One thing is certain: No one does deliberately encouraging raps like Angel Haze. Most recently scheduled for a March release, the Brooklyn-via-Detroit rapper released her new Dirty Gold under less than ideal label circumstances. “So sorry to Island/Republic Records, but fuck you,” Haze wrote as she leaked the album via Twitter, fed up with delays that were evidently more business-related than artistic. As it compares to Death Grips’ 2012 bird-flip of a leak with No Love Deep Web, Haze’s method is less punk and more personal. As it relates to Beyoncé’s unannounced self-titled LP, it’s not so much about strategy as it is a product of Haze’s purposeful autonomy. But if the leak wasn’t predicted, it wasn’t surprising, either. Over the past couple of years, Haze has asserted an independence of spirit that at times recalls Erykah Badu (for her free-thinker eloquence), Fiona Apple (for the way she makes inner tumult seem harmonious), and Nicki Minaj (for her keeping-up-with-the-boys technical showboating).
On Dirty Gold, Haze is particularly unapologetic about delivering heavy, personal material. And the West-ian song titles — “Black Synagogue” and “Black Dahlia”, particularly — only begin to indicate her social agenda. Most rappers, if they want to have the same air of erudition and self-actualization, have to exaggerate their traits or make things up, but Haze actually seems secure in her vulnerability as a rookie female MC. Her maturity isn’t surprising, of course. She was the most upperclassmen-like of the last year’s XXL Freshman class. And even when she gets overbearing here, as with the suicide-prevention message of “Angels & Airwaves” and its “I know how you feel” words of sympathy, the heart she puts into her verses is undeniable.
There’s a lot to marvel at when it comes to Haze’s technique: Her Uzi-like syllable sprays, mesmerizing on past songs like “Werkin’ Girls” and “New York”, are still invigorating. Nothing else makes Dirty Gold so dynamic. “A Tribe Called Red”, a torrent pitched between Kanye’s “Black Skinhead” and Nas’ sprint, “Nasty”, particularly succeeds with its verbal gymnastics. For a traditionally minded rapper– one whose punchlines are carefully formulated to achieve a quick-strike effect– Haze’s lyrics are damned prosey. She’ll zigzag virtuosically in the pocket of a given beat, but won’t make much use of simile or other language devices. Still, the clarity of her narratives usually results in a hard-earned cumulative effect.
Haze has made news for her beef with Azealia Banks, which began when Haze took a could-be-for-anyone subtweet about non-native New York rappers personally. She doesn’t address that particular relationship here, not even in the dubious, subliminal way Drake and Kendrick Lamar exchange shots, but she still sounds like a serious competitor. Often enough, that quick-to-pounce nature serves her well. But, when her lyrics start to sound like coasting (“Spread your wings and fly”), the issue is that she seems too assured. During her Bible-quoting histrionics at the front of the seven–minute “Black Synagogue”, a song about alienation, we should be able to hear some doubt.
Dirty Gold is plenty inviting, sonically speaking, with patches of rock, EDM, and pop. It’s problematic, however, that the album zones in on those genres with about as much specificity as those designators have. In short, Dirty Gold sounds too much like Coldplay to function as a rap album — and yes, producer Markus Dravs worked with the English band on a couple of their recent albums. “A Tribe Called Red” and the orchestral pour of “Rose-Tinted Suicide” are exceptions, but many of the beats here have too little character and nuance. There’s a lot of rock drumming, but it’s rock drumming hardly more lively than the backing tracks on one of those play-along guitar instructionals. When Haze does aim for a specific kind of song structurally, she hits her marks. “Battle Cry”, for one, with its chorus from the radio-ready Australian singer Sia, is a hit if Haze will ever have one. But, as with other facets of the album, her particular kind of populism means she doesn’t always chase a given idea to its full potential. There was at least one party that wanted to hold off from releasing Dirty Gold just yet. Though we’ll never know all the details, Haze could probably have benefited from a longer gestation period.
Essential Tracks: “Echelon (It’s My Way)”, “A Tribe Called Red”, and “New York”