“Your Favorite Rapper Probably Sucks”: Interview with Angel Haze
The rapper Angel Haze grew up in a religious community in Michigan that she’s since described as a “cult,” and the first secular music she ever heard was on the radio at age 16 in Virginia. The song was Young Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down.” And yet last week, the 22-year-old was sitting in an expansive conference room at her label’s offices in midtown Manhattan, waiting for an intern to deliver two cheese Danishes and a venti hot chocolate with whipped cream and mocha drizzle from a Starbucks down the block. She signed her deal with Universal Music Group last year, and her first album (following six mixtapes), Dirty Gold, is due out in January.
For the past month, Haze has been releasing freestyles twice a week in a project called 30 Gold. “I started 30 Gold because my manager told me, ‘you need to seem more hungry,” she said, and the tracks she’s released are almost all characteristically aggressive and revealing — on Macklemore’s “Same Love” beat, she rapped about coming out to her religious, disapproving mother at age 13. But a week later she recorded a cover of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”; this week, she covered Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.”
“My album is different, it’s a bunch of me actually exploring [a different] side,” Haze said. She was wearing a backwards black snapback, an oversized black T-shirt with a dinosaur on it, black skinny jeans, and black dunks, and she sat with her legs splayed. “I’ve had people say, I listened to ‘Wrecking Ball’ and I could not imagine someone who put out ‘New York’ last year singing this.
“I didn’t expect it to go so well, because I never expect anything to go well: that’s how you fuck up.”
Conversation has been condensed and edited.
EC: I’m curious about the instrumentals you’ve been choosing for 30 Gold. It seems like it’s the hardest beats of the year, basically (see: “Black Skinhead,” “Shabba Ranks,” “Worst Behavior”). Was that intentional?
AH: Yeah. A lot of people don’t really give female rappers the credit, you know, of just being an all around great rapper. It’s always, you’re great — for a female rapper. And it’s like, no, I’m better than half the males you like, too. Your favorite rapper probably sucks. It’s crucial, at this point, to do all of the things and to do it better than everyone else. Even if it’s just in my head.
Do you think the album will surprise people who have been following you for a long time?
Yeah, ’cause it’s not dark. For me it’s different to not come out the gate as someone who goes, “Hey, projectile, here’s all of this shit that I keep in my closet, here’s all my demons. Look at them.” When you meet me and I’m a person who literally is just now getting over shit. Music is cathartic as fuck for me. And I feel like, with as much as I’ve done, with as much as I’ve revealed, I’ve let it all out, so there’s no reason for me to be sad anymore.
But you do have songs that sound cathartic as fuck (Ed. note: see “Cleaning Out My Closet”). Can you tell me about recording “Same Love”?
I was fucking scared shitless to record that. If my mom hears it she’s gonna be like, “Oh, you’re disrespectful, people don’t need to know that.” But people do need to know the truth. This is the shit that happens in homes, regardless of whether or not [my mom’s] opinion has changed over time, regardless of whether or not she’s grown, it still happened. And [her disdain was] something that happened over time — it started when I was 13, and it stopped happening when I was 19. It took a while. She still obviously disapproves, but she holds onto the fact that I say I’m pansexual and that I date boys here and there. So she thinks I’m gonna end up with a boy. And that’s still sort of, like, are you kidding me right now. I was scared to put that out there, because I don’t want to make her seem like a malicious person in all of my music.
When was the last time you guys were on good terms — when you lived with her?
Yeah, we were on good terms because we had to be. It’s just crazy, our whole relationship has been very tumultuous. The last time I spoke to her thoroughly was on my birthday, when she told me I was gonna burn in hell because I’m evil.
And you’re able to brush that off by now?
Yeah, yeah, I’m totally numb to it. I don’t believe in hell.
But if she started saying that to you when you were 13, how long did it take you to get over that?
Man. It took a while. Yeah. It took a hell of a while. It was maybe like 17 when I stopped giving a fuck. I’m a Cancer, and I really hate to bring astrology into situations, but I feel everything times a thousand. So not giving a fuck meant numbing myself to a lot of things.
Do you think that attitude has helped you in the music business?
Totally! Oh my god, you know how many people say fucked up shit to me on the daily — on Twitter and on any platform they possibly can? You subject yourself [to it].
It seemed like a lot of people were happy to hear the “Same Love” cover. Macklemore was criticized for being this straight white guy rapping about the issue.
Yeah, a cisgendered straight white guy. People can support and rally against what they want. Like, if he supports gay people, why be mad about that? There are so many other people who hate us in the world. I get that they want someone that’s actually LGBTQ to represent them, and I’m happy to be the voice for the voiceless, but at the same time you have to appreciate the people who are still trying to do something, whether or not it’s for publicity. I’d never heard the song until I was in the car with my ex-girlfriend’s mother. She’s like, have you heard this? She’s this 40-year-old straight white woman, and she cries to the song.
All of this stuff that I did and I do, it continues to be sort of… philanthropic for me, you know? Like, I don’t need this shit anymore. I’m gonna do what I want. But I have tons of fans who will DM me and be like, “Yo, my mom is treating me like XY and Z because of this, because I’m a ‘faggot,’” or whatever. And it bothers me. So much. That this is going to be the thing that shapes them. All of this disapproval and this rejection they feel is gonna be it.
And you know that feeling.
Yeah, I know it so well. And you don’t have people who talk about it. So I try to say it. And that’s why I try to respond to fans. Damn, I wouldn’t be shit if I didn’t have the people I turned to in those dark times.
Tell me about your writing process.
I just bought two new journals. I hand-write. I write poetry incessantly. Every single day I write something new so that I can keep track of where I am physically, emotionally, mentally — all that shit, on paper.
You started out writing poetry, right?
Yeah. I wish I’d stayed, to be honest. I look at Andrea Gibson, she’s one of my favorite poets and also one of my good friends. And I look at her and I’m just like, I really wish I was you. You’ve got this sense of freedom, and it’s unattainable to me. I’m just sitting here like, yeah, “what rhymes with apple? Slap you! There we go.” The grass is always greener, but when I was a poet I was miserable. I will never be miserable for anyone again.
You have incredible volume for a female rapper. Some women struggle with breath control or just being loud.
Well, I don’t know how to scream.
You can’t scream?
If I tried to yell right now, I’d fail. When I learned to sing, I learned to do it from my diaphragm, to just push everything from my stomach instead of my vocal cords. For me, I like staccato shit. I like to be in the pocket. I have no rhythm, but I know exactly where to place my voice. And practice made perfect.
There’s this Nicki Minaj lyric that I kinda missed the first time. It’s on that track “Freedom.” Her opening line is, “They never thank me for opening doors, but they ain’t even thank Jesus when he died on the cross.” I mean.
See but, I think that’s a subjective thing, though, because, like, did Jesus die on the cross? Show me the cross. Show me the Jesus. [laughs]
I’m curious about that other claim, that she opened doors. Do you think that’s true?
For my generation of female rappers, definitely. I think if anyone says that’s not true they’re a fuckin’ liar. Who was there before Nicki, you know? Granted, there was a gap. There was Lil’ Kim when she did the Lighters Up album, Missy Elliott, all those people. But the gap was so immense that it literally took Nicki Minaj five years to be where she is now. For us to come in — [me] and Azealia Banks and Iggy Azealia — just outta nowhere, and to be here… I’ve been doing this for just a year now, you know? There’s certain things I’d never be able to touch if she didn’t touch it first. You never know how high the ceiling is until someone hits it.
You’ve talked about the difference between being a rapper and a rock star, and specifically, with women, what that means for representing your sexuality in your career: like by identifying as a rock star, you don’t have to compromise how you dress or what you rap about. Where are you at with that distinction now? Do you still want to be a rock star and not a rapper?
Totally. I’m gearing up, man. You don’t understand, I’m so serious about it. It’s one of those things where you know, instantly, that you don’t belong in a certain place. And even if that means I don’t belong in either world, I wanna be that gap. I remember when Hayley Williams first popped up [for me], with Paramore, I was like, who is this person? I totally wanted to be her. Because she’s just such a tomboy. Her and Fefe Dobson and Avril Lavigne. I totally wanted to be them growing up. There is a gap, and there’s always a way to fuckin’ bridge a gap.
I don’t feel the [pressure to be hypersexual] as much. I mean, look at my clothes. I’m not doing it! I don’t know what that means in regards to how far I’ll go, but I won’t do it.
Were there meetings early on where you had to lay out that rule for yourself?
Yeah. Hell yeah. I mean, I still have to do it. Every single time I do something there’s, “Oh, you wanna wear — ” “No. ’Cause you know who I am and that’s why you got me here.” People will say so fast, “I never wanna change who you are.” Then it’s, “How ‘bout we put you in a tutu and like, some fucking five-inch heels.”
Right. And you kind of have to be a bitch about that.
Yeah! See, and that sucks, ’cause people think you’re an asshole.
Have you seen that Nicki rant, about the pickle juice?
Yeah, exactly. You have to make people understand who you are.
Kanye’s your dude, right.
My idol. Him and Eminem.
I think he had something to say and he made sure everyone heard him. I guess a lot of people will view it as something that’s so narcissistic and ego-driven but it’s passion, regardless. You have to respect a person with so much passion that it can’t ever even be interrupted; it’s incessant. It’s one of those things where he’ll wake up in the morning and say, I think the sun should be blue. And he’ll go out and tell the world with a fucking passion that makes you believe that the sun should be blue. And even if he’s not always right, he’s always him. That’s perfect to me.
The album’s coming out in January. Thinking past that, where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully I’ve put out at least three albums. And then I wanna go and buy a house in Montana somewhere and become a shadow writer. [I’ll] never leave the house, [I’ll] just write all day. And I wanna build a Chipotle next door and a Starbucks next door. And just have like, a gang of bitches and a gang of boys that I keep at a distance, you know, just when I need ‘em.
I wanna do [music] for a very short amount of time. I don’t wanna get lost in it. I wanted to be a doctor, and I hope to go back to school and study psychology. I don’t want to do just one thing.
Career longevity is one of the biggest challenges in hip hop.
Like, how do you age gracefully?
You don’t. I just turned 22. [laughs]
Who else would you like to be on a track with?
Um. God. I don’t know. Missy Elliot.
Did you hear that G-Dragon track she did?
You wanna hear it?
Oh, she’s still got the voice! You know, I think that of anyone that’s captured what it means to have that longevity in a career, it’s her. She knows how to move with the times. Like [we’ve got] a twerking epidemic right now, and you drop like wop-wop-wop whatever, and then you go back to Missy Elliott from that “music make you lose control” Ciara ish. She knows exactly — god, it’s so perfectly constructed. She’s perfect! She knows when to chill the fuck out and pick her openings.
That’s another thing that I think is really interesting about Missy. Most other female rappers came up, at least initially, in a crew of dudes. Did you explicitly avoid that?
Yeah. I did. It’s like a solo mission here, you know? I avoided that. I don’t wanna be in a boys club.
But you never had to have that moment, or had to have that moment, where a dude was like, Angel Haze is the shit. I feel like no one else has avoided that, honestly. Think about it. Iggy Azalea had T.I. Azealia Banks had a lot of cosigns.
Yeah. Banks had Kanye in the beginning, and everyone. I don’t know how I’ve managed to avoid it, honestly. I’ve been approached by so many guys behind the scenes saying, “We think you’re amazing, we’d love to do this, that, and the third,” and I’m just like, no, it’s cool. It’s something I have to do on my own. It means more to me if I can do it by myself than it does if I did it with anyone’s help, you know? And [gestures at her hot chocolate] I’m being helped every single day. But if it’s from someone saying, “Look, I can get you here in two seconds if you do this” — then no.