Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
DOJA CAT SAT in her dry bathtub, one hand cradling an Aperol spritz. It was Christmas Eve. Still, some 20,000 people joined an impromptu Instagram livestream to watch her vamp.
The 26-year-old Los Angeles rapper, singer, and producer — drunk, by her own admission — wore full makeup and an oversized white button-down draped over lingerie. Between puffs on a baby-pink vape, she gave detailed instructions for making a graham-cracker-and-apple dessert that involved blasting the concoction with a blowtorch before serving it à la mode. (“No one’s listening bae,” a viewer commented in the chat.) She bumped Homeboy Sandman and Left Eye from her laptop, dancing, somehow still crouched in the tub, with skill and abandon. For the next 90 minutes, she rapped and sang along to an improvised DJ set of sorts, demonstrating an astounding recall of lyrics committed to heart, and encouraging fans to look up certain artists who “moved me figuratively and literally.”
After one of several intermissions, she returned to the tub, turned off the music, and looked into the camera. Maybe it was cringe, but, whatever, she wanted to talk.
“I’ll tell you my plan, the best that I can,” she said.
What would follow was a meditation on artistic ambition with the sort of earnestness that celebrity entertainers rarely dare to display, but that permeates Doja’s freewheeling broadcasts. On Instagram Live, she makes her creative impulses open-source. It’s impossible to look away.
She would put out another album of pop-skewing songs, she explained, like the hits “Say So” and “Kiss Me More” that helped vault her to recent commercial and critical success, as well as ubiquity.
But, she went on, here’s what she longed to do, planned to do, right after that: release a rap album, working with producers known for aughts-era work— like 9th Wonder — whose tracks had first made her swoon as a teenager.
“I think I’m reaching for how I felt years ago, you know? I want that feeling again. I want to feel like people are excited about the music I’m excited about,” like the sort of throwback rap and R&B tracks she’d been playing earlier. Much of what’s being released today, she went on, “doesn’t make me feel crazy inside. The way that Slum Village” — a Detroit hip-hop act — “made me feel was crazy.” She touched a hand to her heart. “I want to bring that back. I don’t know what it is, if it’s an emotion, if it’s a feeling — I just want to bring it back.”
Her frankness might have surprised more casual fans of the recording artist, whose real name is Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini, and who is known for her effervescent pop hits, lascivious and dexterous rap verses, outrageous outfits, and online class-clownery that can tip into controversy. She has courted, in some contexts, an aura of ironic self-deprecation, playing along with fans who show adoration by needling her on Twitter with photo and video outtakes — a time she banged her funny bone at a Taco Bell; a time she fell on stage while performing in a Miami club; a time her microphone grazed her veneers — and who taunt her, affectionately, with the refrain “make better music.”
Dedicated fans know, though, that Doja leans into both playfulness and sincerity, and thrives in the pockets where they overlap. “I don’t play with my pen / I mean what I write,” she sings on “Need to Know,” and like so much else Doja, the lines serve at once as earnest credo and as satire.
“DON’T EVER FUCKIN DISRESPECT ME AS A RAPPER,” she wrote on Twitter last spring. “AFTER THE LAST SONG I DROPPED YOU WILL RESPECT MY PEN AND THATS FUCKIN THAT. stream Very Best.” The 38-second track, which she uploaded to SoundCloud, is an obvious joke — a cacophony of clownish sound effects and disconnected vocal interjections like “fuckin’ on a bitch” and “delicious.” But wait — there’s also a digitized trill from the melody of Für Elise. And you can make out the faint vocals “What you know about rollin’ down in the deep?” from the viral Masked Wolf song “Astronaut in the Ocean,” which itself recalls Adele’s smash record “Rolling in the Deep.” Careful: These layered allusions constitute an analytical trap; that’s part of the bit. She’s just having fun. There’s nothing here from which to wring meaning.
There often isn’t, when it comes to Doja’s self-avowed nonsense. Her occasional resistance to being parsed is itself compelling, even radical, in a cultural climate where digestible interpretive gloss is currency. Last May, she uploaded a clip to TikTok titled “House House” with the caption “(we were driving by a bunch of houses clumped together and made a song about it).” It features her in a moving car, duetting with a recording of her own a capella scatting — just the word “house,” repeated.
“the fact that she can make a song from literally nothing is amazing haha,” wrote one viewer in the comments.
“Alright man relax…..” Doja replied, with the side-eye emoji.
Wouldn’t it be absurd, she seems to be asking — with “Very Best,” and other shenanigans — if I were serious?
“This is a draft,” read the captions on a few of Doja’s TikToks — a clip of her scratching her head in a crochet cap, a clip of her twerking, a clip of her pulling faces in the bathroom.
Also drafts: The livestream sessions, going back years, in which she tweaks unreleased music while anyone can listen in. Some of these tracks-in-progress make their way onto albums once they’ve been mixed in the studio, as did the records that became “Ain’t Shit” on Planet Her and “Up and Down” off the album’s deluxe edition, having been polished into final form.
Others don’t, or haven’t yet. They live on the internet as snippets, some recorded by fans during Doja’s old Periscope streams. In one from several years ago, as a few dozen people watched, she added vocal riffs to a track called “Ocean” and sipped red wine before conceding it was a “great song.” In another, wearing neon cat ears, she laid down a rap verse on “Whip,” including the couplet “My damn arm strong, you can talk to Lance / But he still ride with me like the Tour de France.”
“I love how you let us in on your studio process,” a viewer commented in the livestream.
It’s true. The thing about drafts is that, generally speaking, they tend to stay private. Or else, when it comes to those of popular artists, they might be stashed in a digital folder, perhaps to be excavated for an edited behind-the-scenes reel once the work is done. But Doja isn’t afraid to cannibalize novelty, at least with some tracks, trading it instead to offer this striking mix of exhibitionism and generosity. “Need more light on me,” she sings on “Imagine,” and it’s as if she wields this public drafting like a two-way mirror: transparent to anyone peering in; reflective on the inside.
Despite fan entreaties, Doja won’t release versions of these song drafts for download or streaming, she said recently on Instagram Live, “unless I get in the studio and fix them.” For play to be converted to work — and evaluated as such — it must first be iterated upon, burnished through meticulous effort.
Even a face can be a draft. Doja often wants you to see her, via livestream, barefaced and bonneted as she embarks upon an elaborate makeup look. Last December, as many as 50,000 people watched as she spent hours on several such transformations within a few-day period, at some moments bopping along to music or balancing on her hands as she provided a tutorial on the breakdancing move known as a baby freeze, and at others stewing in palpable frustration at the recent news that some of her winter shows had been canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. (She would soon announce on social media that she had tested positive herself.)
During one session, she hit pause on a PARTYNEXTDOOR track, a brush from her own line of pink-and-gold makeup tools in hand, to read the comments crawling up the screen. Yes, she agreed, since she’d so far applied only base layers of concealer, foundation, and contour, her complexion looked yellowish — like SpongeBob, even.
Her eyes narrowed in momentary exasperation. “Trust the process,” she said.
When Doja goes live, it might mean she’ll stream her video-game play on Twitch, complete with trash talking. (“Do you fucking do bunny ears when you tie your shoes?” she taunted another player as her avatar, clad in a quilted jacket, a garter belt, and heels, ran through a fictionalized Los Angeles landscape in Grand Theft Auto V. “You eat ketchup for breakfast.”)
Or it might mean she’ll vent. She’ll inveigh, for instance, against a rumor that her recent weight loss is due to cocaine use (“No, bitch, it’s eggs”). Or mock fellow Angelenos who shutter businesses during storms. (“You can’t go get a fucking bagel,” she asked, incredulous, in December, “because there’s frost?”)
It usually means that she’ll play music by other artists. Instagram can make this difficult, as its licensing agreements limit her ability to play others’ records, often forcing her to restart livestreams or end them entirely. Over on TikTok, policies governing music on livestreams are laxer, but the platform has slapped her feed with a warning if she drinks or vapes on camera. “How dare you try to make me look like I’m a bad influence, even though I am,” she ranted on a TikTok livestream, addressing its content moderation.
And through some mix of lip sync, karaoke, and hamming, she’ll embody the music she plays, enact the feeling. She’s both kidding and not.
On Instagram Live in December, wearing only green lingerie, she incorporated a venti Starbucks cup into her shtick as she bounced and mouthed the words to “Stroke” by IV4 featuring Jeremih, a recent R&B release. “I’ve had this song on repeat for a week now,” she said, pressing pause. “It’s evolved into different things in my head.” She recounted how she’d recently been singing the hook in a cartoonish falsetto while others begged her to stop.
“This song, it’s part of me now,” she said, laughing. “It’s running through my veins.”
Part of what Doja is reaching for, it seems, is some formula for reverse-engineering this feeling of succumbing to music — of being inhabited, moved by it. For working against entropy to coax vibrations from flesh and bone back to speaker, back to audio file. When it comes to this ambition, she’s utterly serious.
“I want to feel the way I feel about other’s music about my music. I’m gonna keep trying. It’s not for yall. I’m looking for it for myself,” she wrote on Twitter last June, days after releasing Planet Her. “This doesn’t mean I think my music is bad,” she added.
Anyone who’s engaged in creative work will recognize the chasm between what we can imagine and what we can actually make in the world. Bearing witness to any artist striving to narrow this gap is interesting; following an artist of Doja’s caliber who takes the measure of this distance, who insists we watch as she stretches herself across the span, feels electric.
As Christmas Eve drifted toward Christmas morning, and with the bathtub still serving as creative crucible, some of the very artists and engineers she’d namechecked minutes before, like the producer Jay Versace, filtered into the livestream, floating up comments to accept her invitation to collaborate on the rap-focused project. “DM me,” she said, smiling as she scrolled through the messages.
Could she make new music that recaptured the old feelings? It was an idea she’d begun playing with on songs like “Tonight” featuring Eve, on the deluxe edition of Planet Her, using a beat from 2004 meant to evoke the sound of the early aughts.
Still, a rap project was the “less-smart” path forward, she said, than releasing a steady stream of pop hits that could form an easily legible body of work. Yet the possibility was intoxicating. She wanted to try. And now we were all privy to the effort.
“I guess maybe I was asking you guys how you feel about that. Not even asking you so much — it was more like 50-50, asking you how you feel, and also telling you that’s what I want to do.”
Enthusiastic messages bubbled up from viewers. Here was the fan-made meme come full circle, the irony made earnest.
She slouched against the wall of the tub. “I just want to do better,” she said.
Lindsay Gellman is a journalist in New York. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, where she was a staff reporter, as well as in The New York Times, The New Yorker, WIRED, Businessweek, New York Magazine, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of a Fulbright fellowship to Germany. She is a lecturer in the English Department at Yale University, where she teaches nonfiction writing.