Angel Haze (and solo work)
Reviewed on this page:
Heaven Sent - New Moon - Altered Ego - King - Voice - Reservation - Classick - Dirty Gold
A Detroit-to-Brooklyn transplant, Angel Haze is a remarkable emerging talent, stacking up phrases and one-liners like the most fluid wordsmiths but with depth you'd expect to find only from a poet or philosopher. I think it's fair to say that Haze was presumed to be female until publically identifying as agender, preferring the pronouns they and their, in 2015.
Haze's first label-backed release, Dirty Gold (2013 - initially delayed then rush-released after Haze leaked the record on Soundcloud - only hints at the artist's abilities: you're better off starting with any of the 2012 free downloads.
In addition to the releases listed here, Haze has released a bunch of other tracks through one route or another; the 2013 #30GOLD project in particular contains some gems including a take on Ryan Lewis & Macklemore's "Same Love."
Heaven Sent (Nina aka Angel Haze: 2009)
I may be off on the timeline, but if Haze was born in 1991 and grew up in a religious cult that didn't permit music until the age of fifteen, Haze couldn't have been rapping for more than three years by the time of this mixtape. And in fact it's very raw - the ironically titled "Right Track" shows an artist clearly groping for a distinctive sound - with plenty of unexceptional rapping over then-overplayed hits (Santigold's "Unstoppable") and forgettable guest shots (a Lil Wayne imitator on "The Onlies").
The good news is, the best tracks already exhibit Haze's fierce wordplay ("Droppp") and piercing emotional openness ("Brand New Nina").
New Moon (2010)
At this early stage, Haze already has a patent on the ambivalent relationship post mortem ("All The Things", based on the t.A.T.u song), a sharp focus ("Mind Frame"), and even on the most hostile material a sense of fun often pokes through ("Transform Ya," sampling the Chris Brown record; "I Get It In"). While Haze's delivery is often vitriolic, the backing is often downbeat, even dreamy ("The Draft"; "Closer"), providing a nice contrast.
Most of the mixtape, though, is the usual: superficial if clever putdowns over recycled loops ("Run This Town"; "Overdue").
Several other tracks recorded this year are worth checking out:
the invigorating "Over"; an acoustic duet with John Quiwa on "Just A Guy (Girl)."
Altered Ego (2011)
The high points are high, starting with the wise, world-weary "Sufferings First" - one of a few tracks marking a shift to personal storytelling ("Impossible," first in a series of examinations of Haze's relationship with her mother).
Much of the material concerns romance and sex, though the results are far from typical: "There Goes My Baby"; "Right Through Me";
"Make It Raee'n" is a strikingly direct - and even more strikingly unromantic - examination of female-for-female desire.
In that context, it's almost irritating to listen to the second-rate rants ("Bitches On My Dick") and half-formed ideas ("6'7") which fill out the tape.
A couple of cuts are repeated from Altered ("Sufferings First"; "Roman's Revenge"), and the set suffers from a general lack of coherence.
Still, it's a significant step forward, as Haze commits to self-expression as accurate as possible no matter where that leads ("Say What's Real"). The results include some of the dry-eyed but vulnerable love songs that would form the backbone of Voice ("Fall For Your Type"), and gems like the fiercely tender anti-suicide "The Show Goes On."
And when the lyrics aren't at their best, the backing tracks usually fill the gap: "Fill Your Space" is an interesting experiment with a range of textures including rock guitars.
Haze released many other tracks during 2011, including several more intriguing relationship studies ("Come Winter"; "Can't Be Friends") and some vicious take-downs ("I'm Ill").
The first release where Haze presents a fully formed identity, and for my money the artist's most consistently thought-provoking set to date.
The battling and boasting is kept to a minimum (the blistering "Theraflu") in favor of a focus on self-revelation that's no less searing for being calmly stated ("Look What You've Done"; "Stranger" featuring Jhene Aiko).
Though a couple of tracks are built on then-current hits ("No Church In The Wild"), most cuts are based on spare, slow keyboard and drum loops ("Trust Issues") - in most hands these backdrops would grow dull, but the minimalist approach is a perfect fit for Haze's lacerating introspection.
The record is bookended with devastating love poems set to music ("Heart"; "Smile"), and I don't know anyone else who can pull that off without sounding fey, trite, twee or a combination of all three.
I've seen this mid-year release referred to as a mixtape, which I think is a misnomer... Haze's previous releases are mixtapes - rapping over familiar beats, put together quickly, with no sample clearance - whereas Reservation is a full album, though it's freely downloadable and from an unsigned artist, like Intervals' similarly excellent In Time. Anyway, Haze is a remarkable talent, stacking up phrases and one-liners like the most fluid wordsmiths but with depth you'd expect to find only from a poet or philosopher.
The verses are well constructed while seeming completely unforced, and Haze's persona seems just as natural ("CHI (Need To Know)," one of several love songs balancing hope and apprehension).
It's not easy in any genre to combine forthright honesty and vulnerability without sounding like a precious whiner, but Haze opens up fearlessly yet artfully on the resigned, desolate "Castle On A Cloud" and "Smile n Hearts," and sounding fresh and original even when merely bragging("Hot Like Fire").
The backing is understated (on "New York" she's backed by handclaps and virtually nothing else) and mostly keyboard-reliant: dreamy cushioning on the calmer tunes ("Realest") and dubstep-influenced aggression on the fast ones ("Supreme").
Much shorter than Haze's other mixtapes, this is still highly recommended.
The reinvention of Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" as a sexual abuse survival anthem is jaw-dropping if not the sort of thing you'll want to listen to often; deeper still is the story song "Bitch Bad," a surgical deconstruction and reconstruction of Lupe Fiasco's song.
Source tracks come from Lauryn Hill ("Dat Thang") and Missy Elliott ("Gossip Folks") among others.
Dirty Gold (2013)
My expectations were sky-high after Haze's prior unofficial releases, so this debut may not disappoint you the way it did me. Working with producers Mark Dravs, Greg Kurstin and Malay, Haze mostly employs jittery synths playing simple lines ("Echelon (It's My Way)"), and relies on sung choruses which aren't catchy ("Deep Sea Diver"; "Sing About Me"). Not complaining that it's a sellout - Haze had been enamored of synth hooks as far back as New Moon - just that it's uninteresting. The bigger stumbling block, though, is the lyrical focus: where Haze's earlier tracks had vibrantly depicted personal life struggles and a "work-in-progress" approach to surmounting them, now there are a lot of vague, vapid would-be feel-good anthems on the theme "I made it so you can too" (title track; "Angels & Airwaves"). A few more of Haze's trademark incisive affection dissections would have helped, too.
There is good news, though: "Battle Cry," with a hook from Sia, is a powerful message number, similar in form (though not topic) to "Same Love"; "A Tribe Called Red," produced by the First Nations dancemeisters of the same name, has a layered backing track that matches Haze's tongue-twisting delivery; best of all, "Planes Fly" is the sort of masterful relationship song no one does better.
Some configurations of the album have up to four bonus tracks ("Rose-Tinted Suicide"), but don't fret if your copy is missing them.
Earlier in the year Haze had released the non-album "No Bueno" and a month-long series of freestyles and remixes under the rubric #30GOLD. (DBW)
Back To The Woods (2015)
A sharp left turn away from EDM to gritty hip-hop, produced by Tk Ayembe, and based on a first listen it's the intense, unsparing, virtuosic record I was hoping Dirty Gold would be. A couple of earlier 2015 singles ("Gxmes"; "Candlxs") aren't on the album, either because they didn't fit the theme or because the very public relationship which had inspired them had ended - instead, there are a range of breakup songs ("Detox"), what-the-hell-do-I-do-now? songs (title track, "Dark Places") and trying-to-get-back-on-my-feet songs ("Bruises," "Babe Ruthless"). You may not be in the mood to listen to this very often, but when you are there's nothing like it.
Wilson & Alroy say what's real.