Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Angel Haze is “stoking” over how things are panning out. And after flying in to a 5-Star London hotel for Vogue Festival, at the invitation of Donatella Versace, only to hang around for an extra week to rehearse with a full band and play the one European tour date that wasn’t already postponed in favour of recording an album across the UK, US and Spain, anyone would be.
The hotel lobby is a bizarre cross between high-end boutique and hyperreal fantasy as an animated figure walks across the panoramic LED display of the reception desk; cut glass mirrors and weirdly shaped sofas line the wall-length window, obscured by chiffon curtains and portraits of dogs. After a short wait in view of a geometric cement courtyard garden, Raykeea Wilson skulks down from her room in a low-slung black cap, puts her hand out and introduces herself as “Angel”. I’m immediately struck by how odd that moniker feels when characterising the gritty confessionalism of Wilson’s series of raw and exposed confrontations, in the form of rap odes to hardship in ‘Reservations’ and ‘Classick’. In the context of this bizarre parallel universe, though, a name that reads like that of an anime super hero is oddly appropriate to the setting, as well as its claimant’s paradoxical nature.
“After realising that I sucked and that there were so many people out there that were better than me, I only wanted to pursue it more… It was really just me being a brat.” – Angel Haze
This is one of the few interviews granted during Wilson’s stay, but I’ve still only got 25 minutes, and while she graciously answers my questions in a typically frank manner, she’s discretely keeping one eye on her phone as she gushes, “it’s pretty amazing. We just spent three weeks in Spain, on a mountain, in a fucking house where there was nothing within 50 miles of it. Killing my vibe, killing my life, slaving over an album every morning, every night, and it’s just come out so fucking great.” Wilson is currently working with the producer to Arcade Fire, Björk and Coldplay, Markus Dravs, as well as Grammy-award winning hip hop producers Mike Dean and Malay, across LA, London, New York (“for a minute”) and the hilltop in Spain. It’s two weeks from deadline and they’re “pretty much done”. Unheard of.
This is a performer who has released three mixtapes in as many years, featuring laid over tracks of everyone from Das Racist to Aaliyah, while asserting she rarely engages with contemporary music; claiming she doesn’t own a single rap album, but can spit bars with the best of them. “Only me,” heaves Wilson as I parrot press quoting her saying she doesn’t even like rap music that much. “When I started rapping, I sucked at it and my first instinct was to start singing instead. So after realising that I sucked and that there were so many people out there that were better than me, I only wanted to pursue it more… It was really just me being a brat.”
Angel Haze – New York
This isn’t too surprising from the artist who audaciously aligned herself with Gil Scot-Heron, at the same time as staking her claim on her newly adopted city, New York, with a sample from the late godfather of hip hop’s 2010 track New York is Killing Me. She boldly exposed the horrifying reality of childhood abuse in Cleaning Out My Closet last year and will proceed to openly share her despondency over a recent break-up with her live audience at Scala that very night, as well as Twitter in the afternoon. It seems like nothing is off limits for Wilson, who’s seen and experienced too much to let the small things count. “None of this shit mattered when I was just at home like a freakin’ 19-year-old who wanted to do something different,” she says, revealing the perspective one gains when growing up an itinerant evangelical church fugitive and seeing more tragedy and injustice before the age of 20 than any one person should have to in a lifetime (she says of her upbringing in Detroit, “if I go back there, I feel like I’ll be consumed by a swarm of shit that I will not deal with, or not remember until I step back into that place and it fucking drowns me and I’m dead”). “You just remember, ‘dude, last year you didn’t even have this opportunity to be angry about x, y or z and now, minus x, you’ve still got y and z and you can still make more for yourself.”
It’s amazing how heavy emptiness is.
— „Ala$ka Yxxng„ (@AngelHaze) May 7, 2013
There are echoes of that attitude in songs like the Lauryn Hill sampling Doo Wop (That Thing), where she raps: “be less concerned with the trends and more concerned with your dreams”. But, when referring to Wilson’s career trajectory, that’s where things get murky. Having blown away a British audience as a cargo trouser-wearing hardarse at the Hoxton Bar & Grill in 2012, this time at Scala, Wilson performed with a full live band, while unashamedly declaring her progression in a pop direction. Mercifully, that doesn’t alter the angry, convulsive vibes of her live set too much, even when an effusive, pony-tailed violinist joins the harmonised back-up singers for No Church in the Wild.
“It’s not like Britney Spears but it’s also not like Jay Z. It’s somewhere in the middle.” – Angel Haze
“For the most part, I would say that my music is not urban, not any more, and I guess that’s a necessary transition,” she says, as an artist who would sooner be influenced by her alternative rock and hard metal genre preferences than hip hop. “It’s not like Britney Spears but it’s also not like Jay Z. It’s somewhere in the middle… Pop just means ‘for dance’; the mindless, sensational shit we all like and, for me, it’s like mixing the poetry, mixing the pop, mixing the hip hop, mixing the rock, everything that I fucking love, while making one really cohesive sound.”
How that necessarily reconciles with Wilson’s worship of Eminem is anyone’s guess, but in being inadvertently introduced to the controversial rapper in her early teens, through a borrowed CD player and its forgotten disc, her loyalty hasn’t yielded since. “I only ever wanted to be him or Kanye West,” she chuckles about the man who she says, in no uncertain terms, is her “fucking idol”. “Some people take their anger and turn it into something very malicious and they only hope to evolve that over time. Some people take it and don’t know where to go with it and some people take it and turn it into positivity. That’s why I love Eminem so much because he did all three of those things in his career.”
That’s not even mentioning the surprising parallels with Wilson’s own life, which manifest quite literally in spending her early childhood on Seven Mile – to Eminem’s Eight Mile – Road in the notoriously “dangerous, dark and gruesome” city of Detroit. “It’s like a male version of the life that I lived… I was so angsty at, like, 13, so to hear someone who’s like, ‘oh my god, I fucking hate my mum’, whatever, ‘I hate everyone around me. Fuck my life’ and then to grow with him and be about, what, 16 when Beautiful came out? [it was released in 2009 when she would have been 18] Then you’re just like, ‘oh my god this guy can go from a fucking spiteful, vengeful mess of a person, to someone who tells you, ‘don’t give up’, even, ‘sing for the moment’. That shit was amazing. He’s always had this balance between his devil and his angel. He’s always let them be equal and I like that.”
It’s interesting to note the divergent reactions a performer like Eminem will provoke among various emerging rappers based in New York. In talking to Harlem native Khalif Diouf (AKA Le1f) last year, his assessment of the Michigan artist, centred around those very same themes, was significantly less glowing. “It freaked me out. I really did not understand his music for a long time. I didn’t understand why he put so much personal information about wanting to have fights with his wife in his music.” Diouf’s lyrics are far more obtuse, subtly political and dependent on experimental beats than Wilson’s. Even his vocals are pushed back in his live and recorded mix, while mired in swagger and satire – all elements that make Le1f more hip but less marketable than Wilson’s self-exposing, extremely personal lyricism. After all, Diouf comes from a background in electronic production, even appearing on an early seapunk compilation on Ultrademon’s Coral Records Internazionale net label. Wilson’s form of musical therapy, on the other hand, is rooted in her poetry and early rhyme experiments, which she clumsily laid over existing pop hits when she was pushed to by friends. Because, where Diouf’s music is characterised by explicitly ironic distance and braggadocio, Angel Haze’s own ambiguities are much more subtle.
“It’s all about attaining a certain level of peace and a certain level of zen. Just being okay with shit, even if I can’t get peace from it. Hopefully it comes soon, though, because I’m kinda tired of it, dude.” – Angel Haze
As a clue to her creative devices, Wilson bristles, “You’re a lot smarter than you’re ever given credit for. Live like a simile, lessons are a metaphor”, in the tellingly titled ‘Reservation’ track This is Me. As a performer prone to “full on panic attacks” and stalked by a pervading sense of loneliness as a result of a life eternally on the move, Wilson literally wears her history on her sleeve. Tattooed inscriptions and images on her arms bare private allusions only she could know the meaning of, while she maintains a tenuous grip on her past through people she’s met along the way (“even on fucking Tumblr”). “I don’t have any relationships from my childhood. No childhood friends. It’s so awkward to say that out loud.” Wilson scoffs while agreeing it’s in art and writing that she achieves a sense of self, before continuing cryptically, “it’s seeing so many different things all at once and then you’re forced to indulge, then you’re forced to create an opinion and once you form an opinion, you have to alter yourself to match that.” Whether that means Angel Haze is less the wilful and principled ambassador of the Great Truth than we think, or that her peripatetic existence has shaped her into the self-made, autonomous person we see today, there’s no doubting that language, in all its perceived openness, can be as obtuse as any other art form, even when used in such a seemingly candid manner as Angel Haze does. After all, Wilson is a poet and poetry, with its focus on sound, symbolism and metre, has its own elusive quality, often keeping its meaning and intention just beyond reach.
Even her dress represents that dichotomy: with heavy silver rings on her hands that are so big they could be knuckledusters and a loose, sleeveless black shirt, cut like grid iron shoulder pads, Angel Haze has been through a lot, and if you’re thinking openness is synonymous with vulnerability, then think again. There’s subtext in everything she does, and to embrace her for being entirely innocent, if clumsy, in her actions or to discount her for being disingenuous is too simplistic. A puzzle to be pieced together and never fully understood, Wilson’s is the endless pursuit of a reality that’s better than the last one and a future that’s brighter than it ever could have been. “For me, it’s all about attaining a certain level of peace and a certain level of like, zen. Just being okay with shit, even if I can’t get peace from it. In a sense, that’s a part of peace in itself. Hopefully it comes soon, though, because I’m kinda tired of it, dude.”
Angel Haze and Iggy Azalea perform ‘Otis’ at London’s Scala on 7th May 2013.
That night Angel Haze, now with make-up on and hair styled, ends her set on a rousing rendition of New York, still her strongest track to date, before an encore yields an irksome appearance by Australian artist, Iggy Azalea. Together, they perform another Kanye West and Jay Z cover, Otis, before calling an end to “pitting female rappers against each other”, proclaiming themselves the future of hip hop and proceeding to pose for photos as photographers desperately clamber for a good shot. Most confusingly, it’s Azalea who offers her endorsement in, “Angel’s always going to have a friend in me. I support her,” when clearly, on lyricism alone, it should be the other way around. And the fact that both artists have had very public altercations with one rabble-rousing rapper, Azealia Banks, is lost on no one.
It all feels a little bit insincere, effectively negating everything that came before, from an earnest chat about a recent break-up to the assurance that this will be the first time Angel Haze has ever performed the deeply sobering words from Cleaning Out My Closet to a live audience, as gratitude to London for being the first to embrace her as an artist. But then, that’s pop music. If it isn’t Christina Aguilera’s cries-on-cue, or Lady Gaga getting teary over the struggles of her “little monsters”, this is the format to follow for any aspiring pop star, and Raykeea Wilson is nothing if not ambitious. As three oblivious revellers go wild to the sudden turn toward the sombre that the entire room has taken with Cleaning Out My Closet, they serve as an unsettling premonition of a time to come. With an album release drawing ever nearer, Angel Haze is entering the next stage in the pursuit of mainstream acceptance. Those freedoms afforded her as an independent artist, of a unique voice and unashamed individuality, are bound to mutate within the heavily formulated structures of the major label world. How that translates for the Angel Haze of the future, we’ll have to wait and see.