It all seemed to be going so smoothly for Angel Haze. 2013 was set to be her year, with the Detroit rapper finishing third in the BBC Sound of… poll following several acclaimed mixtapes. She even came out on top in a verbal joust with Azealia Banks, which resulted in Haze releasing two ‘diss’ tracks. However, just like Banks, the 22-year-old’s progress was significantly hindered by delays in the release of her debut album.
Rather than adhere to her label’s advice and wait for the scheduled release of Dirty Gold in March, Angel Haze decided to leak the record a few days before Christmas with the accompanying tweet: “Since they don’t want to put it out this year, I will.” The move forced the hand of Island Records, who promptly announced that the album would be made available as a digital download on 30 December.
The result was a measly 857 copies sold in its first week – not surprising, considering December is a graveyard for new albums – and the feeling that her defiance was ultimately a foolish act of self-sabotage. Yet, while the commercial performance of Dirty Gold undoubtedly suffered, it was refreshing – in a perverse kind of way – to see one of the Sound of… nominees break away from the usually well-oiled marketing machine.
In fact, after listening to Dirty Gold, its clear to see why Haze was so keen for people to hear the end result. That’s not to say it is an album without flaws, but it is undoubtedly one that confirms she is more than a mere flash in the pan. Surprisingly, it is also a record that straddles the line between pop and rap – something clearly signposted by opener Sing About Me, with its huge, infectious chorus.
It’s a direction that seems somewhat at odds with the rash decision to undermine her label, yet Dirty Gold is not without the dark, blunt lyricism that she made her name with. Take lead single Echelon (It’s My Way), where she spits: “Fashion Week, I’m out here slaying/ dressed in, like, all the latest/ killing these motherfuckers/ and shitting on all these haters.” As well as having the record’s best beat, the song shows what she is capable of when on top form.
“Promise you people that evil’s alive/ wish you could see what I see with my eyes,” she raps with startling speed on A Tribe Called Red, as she talks about the hardships she suffered during her childhood. It is a theme that crops up regularly throughout, with Angel and Airwaves another example of the often bleak lyricism in which she deals, as she raps about depression and feeling “so invisible you’re not even sure you exist”.
Elsewhere, Planes Fly is a nice change of pace, with its piano backing track giving Angel Haze the opportunity to demonstrate her maturity – before the song breaks into a melodic chorus – while Black Synagogue sees her tackle the heavy subject of religion. “I’ve been searching for the truth but it’s embedded in lies/ read every single verse until I’m red in my eyes,” she raps, addressing the Greater Apostolic Faith she was raised under.
Dirty Gold has many strengths that will recommend it to a mainstream audience, not least the sheer number of pop hooks that dominate the record. Producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Mumford And Sons) has certainly had an impact – evident in the highly polished end product – while tracks such as Battle Cry and Deep Sea Diver stray towards the sort of mainstream territory inhabited by the likes of Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea.
All in all, Dirty Gold is a solid first major-label album, one that is graced with several moments of brilliance. It doesn’t quite pack the punch that the her mixtapes possessed – or indeed, the boldness that saw her disobey label orders. But with her debut finally in the bag, Angel Haze can now concentrate on putting her own stamp on the world.