What is the sound of the summer? The suburbs are populated with the drone of hissing lawns and kids running through front yards, but here in Philadelphia, you can hear the season blaring through the windows of cars. And for the rest of July and August, you’ll probably hear Doja Cat’s Planet Her enough times to get totally sick of it. The album’s booming bass, trap beats, and 808s are tailor–made for current radio play. But before the inevitable malaise sets in, Planet Her deserves praise for being a major label pop album that is risky, unapologetic, and blessedly free of bloat. Most unexpectedly, Doja Cat’s tailor–made–for–radio–play music is not beholden to current trends; instead, she’s a few steps ahead of the curve.
Then again, Doja Cat has a habit of upending expectations. Her 2018 breakout single, “Mooo!,” and its accompanying video had her written off as a meme. But two years later, she had demonstrated her talent as a singer and as a rapper, released one critically well–received album (Hot Pink), and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Nicki Minaj’s remix of “Say So.” The announcement of Planet Her was preceded by a string of increasingly futuristic award show performances which begged the question: Is there anything she can’t do? When she released “Need To Know” just one day after Lorde’s “Solar Power,” it was shocking that Doja’s single, so casually tossed off, was probably the better of the two.
It would be irresponsible not to address the fact that Doja Cat’s command of the mainstream has likewise revitalized the career of her collaborator Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald), who Kesha accused of rape and abuse in 2014. Gottwald produced and co–wrote “Need To Know,” “You Right,” and “Kiss Me More.” Two caveats: Firstly, listening to these songs is not necessarily a tacit endorsement of Dr. Luke. And secondly, if we were to not acknowledge Doja’s agency in choosing her collaborators, we would be doing her a disservice. That said, if “Need To Know” was an innocent teenybopper anthem, it would be easier to ignore Gottwald’s presence, but the song is an embodiment of voracious sexual appetite. Doja Cat’s come–ons leave a sour taste in my mouth knowing that this song was written and produced by a sexual abuser.
Avoiding Dr. Luke’s contributions to Planet Her won’t mean missing out on much, since they’re the most derivative songs on the record. “Kiss Me More” is an attempt at remaking “Say So,” but feels incongruous on this more laid–back and sensual album. “You Right” has the opposite problem; it falls victim to the album’s sonic homogeneity without incorporating any of the Weeknd’s trademark darkness or the '80s homage that permeated his album After Hours. Ironically, subsequent song “Been Like This” wouldn’t sound out of place on House of Balloons, including a buried choral sample and pitch–shifted hook. Doja’s rapturous delivery of the lyric “I bless your heart” is evocative of the celestial crooner Moses Sumney. It’s one of Planet Her’s most stunning tracks.
Close listening reveals more influences like this—pulled from the gritty outskirts of popular R&B—across the record. Planet Her even merits the rare comparison to Beyoncé’s Beyoncé. It may sound sacrilegious, but Doja Cat has more in common with pop’s Queen B than many of her contemporaries: Namely, her frankly unfair skill set encompassing singing, rapping, and dancing, plus her attunement not only to what is cool now, but also what will be cool a year later. For example, the particular subgenre of nocturnal afrobeats that inspire “Naked” only landed for US music critics last year, thanks in part to Ghanian musician Amaarae’s debut THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW (a marvelous, sultry album that’s even better than Planet Her). At times, Amaarae’s singing embodies a curling wisp of smoke, and Doja easily channels this too.
That’s because Doja Cat’s voice is the not–so–secret weapon that gives her music a distinctive character. Her timbre is malleable, but you also couldn’t mistake her for anyone else. It’s what elevated songs like “Tia Tamera” when she was still working on her flow. Having honed her craft, the character and charisma she wielded on tracks like “Rules” should place her amongst the echelons of Nicki Minaj or Cardi B. On the new record, “Payday” is an immaculately produced hyperpop sugar rush, but what is truly impressive is how Doja holds her own against Young Thug, whose own voice was described by Jeff Weiss as “a live power cord writhing in the street during a lightning storm.” It’s the best feature on Planet Her because these performers match each other bar for bar.
Planet Her’s album cover is a picture–perfect representation of the themes within: bringing corporeal, or even carnal, imagery into the realm of the cosmic. This is made clear from the record’s outset, “Woman,” when Doja raps “Mother Earth, Mother Mary rise to the top / Divine feminine, I’m feminine.” The album cover is also an apt metaphor for the album’s gently psychedelic atmosphere, which begins with “Woman” and carries through the resplendent, acoustic guitar–driven ballad “Alone” 13 tracks later. It can feel monotonous at times, but Doja Cat never allows her presence to be subsumed. If anything, she’s the center of this universe; it’s spilling out from her body. Pretty soon, the rest of pop music might be living in her cosmic realm too.