on a few collaborations here and there, including Calvin Harris' "This Is What You Came For," DJ Khaled's "Wild Thoughts" with Bryson Tiller and Kendrick Lamar's GRAMMY-winning "Loyalty" — to focus on building her Fenty beauty and lingerie empire. But fans never stopped craving new music from the star herself, and their prayers were finally answered in September in major fashion: The superstar announced in September that she'll headline the Super Bowl LVII halftime show, which will mark her first live showing in over five years.
Rihanna quickly kept the excitement going with two appearances on October's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack, "Lift Me Up" and "Born Again" — her first solo music in more than six years.
Rap's TikTok Takeover Was Still In Effect
Rap was one of the biggest genres on TikTok last year, and the trend remained strong in 2022. The dominance was seen through dance challenges and viral memes, with Lil Uzi Vert's infectious Jersey club smash "I Just Wanna Rock" creating an explosive wave that culminated in a dance-heavy music video.
Drake and 21 Savage's "Rich Flex," a highlight from their collaboration album, Her Loss, was transformed into a silly tongue-in-cheek meme. Brooklyn rap newcomer Lola Brooke had TikTokers feeling confident as ever as they used "Don't Play With It" to soundtrack their selfie videos. Even Lil Wayne and Soulja Boy's nostalgic jams had a resurgence, with 2008's "Lollipop" and 2018's "Pretty Boy Swag" spawning their own TikTok trends.
Ed Sheeran Was Pop's Big Brother
Despite being one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Ed Sheeran has maintained the humble spirit that made him so beloved. The British singer/songwriter has always shown a love for collaboration, even releasing a guest-filled project in 2019. But in 2022, Sheeran put collaborations into overdrive.
Sheeran kicked things off by teaming up with his old pal Taylor Swift on a duet version of his = track, "The Joker and the Queen." In March, he dropped not one but two singles with Colombian star J Balvin, "Sigue" and "Forever My Love," where Sheeran traded his guitar for a reggaeton bassline.
The singer then traveled across genres — and the globe — pairing with Jamaican dancehall singer Ishawna (who previously sampled 2017's "Shape of You" on her single "Equal Rights") for "Brace It" and guesting on Nigerian hitmaker Burna Boy's love song "For My Hand." Not forgetting his own roots, Sheeran also showcased his admiration for local British hip-hop with appearances on Manchester rapper Aitch's "My G" and rap collective D-Block Europe's "Lonely Lovers."
Bands Proved Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay
"Rock 'n' roll is dead" has been an ongoing debate ever since hip-hop became the industry's most dominant genre in 2017. Even so, rock acts continued to spotlight the historic genre this year, and helped it endure in arguably the biggest way it has in years.
After a five-year hiatus, Paramore thrilled fans with the announcement of their sixth album, This Is Why. Set for a February 2023 release, the new album era kicked off with the funky eponymous lead single in September.
Rock mainstays Red Hot Chili Peppers satiated genre diehards by dropping two albums within six months in 2022: April's Unlimited Love and October's Return of the Dream Canteen.
On the more alternative side, Arctic Monkeys re-emerged with a vintage focus for October's The Car, which drew from baroque pop, funk, early '70s rock and classic film scores. And after a brief pandemic-induced postponement following 2020's Notes on a Conditional Form, The 1975 returned with their fifth album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language. Singles like "Part of the Band," "Happiness" and "I'm in Love with You" found the band in a lighthearted, '80s dance-pop-inspired spirit.
After a year filled with viral moments and comebacks, there's no doubt that artists will continue to keep pop unpredictable in 2023.