For rapper, singer, and future neurosurgeon Angel Haze, blurring lines is life.
Angel Haze talks like she raps, dryly and at a wild clip, pausing only to point out when she’s joking and when she’s dead serious. Every so often, a word like “career” will stick to the roof of her mouth like peanut butter. Placing “music” before it makes her even more uncomfortable, as her primary goal is to help listeners feel less alone in the world, and, in her mind, once she contemplates how to sell something, it immediately becomes a gimmick.
“I was homeless a lot as a kid,” she says, staring out the window of a black Town Car her record label has provided for the day. “I realized early on how little the world cares about that sector of humanity. I genuinely care about people. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t. I could obviously be doing something a lot easier with my life.” The car pulls up to New York’s La Esquina taqueria. A decent-size lunch crowd has formed inside, but it doesn’t take too long for us to finagle a booth. A few patrons do a double take at the sight of the rapper and her friend, model Chrishell Stubbs. Though she’s by no means short, Haze looks petite next to Stubbs, and just as pretty, her wavy ombré softening a semi-intimidating shoulder-width stance.
Once seated, Haze opens up about her decision to leak her own album. Republic Records wanted to release Dirty Gold, her debut studio full-length, this month, but that wasn’t soon enough, so she uploaded the tracks to SoundCloud last December and tweeted the link. “I wanted to keep my promise to my fans for new music before year’s end,” she says.
“I didn’t mind waiting, but it gets overwhelming when you have kids who write you, like, ‘I need this,’ and you know you’ve got stuff just waiting there. You don’t want to let it stagnate to the point that they just give up.” Her label pulled the tracks down but eventually agreed to make Dirty Gold available as a digital download. (The physical album is still slated for spring.) Meanwhile, Haze has continued posting a steady stream of freestyle covers, from “Same Love” to “Black Skinhead,” “Wrecking Ball” to “Summertime Sadness.”
Born Raykeea Wilson in Detroit in the summer of 1991, Haze was raised in a strict Greater Apostolic Faith-following home roughly five miles from where Eminem grew up. “Detroit was terrible,” she says. “It’s, like, unimaginable now, but when I was a kid, it was...suspect." As was her religious upbringing. “You couldn’t wear pants or earrings or makeup, and you couldn’t get your eyebrows done or your nails done or anything that would feed into the vanities of the world,” she says. More crucially, she couldn’t listen to secular music or talk to anyone outside of the church. “The pastor would say adultery is a sin, and he’d be having sex with my mom, his wife, this other lady, and a 15-year-old girl. Where do you draw the line? What’s really wrong? I’m grateful for the experience—it taught me to think for myself because people can lead you any which way.”
Her family left Detroit and the church when Haze was 10. They moved a few times, eventually settling in rural Virginia, where Haze binged on music, starting with New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give,” a song she remembered from movies she’d seen as a kid. Haze didn’t stick to a specific genre. “It was more about expression and lyricism,” she says. Her rapid musical discovery was fueled by lyrics sites that recommended new artists, and one day she came across a forum called rapbattles.com. “I read the text battles and learned about metaphors, similes, and wordplay, and I tried to apply them to what I was writing,” she says, pausing to take a sip of her Coke. “Learning how to flow basically meant understanding what staccato was and how to be in the pocket. I’d just sit there all day trying until I got better.” She admits it’s not as exciting as Eminem’s teeth-cutting days at The Shelter in Detroit. “I wish,” she says. “That’s a better story than being a nerd.”
Haze’s didacticism and intellectual curiosity, however, are exactly what inform the battle-ready rhymes on Dirty Gold. The album has an Internet-y “everything all the time” feel but also a cohesive, edited gloss, thanks in part to producer Markus Dravs, who’s worked with Arcade Fire, Björk, and Mumford & Sons. “I told my label that I needed someone who was really militant and structured, so Markus had me on a strict schedule,” says Haze. “That helped me develop certain skills; I went from not singing at all to singing on half of the album.”
Like Haze in conversation, Dirty Gold swerves from a straight-up party vibe to life-affirming tenderness in an instant. The clashing beats and aggro brags on “Echelon” make way for a seriously heart-tugging hook courtesy of Sia on “Battle Cry.” Dravs encouraged Haze to capture the phases she was going through during the process of recording as they were happening. “I’d gone to a strip club, met this girl, and ended up spending, like, $20,000 in one night—I was so wasted,” she says. “It was such an alternative world from what I was used to. I went from living in a basement in Virginia, being the most sheltered child ever, to going out into the world all alone and just seeing everything for what it was.”
Haze refuses to subscribe to binary ways of thinking, possibly because she was introduced to almost all of the world’s possibilities at once. “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s it like to be a Native American-African woman?’ And I’m like, ‘That doesn’t define me—that just happens to be the race of my parents when they fucked and made me,’” she says. “Inside, there’s no ethnicity or color to your feelings. The only levels that humans genuinely connect on are through our emotions and thoughts. I don’t use specific pronouns when speaking about love. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Stubbs hides a snicker behind her taco, but her eyes betray loving amusement at her friend’s Haze-isms. And she’s not alone in her awe of the artist’s boundless ambition. It’s impossible to peg the artist: One minute she’s holding her own against A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$, Driicky Graham, and Childish Gambino in the annual BET Awards cypher; the next, she’s getting a private preview of the new collection from Helmut Lang creative directors Michael and Nicole Colovos. On Twitter,
she alternates between peddling diss tracks and sharing inspirational quotes. During a 2012 NYLON TV interview, she professed her love for Chipotle and her desire to become a neurological surgeon in practically the same breath. Both still apply. “I struggled to get a B in math, so I’m probably going to be a pretty average doctor,” she admits with a laugh. “I wouldn’t come to me, but I’m totally going to pursue it.”
Right now, though, she’s got to play some shows in Milan, Berlin, and Paris. Then it’s off to Los Angeles
to shoot a video for “Battle Cry” and back to Europe to promote the single. “I knew if I put the record out early it would mean I’d have to do a shit-ton of work,” says Haze. Even before she did it, her label was on to her. “They were like, ‘Go ahead so long as you understand that putting your album out prematurely means you’re not having a fucking day off next year.’ I was like, ‘That’s fine.’” One can safely assume she wasn’t planning on taking one anyway.