Artist: Angel Haze
Format: EP, free Mixtape
There are not an enormous number of 20-year-old, Native American, childhood-in-a-cult surviving, queer, female rapper/singers around currently. Given the cult stuff, you’d hope not. Angel Haze is, though and she’s about to be one of the biggest things in the world.
Female rap comparators are always limited- the default used to be Missy and now everyone’s the new Minaj who Angel Haze has mentioned aspirations to collaborate with- “it’ll be like a fencing match”. When she’s asked about her favourite artists, she says Drake, Jason Mraz and Sia (even though she says it Cy-ah) and then she talks about helping out at her mum’s daycare centre and spending most of her day surrounded by kids, not being into partying, not having been into hip hop until a friend turned her onto it. She likes fashion (Kanye, Pharell Williams, androgyny) and skateboarding, Chinese food and stuffed crust pizza; she doesn’t like labels, doesn’t like linking her sexuality to her music, doesn’t want to have to define it. She likes that her fans are crazily devoted but it also freaks her out. She sounds kind of sleepy and goofy when she speaks in interviews.
The idea of a mixtape conjures images of rough cuts, the sort of thing an artist does before they have access to a full studio and production; bootlegs. Equally, when I think of an EP my brain goes to something 5-7 tracks long that was chart ineligible. You know, back when cassettes were a thing- the world has changed, needless to say; this is 14 whole tracks, no interludes (that would’ve been an extended edition LP in 2001) and some of the most impressive music you will hear all year.
This is her third mixtape but Angel Haze first started making major waves with ‘Make It Raee’n’ a sexually explicit, hard-as-nails queer girl’s anthem, the title playing on both her real surname and ‘making it rain’ dollars in a strip club. It’s gripping and witty but roughness is far from the extent of her repertoire.
The thing that first hits you on this tape is unbearable pain and honesty- the first song, ‘This Is Me’ goes straight for her history, which is one of abuse in a cult setting. From the sample of a baby’s mobile playing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ at the start through a biographical account of abuse, fear and displacement through her military and religious upbringing, this is a soft and almost frighteningly honest opener.
It’s difficult to get your head around the fact that Haze is only 20; this sounds like the considered retrospective of someone much older- most twenty-year-olds who’ve lived perfectly normal lives aren’t this together, self-knowing and understanding of others. Then again, she does spend quite a lot of her spare time making YouTube advice videos, addressing things written to her by her fans, like this anti-suicide broadcast. Give it up, Lady Gaga.
Second track Wicked Moon is a different beast entirely. Haze plays with imagery of being wicked or evil, unholy a lot across the album, comparing herself to Satan later and this is wholly set on that theme, of being something slightly monstrous. One of only a few collaborations on the tape, this features Missy Elliot’s late-90s prodigy Nicole Wray. Smokey, gothic and sinister this somewhat offbeat-ly reminds me of Rasputina’s Signs of the Zodiac or similar gothic fusion, sonically. Lyrically, it’s dark as they come- a late night semi-panic of werewolf child abusers and brooding self-transformation under the constant moon.
‘CHI (Need To Know)’ is a complete flip around- this is the love song. Incredibly beautiful, although still full of pain (“I need to know that it’s possible to love you/like they do in movies, baby/I need to know that it’s possible to feel you/like you’re never ever moving”) this is a devotional song, as open an offering as the first two tracks but instead of introspection this is a tender offering.
One thing you might assume with mixtapes is that they tend not to have the massive pop tunes on them, like they’ve got no singles. It’s not actually true but you might assume that Angel Haze wouldn’t have a track as gigantic, glossy and radio-friendly as, say, Nicki Minaj’s Moment 4 Life under her belt. It goes without saying that she does- ‘Supreme’ is a self assured, endlessly positive tough-girl anthem- “I wanted it all/finally I got my way/I was having problems with myself back then/but none of that is in my way/and it can be yours/if you want it baby make your way/and you can go far/keep running baby it’s your race” -’having problems with [her]self’ feels like the grossest underestimate of her life as described in the previous songs but this is the victory song.
If it cut off there, with four solidly amazing songs this would be potentially the EP of the year. There are another ten tracks. The next one is the dirty bassline, handclap-led brag of New York; it’s Eve’s ‘Tambourine’ and Lil Kim’s ‘Lighters Up’, stripped to nothing and performed by a prodigy- “I’m satan and I’mma take your ass to church now.” From the addictive thump of the chorus, all power and echo to her phenomenolly rapid-fire verses this is almost ludicrously brilliant.
If I sound a little like I’m shellshockedly fan worshipping here, it’s because I am. A bit. Deservedly. This tape is so good it’s obscene- the idea that Haze isn’t the biggest artist in the world right now, let alone that she isn’t signed, seems beyond stupid when you’re listening to it. How can anyone with this much talent, full of irresistable mainstream aesthetic yet remaining totally innovative and fresh-sounding not be on every ‘biggest thing ever’ list? Reservation feels like an imperial phase release, something an artist does on a budget of millions after they get through the early funny stuff and this is her early funny stuff.
Hot Like Fire is an old school slow jam; seducing an androgynous paramour, sleepy and stoned in a sunlit bed. It’s a gender-defying song, in the sense that it’s feminine and masculine all at once; her rapping is hard and feels tough, boyish while endlessly tender- “Sh*t, kiss me like I’m different/like the part of you that’s missing reappeared when I popped up” -she talks about her androgynous aesthetic a lot with regards to fashion but it’s one of the best things about her music, too. I have a lot of respect for someone making gender-neutral music, there are so many tropes across all genres that are recreated again and again and they just reinforce stereotypes.
There’s no point where this tape drops, which is really astounding. No album tracks, no filler, nothing where the quality is lowered- there are stand-outs but if she released any of the songs on here as a single it’d be justified, which is a rare and special thing. Werkin Girls, with its bamboo beat and explosive, military delivery has been (along with New York) one of the hype tracks for the tape but pretty much anything here could’ve been. The line “I’m on top of my green like a motherf*ckin’ tractor” is undoubtedly a contender for best of the year, too.
Back to sweetness (of a sort) with Gypsy Letters; “love comes at really awkward times/and I’ve learned it doesn’t always rhyme/my ink well’s run dry writin’ letters to you/my heart is in half cus it’s better in two” -the dreaminess and gorgeousness of a teenage (must be) summer relationship, meeting at Coachella and never quite happening. Tug-of-war on hearts and back-and-forth dating are rich seams for songs and Haze handles the heartache and the happiness in an exemplary manner.
The other guest appearance of the album is Kool A.D. of Das Racist, on ‘Jungle Fever’, which is sonically a bit like Azealia Banks’ 212, only perhaps more badass, endless brooding synths and almost playground chanting. It’s a direct contrast with glossy, shiny follow up Realest, although both tracks are showcasing her ability to play word games and flip between rapid-fire rapping to a languid chorus. Again, it feels silly that this is an artist at the start of her career- when she says she’s the best, eh, it seems pretty plausible; she can’t be 20, it’s too depressing for the rest of us.
Castle On A Cloud is back to extreme darkness. About child sex abuse, from her own experience and others’, this is as heavy as topics come. Even quoting the lyrics feels cheap, the song such a sophisticated and sensitive complete piece but the last verse is like a gut-punch, an emetic dose of too-much pain:
why me, man, I wasn’t even old enough/I wasn’t strong enough/wasn’t even bold enough/woulda told my mum but that sh*t would’ve torn her up/and she was torn enough/and he was Mr Perfect/and now it’s trivial I guess I was just f*ckin’ worthless/I just want you to know how much it hurt me/because of you I feel I’m not a person/so I sit here with this blade in my hand/got the brain of a man and the pain of a child
That takes a rare bravery.
The next song, ‘Suffering’s First,’ is another enormously powerful track; the central refrain is something that runs through the album, about overcoming and still hurting and ambition. Without wanting to dive too far into the pretension pool, it sounds like she’s been reading Schophenhaur’s ‘On Suffering’ in terms of mechanic (not implausible at all, she’s a fan of philosophy) “So what if it hurts?/the struggle is first/to live is to die, we all suffer the curse/and love is the cure until we’re suffering worse/pleasure is pain; the suffering’s first”
Somehow, the tender acoustics blend perfectly into a club banger- ‘Drop It’ is the swag track, the song for your car. For someone who says she doesn’t like going out, this is definitely a party track; “I’m everything I said I’d be/I hate to say I told you so/but f*ck ‘em, f*ck ‘em, f*ck ‘em cus none of them can mess with me/I’m eatin’, I’m heavy/these rappers malnutritioned next to me” -it’s a play on her incredibly slight frame I guess but also a great boast, delivered in her throaty tones. When she turns this side on, she sounds as witty and knowing as she does when she’s doing the more intense, heavy tracks and it’s good to see the chameleon effect. With a lot of albums seemingly going one way or the other on the partying/emotions false line it’s impressive to see a self-made tape managing both.
Final song Smiles ‘n’ Hearts is another dreamy track, returning to the ideas of hope and escape on ‘Suffering’s First’ or ‘Supreme’ -she deals with some religious issues (“I’m deathly scared of ascendance”) and the eponymous line is is actually a negative (“Smiles’n'Hearts/they tear us all apart”) but the overall message is one of fighting, carrying on; they keep telling me the world is mine but they won’t allow me to rise/so I got hell-all in my heart and hatred all in my eyes [...] I just want someone to believe in me/tell me they know I’m hurt but the goodness is all they see in me and the refrain is that she still dreams. That’s a powerful ending to a triple-kick of an album. And she’s still only 20, I feel like I can’t say that enough. Phenomenal.
I don’t know…if I love Angel Haze so much maybe I should just marry her. This really is the album of the year so far, though- with an extraordinary amount of amazing music coming out, this is the crown on what feels like an extremely exciting era of new hip hop/r’n'b royalty. Heartfelt and painful, hardass and playful, it’s incredibly beautiful, totally obscene, equal parts challenging and catchy. Everything here is astounding- if you passed this up for $50 you’d be a fool, for free it’s compulsory.