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2012 is already one of the best years for female rappers in a long while. Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” has given her another massive hit at a time when those are vanishingly rare in rap, and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded balances her fearsome skill as a rapper with her newly-minted pop star status. Na’Tee’s “No Love” is the best track by more than a few women (Sasha Go Hard and Katie Got Bandz) who have merged from Trina’s old lane to the street where brittle bangers bounce off asphalt. Trina herself is back with the weirdly awesome “Beam”; Missy Elliott is, too, appearing on the remix for M.I.A.’s fantastic “Bad Girls” and in the hook to J. Cole’s slow-burning “Nobody’s Perfect.” Despite a middle finger overshadowing the affair, Nicki and M.I.A. joined Madonna on a single the trio performed at halftime of the Super Bowl. Hell, Kreayshawn and Iggy Azalea are still things, and Kitty Pryde’s maybe the breakout Internet figure in music this year.
No woman in rap is quite as exciting as Angel Haze, though. And Reservation, her new EP, gives listeners good reason to be excited both for what she is and what she will be.
Haze’s talent was evident from early on in her career: I mentioned her as a counterpoint to Kreayshawn in a May 2011 piece in this space, when she was just 19 and skittering all over the instrumentals for Jamie Foxx’s “Fall For Your Type” and Lil Wayne’s “Single.” Even then, she stood out for her honesty, uncommon for any rapper, and proficiency with flows, prodigious for a young rapper, much less a young female rapper.
Reservation, released Tuesday, shows Haze has grown significantly since Altered Ego and King (her two 2011 mixtapes) and Voice (released in April), and does it from the jump. “This Is Me” opens it, with Angel directing verses as letters to her mother, sibling, and the “little girl inside” her, saying “You’re a lot smarter than you’re ever given credit for” to the latter, and she’s building on the framework laid out by Kanye West on “Everything I Am” by trying to puzzle out her own influences and biases; rappers as technically adept as Haze rarely throttle down for tracks like “This Is Me,” and even rappers as prone to naked displays of emotion rarely lead off projects with songs so honest and devoid of swaggering.
The many plants in rap’s garden of cross-pollinating artists and styles make it hard to definitively say any rapper derives from any other, but West is a good touchstone for Haze, and Drake an especially good one. Much as Drake was a post-Kanye rapper, Angel’s one of the first rappers to truly begin her career post-Drake—she was only in her mid-teens when his music started kudzuing blogs, and she used six instrumentals Drake had previously touched on Altered Ego—and she wears his influence well, with confessionals that come off as credible and compelling. Drake is capable of boiling the circumstances of his life down to bars and hooks that connect universally and endure tweets and status updates; Haze possesses some of the same skills, though she’s considerably greener.
Angel Haze, “New York”
But Haze is also more weathered by life than the child actor-cum-rap megastar, both truly and on record. Childhood tumult touched off by her family’s expulsion from a cultlike Pentecostal sect is obviously an influence on her work and philosophy (which values suffering and greets love with more than a dollop of skepticism), and her journey, from birthplace Detroit to the D.C./Virginia area, to New York after dropping out of high school, has likely helped write some of the verses that seem to come from a nomad’s pen. Haze can sound like a ravenous young rapper in one verse (“Like Scorpion, bitch, I will finish you” completes one nimble bit of double-timing on the blistering “New York”) and the genre’s most world-weary 21-year-old in the next (“Triumph is nothing if it doesn’t come from tragedy” forms part of the hook on “Supreme”)—and, unlike Drake, she actually is way too young to be feeling that old.
If that’s part of the product of her difficult childhood and her background (Reservation refers to her partial Native American heritage; Haze describes herself as pan-sexual), then the pain and suffering have, at least, produced compelling art and a rapper who is committed to narrative storytelling despite its use being on the wane. Reservation is far from perfect, and could benefit from more guests to ballast Haze’s often heavy rhymes about Satan and hell: the Kool A.D.-assisted “Jungle Fever” crackles, and “Wicked Moon” has one of the better hooks on the album thanks to Nicole Wray, but it’s a tough front to back listen because of the darkness.
It’s also the third Haze project with “Sufferings First,” a striking purloining of the Sara Tavares track used for J. Cole’s “Losing My Balance,” and though “Sufferings” is among her best work, it’s both old and reflective of a time when she needed the emotional attachment of previously used music to get over; now, she can rap something like “I like rough sex, and I never had none” and get a wry smile instead of wringing pathos out of others’ sweat.
Haze doesn’t need that anymore. She’s on her own path, rapping with certainty and grabbing fans with her own words. The catchy, squeaky “Drop It,” Reservation‘s most obvious attempt at a terrestrial radio-ready song (“New York” is getting play on satellite radio), also has Haze’s best description of self: “I came from the bottom up, and now I’m fuckin’ hoverin’.” Wait ’til she flies.