Album Review: Doja Cat – Planet Her

[Kemosabe/RCA; 2021]

In hindsight, all this talk of Afro-futurism’s return to the forefront of pop culture over the last decade was mostly in anticipation of a new form of Black psychedelia. It started somewhere around the release of Prince’s final album cycle, blossomed in 2016’s mass release of iconic Black music releases, and hit its apex with Tyler, The Creator’s Igor. These albums, constantly in dialogue with themselves, were more rooted in suburban leisure than cyberpunk urban canyons. Given that one of the most iconic characters of recent Black futurist imagery was unceremoniously edited out of his movie, only to be resurrected following a lengthy fan campaign, it’s becoming clear that there is an ongoing cultural struggle within those two polar aesthetics. On one hand, suburban leisure allows for moody self-reflection of everyday malaise, but across from that, the repressed anger of the cyberpunk semantics of Cyborg or the Watchmen HBO series indicate that the profane is ultimately just a front, behind which prejudices and oppression are still very much existential threats. Precisely because of that, it’s quite a bit of a surprise that, of all current pop stars, Doja Cat is the one to unite her naturally ‘casual’ image with that of Afro-futurism, composing ‘space-age’ music on her third album Planet Her.

Exploding onto the world stage with her ironic and iconic “Mooo!”, riffing on Anime Cat-girl imagery and female stereotypes, the 25 year old musician managed to unite rap, RnB and Zoomer-core, functioning as a crossover between the ‘chill study beats’ crowd and the poptimists. Both well versed in niche culture and a musical omnivore, gifted with a relatable stoner persona and experienced with bedroom production techniques, Doja Cat presented a different brand of role model. But that also meant her musical output was being all the more ridiculed. To see her now attempt a statement that is both meant as her most personal project to date, while also fitting into a tight futuristic concept – being inspired by the lush looks of planet TOI 1338b –  sounds thrilling, especially given that her previous two albums functioned as showcases of a varied and versatile talent.

Planet Her starts out strong, with the breezy reggae song “Woman”, which has Doja show off her skills as a rapper and harkens back to her love for Nicki Minaj. “Naked” continues the tropical vibe, featuring a wonderful sample-hook and allowing the young singer to show off her vocal range. It’s a lascivious, invigorating track, filled with flirtatious lyrics (“Baby, you’re so anxious / You can’t take it / Can we take this off and get naked?”) and playful impersonations. “Payday” returns to Doja’s insight into niche culture, using a vaporwave instrumental that could fit on a Blank Banshee project to duet with Young Thug. At times, with its ditsy chorus, “Naked” almost sounds like something Grimes could have released, while the neon-lit synths on “Need to Know” recall Rihanna’s strongest moments.

These comparisons are compliments, and “I Don’t Do Drugs” perfectly showcases why: here, serenading heartbreak with Ariana Grande, it’s clear there’s no qualitative distance between Doja and her contemporaries. She understands the appeal of both the pop-star spectre and syrupy production; everything on Planet Her is contained and refined, but never polished to a fault. She inhabits different characters and moods, her voice never wavering or coming across as too thin for what she attempts.

The second half of the album slows the tempo down considerably, but still manages to remain striking. Space-age ballad “Love to Dream” has her on-point hitting the high notes, “You Right” feels like an RnB hit of the mid-90s, and the moody hyperpop of “Been Like This” sounds like FKA Twigs warped into Rihanna.

The pink-dyed funk of lead single and closer “Kiss Me More” is the clear standout here, profiting from Doja’s unkempt flow and SZA’s chill attitude. It’s the summer hit at the end of an exhausting lockdown the world deserves, instantly memorable with its slightly distorted signature guitar lead. Add to that a pastel-coloured music video, which characterizes Doja and SZA as playful goddesses that are more interested in videogames than men, and it becomes clear just how clever the thematic approach to the album is.

Speaking of the visual aspect to Planet Her, it’s noteworthy that the accompanying videos become sort of a roadmap to the imaginary planet. By reflecting the everyday into science fiction contexts that incorporate video game, comic book and cybperunk imagery, Doja manages to conquer these landscapes, her psychedelic qualities on full display. This manages to solve the divide between Afro-futurism’s darker side and suburban leisure’s levity: Doja Cat sees the future as the possibility for utopia and connects it to its roots in current iconography. Even if Cyberpunk 2077 was buggy and unfinished, its imagery of diverse and laid back bars allows for inspiration into which Doja inserts herself.

It’s no accident Planet Her‘s front cover is shot by camp legend David LaChapelle: this is a young woman boldly claiming her place among the stars. Maybe not every song here is as fully-realized as her best material, and maybe there are a few too many slow-moving ballads – but this doesn’t lessen just how delightful Planet Her ends up as a whole. It’s the type of pop album there should be more of: both playful and psychedelic, rich in intelligent production, and filled with charismatic and chameleonic performances.