Everything Doja Cat tweeted before June 2023 is gone. All of her trolling to her 5.6 million followers about the title of her forthcoming album, her denouncement of the pop genre, and her threats to quit music altogether — wiped. All the links to those posts lead back to the same error message: “Sorry, that tweet has been deleted.” It’s common practice for musicians to clear their Instagram feed in anticipation of a new era, but hitting a hard reset on Twitter is quintessentially Doja. Even before the social media app began its ultimate descent into chaos under Elon Musk’s so-called leadership, it was one of the main sources of indignation that informed her latest single, “Attention” — and it sounds like she’s been wanting to get some things off her chest for a minute.
Some versions of the bullet points she hits across the Erykah Badu-inspired rap record were fired off online at one point or another. But, through a screen, it can be hard to differentiate between when Doja is being serious or just embarking on another tweet tangent — like when she referred to her multi-platinum albums Hot Pink and Planet Her as “cash-grabs” and berated her fans for enjoying the “mediocre pop” songs on them, including her viral singles “Say So” and “Kiss Me More.” Here, she more succinctly addresses her pop stardom and how there isn’t a rulebook for navigating it. She also acknowledges comments expressing concern for her mental health and disdain for her shaved head. She even nods to Twitter’s new paid verification policy, which she previously clowned in a tweet about people being “desperate for validation from famous people.”
But in a more important and revelatory moment, she set the jokes aside, observing matter-of-factly: “You follow me, but you don’t really care about the music.” In some ways, this idea has loomed over the 27-year-old’s career since “Mooo!” first went viral in 2018. Everyone knew who she was but not necessarily what she could do. On “Attention,” she shuts down everyone who ever questioned her skills as a rapper, but she also reaches a point of clarity. She’s not just trading in shitposting on the timeline for shit-talking in the booth; she’s also actively establishing new parameters around her artistic identity.
Like many artists who truly hit their stride during or around the pandemic, going viral was instrumental in cementing Doja as a bonafide hitmaker. Oftentimes, virality suggests an interest in one particular thing or style — sometimes, it’s not even the music itself but rather the perceived personality of the people behind it. In a fickle pop landscape that is only truly sustainable when near-instant popularity aligns with repeatedly proven skills, that same viral presence can stunt their growth and threaten their artistic credibility. It then becomes a battle to escape that cycle — and quickly. And while they still have the internet’s attention, some artists are trying to rebalance the scales between being known and being respected to procure longevity.
“‘Attention’ is not really a song. It’s more of, like, a piece — it’s a message,” Doja explained on an Instagram Live of her new track. “It’s not really supposed to be replayed. I thought it would be a nice way to start off the whole rollout. But the album is fun. I have a lot of different sounds on this album.” And if anyone somehow missed the message, they won’t find her explaining it to them again on Twitter. Even Lil Nas X, who similarly earned a reputation for being a deeply unserious person, rarely tweets anymore.
Now when he is online, the 24-year-old clearly distinguishes between when he’s trolling and when he’s opening up a bigger dialogue around his career. His clowning is so outwardly absurd that it can’t be mistaken for anything serious. Fans saw it through his meme-filled viral run with “Old Town Road” and his battle with conservatives over his choice to ride a stripper pole to hell in “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” both of which sparked larger conversations about his position as a Black, queer musician resting at the intersection of pop and rap. But mostly, his 8 million followers get little more than retweets of his live performances and stats about his latest streaming milestones.
It only took three viral hits — those two songs plus the Jack Harlow-assisted “Industry Baby” — for him to realize that, at this point in his career, social media functions as more of a minefield than a playground. “I’m a joked out ass motherfucker, you know, I’m always cracking jokes online,” he explained in a Genius interview in 2021. “I felt that because a lot of people, when they see me having fun with them on live, online, like laughing and stuff, they don’t think I take what I do seriously, but I very much do.”
Ice Spice, the 23-year-old rapper who is already on her fourth viral single of the year with “Barbie World,” learned this lesson early. “Sometimes I wake up and I be about to tweet shit or post… and then I’m like, Nah, I’m bugging. It’s like a million people that’s about to see this,” she recently told Teen Vogue. “Is it worth it to say this? I don’t be wanting my words to get misconstrued.” Like Lil Nas X, her Twitter feed is a showcase of her hottest outfits, biggest hits, and best performances — including a recent BET Awards medley that makes a true case for her staying power. She has big plans, and she’ll be damned if some tweets derail them.
“I do want to evolve as a person and an artist,” she added. “But I’m just trying to live in now and not focus so hard on 10 years from now, because I’m going to have to focus on that 10 years from now anyway. I’d rather just have fun and be lit … I’m putting more work in, more hours…. practicing, rehearsals, recording, working on my craft.” Later this year, she’ll join Doja Cat on a dozen arena tour dates. It’s a chance to further prove that she can command a crowd outside of an app while stomping out any lingering opinions from lackluster performance videos that circulated on Twitter earlier in her still very new career.
An underdog narrative has historically made for lucrative material in hip-hop and even pop, so much so that Drake and Taylor Swift still run with it despite their magnitude. People like having someone to root for after they’ve been counted out. But in this viral landscape, this comes with the caveat of audiences feeling control and ownership over the careers they’ve had a hand in building online. With that, there’s actually more of a threat that they will be washed away or replaced by the next viral artist, hit, or moment if they veer too far away from what they’re known for. And once an artist is locked into a certain internet identity, it can be hard to change it.
Viral moments tend to have the same staying power as an embarrassing middle school memory that takes until high school graduation to fully shake off. When Jack Harlow’s “First Class” went viral with its nostalgia-pop sample of Fergie’s 2006 hit “Glamorous,” it became pretty clear that it would be a major turning point for the rapper — a solo summer smash not unlike the ones his mentor Drake used to deliver. “I want to be the face of my shit, like the face of my generation, for these next 10 years,” the 25-year-old told Rolling Stone last year ahead of his sophomore album Come Home the Kids Miss You. “We need more people in my generation that are trying to be the best, and you can’t do that with just ear candy, vibe records. You got to come out swinging sometimes. … My new shit is much more serious.”
As it turned out, there wasn’t a single song on the album, ear candy or otherwise, that had the power to eclipse “First Class.” The rap songs on its tracklist, which boasted features from Drake and Lil Wayne, could barely even overpower the viral interview clips of the Kentucky rapper flirting his way to heartthrob status. His previously defining career moments, the straightforward rapping on “What’s Poppin’” and his swaggering “Industry Baby” verse, had been replaced by a song containing the lyric: “Pineapple juice, I give her sweet, sweet, sweet semen.” This was, apparently, not part of his grand plan.
In the year between Come Home the Kids Miss You and its follow-up Jackman, released in April, Harlow was also scarcely online. “I’ve seen enough of me on this lil’ screen/I’ve become so vain and insecure ’bout everything/I feel all this pressure to live up to what they tell me I’m gon’ be,” he raps on “Denver.” While Doja Cat got her comeback message across in a four-and-a-half minute-long song, Harlow similarly hammered his in with a 24-minute album.
As a white rapper, he evidently knows that it won’t take much to convince a pop audience to embrace him — especially in a post-pandemic industry where concert-goers will buy a ticket to hear one viral song on the setlist. With Jackman, he lobbies for the validation he seems to really crave from people who genuinely know and respect the craft of hip-hop. Across the album’s 10 songs, Harlow dials it way back on the pop front. His bars tackle white suburbia’s relationship with Black culture and attempt to uphold his claim that he’s the greatest white rapper since Eminem. And while it doesn’t feel like a denouncement of the most successful year of his career, it does feel like a clarification that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
After Jackman’s release, Lil Nas X tweeted: “Y’all stream my baby daddy album, we got rent just like y’all.” Jokes aside, the pop rapper does inadvertently touch on the truth of the matter: tweets don’t sell tickets, and virality is too unpredictable to depend on. In what seems like a healthy start, Doja Cat and Lil Nas X — the ultimate children of the internet — aren’t even on Threads, Mark Zuckerbeg’s Instagram-linked version of Twitter, while one of Harlow’s earliest posts has pleaded for everyone not to “destroy the integrity of this new ecosystem.” Ice Spice, meanwhile, is using the app to promote what is sure to be her fifth viral hit of the year. Especially as hip-hop’s chart dominance continues to slip, more artists hoping to build a fruitful legacy will need to speak through the music to prove that they’re more than just a moment online.