Four years ago, Doja Cat scoffed at the notion that her debut album Amala was anything special. While her sophomore effort, 2019’s Hot Pink, was enjoying white-hot success courtesy of its trifecta of hits (“Streets,” “Like That,” and her eventual first Hot 100 No. 1 single, “Say So”), she was indifferent to Amala during her 2019 Billboard visit, blaming marijuana usage for what she considered to be a lackluster effort.
“A lot of people liked Amala, and that’s great. However, I don’t think it was a finished album,” she told Billboard in 2019. “I was smoking hella weed. I was high all the f–king time and it wasn’t even helping me perceive what was going on musically. I was just really out there partying.”
To be fair, Doja’s first album did peak at No. 138 on the Billboard 200, though it failed to gain mainstream traction initially. But what makes Doja’s ascension into superstardom in the years since so intriguing is the slow burn behind her push as she looks to secure her first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with the release this Friday (Sept. 22) of her fourth album, Scarlet.
Because Cardi B and Olivia Rodrigo’s careers detonated faster than most, scoring No. 1 albums with both their first official singles and albums, fans forget that becoming a superstar overnight is a rare feat, and that artists should be embracing their careers as marathons, not sprints. An artist like Teezo Touchdown, who earned cosigns from Drake and Travis Scott ahead of his debut album How Do You Sleep At Night?, failed to debut on the Billboard 200 this week and became internet fodder because of his paltry showing. This is becoming increasingly common as social media users quickly thrash new artists for failing to immediately impact the Billboard 200. They’re torn apart if their debut projects fail to enter the top 10. Still, many artists, like Teezo, should hold their heads high – because Doja’s route into superstardom wasn’t always scenic.
After Amala underwhelmed commercially, Doja returned to the drawing board and scripted a kooky, tongue-in-cheek rap song titled “Mooo!” The comedic cow-themed song erupted and became an instant hit, as she milked every bit of virality from her song’s and video’s absurdity. Lyrics like “Bitch, I’m a cow” became meme-fodder, as the visual was celebrated by Missy Elliott and Chance The Rapper.
“I just like to do the fun stuff. If I’m not having fun with it, I’m not going to do it for the rest of my life,” Doja relayed to Billboard in 2018. “I just wanna bring something fun — the current climate is so uptight and serious, and it’s just good to have something stupid to laugh at. It’s funny because it’s a joke, but it sounds kinda good. People listen to it like it’s a song.”
Beyond the lo-fi video, cow costumes, and green-screen pastures was an artist adept at carving out indelible punchlines. Her wit was uncontested as her bars made punny references to Ludacris’ “Move,” Kelis’ “Milkshake,” and Raekwon’s “C.R.E.A.M.” The success of “Mooo!” made RCA repackage Amala as a deluxe in March 2019 with three new songs.
With a buzzier presence, Doja crept back into the studio and doled out her second album, Hot Pink, within the same year. The sophomore (and gleefully sophomoric) release oozed with flavor and versatility as she mapped her road to being a rap/pop virtuoso. First, she secured a feature from Tyga to revamp her Amala standout “Juicy,” which became her first Hot 100 record, peaking at No. 41. Then, she tapped Gucci Mane for the upbeat “Like That.” She also became a favorite on late-night television, delivering fun-filled performances on Late Night with Seth Meyers and later The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
With seven singles off Hot Pink, Doja swept her underperforming debut album under the rug, as she witnessed the longevity of her second LP on the Billboard charts — courtesy of TikTok favorites “Streets” and “Say So,” which took time to heat up and become fireballs of their own. Even the top brass at RCA didn’t know the former would become a success story. “We all love that song,” Tunji Balogun, former executive vp A&R at RCA, told Billboard of “Streets” in 2021, “but we never really focused on it from the beginning of the project.”
As for the latter, Doja partnered with Nicki Minaj for the song’s remix, which gave “Say So” its final push to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in May 2020. The album’s sustainability and Doja’s torrid streak of incredible performances at award shows, most notably at the 2020 VMAs and the 2021 Grammys, made her an artist to watch in the most literal sense. Despite those big wins, Hot Pink only peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200.
Entering her third album, 2021’s Planet Her, Doja was on the cusp of becoming one of Generation Z’s most defining stars, and she unabashedly ran the table that calendar year – even though she was thwarted by Tyler, The Creator, as the album opened at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 behind his Call Me If You Get Lost. Even though she didn’t nab that elusive No. 1, she still debuted with 109,000 album equivalent units and scored a No. 3 single on the Hot 100 with “Kiss Me More” featuring SZA. She landed her first Grammy win from that record and continued to scorch the Hot 100, reeling in three total top 10 hits during that run.
On Planet Her, the chaotic edge lord took creative leaps, exploring the sounds of Afrobeats on “Woman” and aligning herself with pop behemoths such as The Weeknd (“You Right”) and Ariana Grande (“I Don’t Do Drugs”), all while maintaining her image as one of music’s preeminent trolls. By doing it her way, Doja rocketed past the major stars still trying to do things conventionally and shined with arguably the strongest album in the pop solar system that year.
As we reach our fourth stop on Doja’s roller-coaster adventure with Scarlet, we still have yet to reach the mountainous peak of her career. Though she has the daunting task of competing against new albums like Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts and Rod Wave’s Nostalgia, she’s closer than ever to securing her first No. 1 album. While toppling Olivia and Rod would be a feat, Doja still has room to hit certain checkpoints, including being a potential headliner at Coachella in 2024 and eventually morphing into a stadium-filling artist one day. But she’s still racking up the accomplishments: this month, “Paint The Town Red” became the first rap song in 2023 to top the Hot 100 — and the first of Doja’s career as an unaccompanied solo artist — illustrating the artist’s supremacy and evolving pen-game. She also delivered an exhilarating three-song Scarlet medley at the VMAs last week, in one of the night’s best-received performances.
So, just because your career didn’t take off at the starter pistol doesn’t mean the race is already over. Sometimes, you have to “moo” before you can run.