Angel Haze has built up a strong following during the past four years by releasing one fantastic mixtape after another, the best being Classick and Reservation. The only trouble with becoming mixtape-famous is that the people who become your fans like to feel as though they’re the only ones who know about you. They enjoy being the ones to tell their friends about you, to write about you on their blogs, etc. While they genuinely enjoy your music, in a sense it’s as though they’re using you. You’re like their secret weapon that they bring out when they want to dazzle their friends or readers. They use you to impress people. That’s not entirely a bad thing, as that’s what creates positive word of mouth, stirring up a buzz, but it can create a backlash when you make your major label debut. Suddenly, everybody knows about you and they can no longer tell their friends about you as though they’re revealing a juicy secret because your record label is making damn sure everybody already knows about you. In a sense, you lose value to these people once you’re a household name. Plus, people enjoy having favorite artists who aren’t mainstream. There’s a certain bond that exists between music lovers and underground artists. In addition to feeling like they’re in on a secret, fans almost feel as though they’re best friends with these artists. And once you become quote unquote popular, well, these fans can feel stabbed in the back. Suddenly you’re hanging out with lots of other people and it feels like a betrayal. People start saying that you’ve sold out before your major label album is even released. And so begins an inevitable backlash. If you’re one of the lucky artists, you gain so many new fans when your mainstream album drops that it more than makes up for the loss of fans who’ve now decided that they hate you. Take Nicki Minaj, for example. Google her and it’s easy to find rants by former fans who’ve deemed her a sellout, dissing her major label debut, Pink Friday. (And maybe she actually is a sellout — when I looked up Pink Friday on Amazon, the first item in the results was a Pink Friday Perfume.) Even those who still claim to be fans seem to go out of their way to tell people that your mixtapes are better than your mainstream albums. And sometimes they’re right. After all, major labels these days tend to take the rap out of hip-hop, replacing slamming hip-hop beats with pop bombast. Meanwhile, they hire pop singers to sing your choruses, as if you’re not talented enough to perform them yourself. Sometimes truly brilliant collaborations happen when rap meets pop, such as the Eminem and Rihanna gem “Love The Way You Lie.” But a lot of times these songs feel confused, as if someone just copied and pasted a random pop chorus into a rap track. And sometimes that’s exactly what happens.
In the case of Angel Haze, there definitely exists a certain level of backlash. In addition to many fans, plenty of critics are pointing out that the songs on her major label debut, Dirty Gold, seem toned down when compared to those on her very explicit mixtapes. But I’m not so sure that her label, Island/Republic, truly forced her hand there. Surely, they gave her plenty of input and suggested she do the song with Sia, but I have a feeling that she threw out most of their notes as soon as she left the room. Also, I’m not so sure I would even agree that Dirty Gold brings us a toned down Angel Haze. Yes, I’ve heard her take on Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” during which she tells the story of her childhood sexual abuse in startling detail, but few songs ever recorded by any hip-hop artist have ever been so graphic and brutally honest. I can understand fans of that song wanting something else that raw from her, but I’m sure it was painful for her to tell that story and I don’t think you can fault her for not recounting it all again on Dirty Gold. Besides, if she had re-told the story, people might say she’s exploiting her abuse — or something ridiculous like that — or that she’s looking for pity. And my impression is that Angel Haze is not looking for pity or even any sort of sympathy. To my ears, it sounds as though she’s trying to relate to people, to inspire them and give them hope. Besides, she does get into her horrible upbringing during “Black Synagogue,” during part of which she portrays an eerie preacher, something she’s undoubtedly familiar with, having been brought up in a cult. It’s a deep, biting song that contemplates God, the Bible and religion, among other things.
During “Angels & Airwaves,” which is probably the most “radio-friendly” track on the album, she speaks to people who are contemplating suicide, relating to them and urging them not to do it. (“Don’t get lost tonight / Never let the ignorance cost your life.”) Some of the lyrics — “I just want you to know / You are not alone” — might sound cliche or like they’re borrowed from a PSA. But most of them cut deeper as she raps about self-hate, rejection and many other reasons people kill themselves: “They make you feel wrong for being so different / It’s for everybody who knows what it is to feel like nothing but a memory that won’t be relived.” “See, I know how it feels / I been there before / I had my head in my hands / And my heart on the floor.” In a sense, you could say that “Angels & Airwaves” is Haze’s take on Eminem’s “Stan.” Only Haze didn’t need to sample anything or hire anyone for the hook, being that she’s a perfectly good singer who can carry a note as well as she raps. (Check out her impressive covers of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” on Youtube.) But, as mentioned above, that didn’t stop her from collaborating with Sia. That song is the anthemic “Battle Cry,” another track that’s meant to inspire and likely to be a radio hit. If there’s one problem with it, it’s that Haze raps so well, being that she spits out her words so quickly, that it can be difficult to follow her and radio isn’t accustomed to such rapid-fire delivery. Speaking of which, Haze is clearly one of the fastest rappers on the planet. She’s like the female Eminem and I’m sure I’m not the first to say it.
The standard edition of the album ends with the haunting title track, “Dirty Gold,” which finds Haze rapping about her lack of self-esteem when she was growing up over beautiful piano and subtle strings. “I used to cut myself open / Just to feel like I was living,” she raps. Surely, those lyrics are a bit more graphic than her label’s executives would have liked. Also, when Haze once again found herself battling the label about the release date of Dirty Gold, she got so pissed that she ended up leaking it herself on Soundcloud so that the label would have to hurry up and release it. And it worked. Instead of being held until March like the label wanted, they released it on December 30, 2013. I don’t think a sell-out or watered down rapper would spill lyrics like this or leak her own album. No, I think Angel Haze is as unwavering as ever. I’m sure there was a little compromise during the making of this record, but this is still the Angel Haze who made all of those wonderful mixtapes. And I don’t think she’ll ever be endorsing any perfume.