For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 4, we remember the year in Doja Cat — a captivating pop-rap eccentric who took the final steps towards true superstardom in 2021.
If there was any doubt that a viral Internet weirdo could become a full-fledged pop force, Doja Cat put those to rest this year. Over the course of 2021, the 26-year-old s–tposter grew from a meme machine-slash-rapper-slash-singer to a Grammy-nominated (and VMA-hosting) artist, who redefined what social media success looks like.
Doja started the year off ready to unveil her next album era, still in the afterglow of the success of 2019’s Hot Pink, which boasted hits like the Tyga-assisted “Juicy,” “Rules” and, of course, the Billboard Hot 100-topper “Say So.” But the smoke from the Hot Pink train kept billowing well into 2021, as the sultry “Streets” started to grow on TikTok with the Silhouette Challenge. Thanks to the TikTok bump, “Streets” eventually hit the top 20 on the Hot 100, and was followed by a number of high-profile collaborations with Saweetie (“Best Friend”) and Ariana Grande (the “34+35” remix), which began Doja’s transition from Gen-Z darling to legitimate A-list artist — without ever really losing the eccentric charm that propelled her to viral success with the surreal “Moo!” video three years earlier.
“I feel like people separate the pop star from the very humane, normal internet teen goofball kind of girl,” Doja told Billboard earlier this year. “And I feel like they complement each other. There is no separation, in my opinion. I always looked at myself like, ‘I can do it.’ But I feel like people thought I was this goofy girl, and that’s all I could ever really be.”
By March, Doja Cat had announced that Planet Her would be arriving in the summer and celebrated the occasion by releasing the breezy “Kiss Me More” with SZA in April. The song’s success was no surprise, given its immediate catchiness – and it didn’t hurt that SZA was coming off her biggest Hot 100 solo hit with the serene “Good Days,” as Doja’s “Streets” was still making waves on streaming and social media. The song debuted at No. 7 on the Hot 100 and ultimately made its way to No. 3, remaining in the top 10 for 27 weeks.
The years-long buzz around Doja Cat’s viral Midas touch and the gift of capturing the voice of a fun-loving, open-minded generation became a precursor to the stable success of Planet Her, which dropped in June and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. In an unusual route for a pop album in 2021, the album mostly picked up momentum in the months following its release. Songs like “Get Into It (Yuh),” “Ain’t S–t” and “Woman” were all initially non-singles that quickly became hits through TikTok, proving that the genre-shapeshifting Doja practiced on Planet Her – from rap and pop to Afrobeats – was a refreshing and enjoyable change of pace for music fans. As a result, Planet Her stuck around the Billboard 200’s top 10 for the rest of the year.
Besides the impressive musical accomplishments for an unconventional singer who had almost no presence in the mainstream music world just a few years prior, 2021 was also a year of personal growth for the 26-year-old star. Doja uncharacteristically stayed out of Internet controversy, focusing on her professional hustle, after a slew of resurfaced homophobic tweets and offensive chat room habits made their way around the Internet in 2020. The #DojaCatIsOverParty itself ended in 2021, allowing the now-maturing star to learn from her mistakes and shift her focus to her skills as a songwriter and performer.
In addition to her sophomore solo album, Doja Cat made guest appearances on highly-anticipated sets from fellow genre-blending stars including Lil Nas X’s Montero and Young Thug’s Punk and delivered a year’s worth of award show wins and performances. Her ubiquitous presence all led up to September’s MTV VMAs, where she took over the entire night as host, performer (“You Right” and “Been Like This”), and winner (best collaboration for “Kiss Me More”). If her screen time during the actual show wasn’t enough, she also starred in a sparkling, Grease-inspired Pepsi ad, showing how there was barely anywhere in pop culture you could escape Doja in 2021.
Despite her growing star power, Doja never stopped being the zany free spirit her fans know and love, hosting major network broadcasts one day but posting hilariously strange skits on TikTok a week later. The duality of her character and her singular ability to navigate quickly changing trends shows just how unique her star power is, and how effortlessly she walks the line between new and old school pop stardom – a skill few if any other artists are able to match in 2021.
Doja Cat hardly lost steam by the end of 2021, closing the year with a whopping eight Grammy nominations — tied for second-most — including nods for the album (Planet Her), song, and record of the year (both “Kiss Me More”). The achievement marks a rare level of mainstream industry approval for a female pop-rap star and makes Doja one of the faces of all of the popular music as we enter 2022.
Later today, Billboard reveals our No. 3 pop star of 2021 — the latest-arriving pop star on the scene this year.