If hip-hop's most central tenet is to keep it real, Angel Haze passes with flying colours. Ever since she first started putting ferocious, cathartic mixtapes online as a teenager, it's been her raw, unvarnished honesty that has seen her accrue a devoted following as she's carved out hitherto uncharted territory in the genre. All of this has fed into the making of Haze's debut album proper, 'Dirty Gold' coming out March 3red on Island Records.
Born Raykeea Wilson in Detroit 22 years ago, Angel Haze's life has provided her with plenty to confront - and a lot to get off her chest. She was raised in the Pentecostal Greater Apostolic Faith but escaped with her mother to New York and it was there that she discovered that music could be an outlet for the thoughts and feelings inside her. Early mixtapes - 'New Moon' (2010), 'Altered Ego' (2011), 'King' (2011) - found her both spitting furious battle raps and pouring her heart into 4amlove poetry over a diverse array of beats: contemporary rap hits, acoustic folk-hop, even bits of grime she'd found online.
2012 saw Haze take her work to the next level: 'Reservation', technically a free mixtape, found her rapping over original beats for the first time - and the resulting work was as tight, coherent and accomplished as any album. The clattering braggadocio of 'New York' and 'Werkin' Girls', both accompanied by suitably sinister videos, saw her gain both blog buzz and radio traction, with the former A-listed at 1Xtra; the mixtape's deep cuts ranged from the gothic nightmare of 'Wicked Moon' to the heartfelt, pastoral love song 'Gypsy Letters'. But it was another track, released without fanfare later that year that made the world sit up and take notice - after it punched them in the gut first. On 'Cleaning Out My Closet', a rework of the Eminem single, Haze tackled in harrowing, visceral detail the sexual abuse she'd suffered as a child.
In the lead-up to the release of 'Dirty Gold', Haze once again stirred up an online frenzy with '30 Gold' -a freestyle series of Haze's coruscating raps over beats borrowed from notable contemporaries: Kanye West's 'Black Skinhead,' Mackelmore's 'Same Love', Miley Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball', Jay-Z's 'Tom Ford,' and Drake's 'Worst Behavior,' among others.
'Dirty Gold' has been produced in collaboration, for the most part, with producer Markus Dravs (Bj"rk, The Arcade Fire and Coldplay) other production credits go to Mele (Frank Ocean) and Mike Dean (Kanye West) discordant bass drones and eerie electronics dominate the dark romance 'Deep Sea Diver'; on the flip side, Haze explores the hopeless nature of that love on the piano-driven ballad 'Planes Fly', inspired by one of her favourite songs ever - Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car'. As she's hinted at recently, Haze went through "a bad break-up" while writing and recording the album - and her obsession with doomed love is a recurring theme throughout. In songs such as 'April's Fool' and 'Deep Sea Diver', Haze seeks to capture these fleeting moments in musical form.
Often, 'Dirty Gold' feels like a rap album crossed with a confessional singer-songwriter album - Haze is a poet first, then a rapper. On 'Black Dahlia', Haze tackles her dysfunctional relationship with her mother by addressing a younger version of her, drawing the lines between the damage both women have suffered and finally rewriting a happy ending for her. As ever, Haze's mind goes to darker places than most as she imagines erasing herself so that neither daughter nor mother would have to suffer the consequences of their relationship.
Meanwhile, 'White Lilies / White Lies' is a strip club anthem with a difference: with its heavy bass drops, it may sound like a fitting soundtrack for a pole dancer, but lyrically it examines Haze's conflicted, confused feelings for a stripper friend and her job: Haze's thoughtfulness and intelligence cut sharply through the drunken, hedonistic fug.
Two further collaborators are of particular significance to Haze. A Tribe Called Red, a Native American electro pow-wow collective who hail from Ottawa, are friends of long standing. The track that shares its name with the collective is a cauldron of oscillating synthwork, chants, claps and hollers, Haze rising to the occasion by throwing in even more vocal switch-ups than usual. It's also a means for the self-taught Tsalagi speaker to nod to her own Native American heritage.
Meanwhile, Haze joins forces with the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sia for the inspirational 'Battle Cry', on which she flips her own traumatic experiences into the ability to lead her fanbase through their own lives. What makes it even more special is that Sia's own 'Breathe Me' holds a special place in Haze's heart. "When I was feeling suicidal, I'd go to sleep with that song on. And I'd either feel like my entire world was closing in on me or, in some strange, euphoric way, I was becoming stronger." It's a subject Haze addresses elsewhere on the album, on the powerful 'Angels And Airwaves' - a reworking of one of Haze's old poems, "If You're Contemplating Suicide", in song form."It's probably the song I would make for myself back then,"
Not that Haze can't lighten the mood when she wants, 'Echelon' (It's My Way) which was the first release from 'Dirty Gold' is a tremendously propulsive hip-hop jam that showcases her underrated sense of fun, returning to the rat-a-tat chat that she does with such panache.
Dirty Gold is the product of this Angel Haze scrolling through her multifaceted identity, memories and experiences to create a piece of art you can't shy away from.
1. Sing About Me, 2. Echelon (It's My Way, 3. A Tribe Called Red, 4. Deep Sea Diver, 5. Synagogue, 6. Angel + Airwaves, 7. April's Fools, 8. White Lillies / White Lies, 9. Battle Cry, 10. Black Dahlia, 11. Planes Fly, 12. Dirty Gold