Listening formats have always impacted the shape of music. Historically, the trend has been towards things getting longer: 12-inch vinyl records offered 22 minutes on each side, C90 cassettes pushed that to 45 minutes a side, then CDs offered 74 minutes without having to flip anything over (that measure, it turns out, was down to Beethoven).
But digital downloads and streaming have flipped this trend on its head. Despite no longer being constrained by physical limitations, songs are getting shorter. And with more than 100,000 songs being added to streaming services every day, there’s never been more competition to cut through. TikTok’s bottomless scroll and rapacious algorithm have supercharged this effect.
First impressions have never been more important. And Central Cee, ever the savvy operator, is acutely aware of this. “The first line is kind of, like, somewhat controversial,” the London rapper told Genius of his nudging-and-winking summer smash, Doja. “It just sounds like something I’m not supposed to be able to say.” Early teasers posted on TikTok and Instagram would confirm his hunch, sending the track on its way to virality well before its official release.
That opening line – “How can I be homophobic? My bitch is gay” – is the kind of double-taking earworm that’s catnip to TikTok and ripe for an Insta caption: sharp enough to sound smart, glib enough to appear disinterested, a hint of contradiction to stir confusion, and just hovering above the line of what’s acceptable to say out loud. And every line that follows is absurdly quotable, from Muslim trappers shotting on Christmas Day to a gun being gay also. One user uploaded a video to YouTube titled “Doja but every time he says a questionable line it gets faster”. Then the whole thing comes spinning to a chipmunked close in just over a minute-and-a-half. Doja Cat herself admitted that the “indulge in that” bar made her laugh.
Like the social platforms it blew up on, Doja is designed to be addictive, too. The beat pokes its head above the parapet of unimaginative “sample rap” – following Tion Wayne, Aitch and ArrDee’s bald attempts at chart bait. The lead guitar riff is lifted from Eve and Gwen Stefani’s 2001 hit Let Me Blow Ya Mind, and by truncating and looping the sample, the song (quite literally) keeps you on the hook.
Cench’s prodding, staccato flow is ripe for big crowds to shout back, and clarity of his delivery reflects a wider ambition: to be the first UK rapper of his generation to blow globally, unencumbered by any international audience hang-ups about that funny Brih-ish accent. Doja picked up plays everywhere from Brisbane to the Bahamas. The video made him the first UK rapper to appear on Lyrical Lemonade – something of an American hip-hop holy grail – and Cench sustained the buzz in the States with a viral L.A. Leakers freestyle decoding London slang.
With its eyebrow-raising bars, you could call Doja risky, not necessarily something to bet your rap career on. But listen closely, and you find something that was precision-engineered to blow up in 2022.