Doja Cat: Planet Her review – pop-rap queen is in a world of her own

(RCA)
With her unerring ability to kickstart TikTok crazes, Doja Cat’s sci-fi concept album – with guest turns from Ariana Grande and SZA – shines as a paragon of 2021 pop

It’s something of a surprise that Planet Her comes heralded as a concept album, “based on a fictional planet self-originated by Doja Cat on which all species and races of space exist in harmony”. Concept albums are traditionally signifiers of great portent and seriousness, the point at which even a band as avowedly populist as Coldplay start metaphorically furrowing their brows, thoughtfully sucking on their pens and writing about dystopian future worlds in which music has been banned, called – yes – Silencia.

But the furrowing of brows and the thoughtful sucking of pens doesn’t really seem Doja Cat’s thing. She is a rapper who first came to mainstream prominence by sticking chips up her nose while singing a song called Mooo!. “Bitch, I’m a cow / I’m not a cat, I don’t say miaow” offered the chorus, while the verses ruminated on bovine digestion: “Got the methane / I’m a farter.” She is a very 21st-century kind of artist, subject to multiple online “cancellations” that only served to bolster her fame, blessed with an ability to release tracks that turn into TikTok trends and thus into vast hits. Say So, one of 2020’s biggest-selling singles, was buoyed up by a dance challenge on the social network; so were the subsequent Like That and Freak; Streets was transformed from an album track into another smash, courtesy of the #SilhouetteChallenge. Mock provoking a preteen dance craze as a lowly aspiration for pop all you want: it’s an aspiration that songwriting teams and agencies are desperate to fulfil, and that Doja Cat has sewn up.

TikTok dance crazes, chips up the hooter, the love of online shitposting: there may be artists less likely to go all Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth on us, but it’s a struggle to name one. And so it proves. You get a bit of feminist empowerment on reggaeton-influenced opener Woman, but thereafter, it seems, Planet Her’s concept is relegated entirely to its accompanying sci-fi visuals, including a sleeve shot by David LaChapelle. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that a song like Ain’t Shit is set on a planet where everyone’s existing in perfect harmony: “Your dad’s a bitch … eat a laxative … looking like a stick up in your asshole.” Instead, the album’s tone is set by single Kiss Me More, a laid-back bit of disco-infused pop-rap with a neat immediately recognisable hook from Olivia Newton-John’s Physical in the chorus and a guest appearance by SZA. It’s light, summery, really well-produced and impressively concise, qualities it shares with a lot of Planet Her, which knocks out 14 tracks in under 45 minutes: nothing hangs around long enough to trouble listeners who tend to a TL;DR view of entertainment.

It’s music that plays to Doja Cat’s strengths. She can genuinely sing as well as rap – she doesn’t sound out of her depth duetting with Ariana Grande on I Don’t Do Drugs – and her lyrical skills major not in essaying weighty topics but in being flippant and funny. “Follow me to my dressing room / Let me know if you ain’t ’bout that NSFW,” offers Naked, adding: “You know I love to dance / Let me cordially invite you to the party in my pants.” “Call him Ed Sheeran,” she suggests, unexpectedly, of a potential suitor on Get Into It (Yuh), before clarifying: “He’s in love with my body.” It’s music with enough room for a degree of experimentation, as on Payday, a collaboration with Young Thug that plays out over a complex, baroque keyboard figure and features both leading lady and guest star performing in impressively weird, strained high voices. Options, meanwhile, is based around a muffled, slightly off-kilter flute sample doused in reverb, woven deftly around the beats.

But Planet Her’s breezy approach also has its limitations. For all its relative brevity, it sags in the middle, thanks to a succession of insubstantial ballads that even a guest appearance from the Weeknd can’t rescue from tedium: a weird thing to let slide from an artist so evidently concerned with not taxing her listeners’ attention spans.

Not that Planet Her is going to be commercially stymied by its failings. No sooner was Kiss Me More released than it provoked yet another TikTok dance challenge – it duly rocketed into the Top 3 on both sides of the Atlantic – and there’s enough airy, hooky, enjoyable stuff here to keep amateur choreographers in business for the rest of the summer. No one really wants or needs an actual sci-fi concept album from Doja Cat, not when she’s nailed a version of 2021 pop that a lot of other people are striving for with a lot more laboured effort. As to the question of what happens when this particular moment in pop passes, Planet Her doesn’t provide an obvious answer.

This week Alexis listened to

Buzzy Lee – Strange Town (Julia Holter edit)
Probably better suited to the depths of winter than a fitful early summer, but this is icily wonderful: you could imagine it being the work of This Mortal Coil.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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