Angel Haze review – the missing link between Young Fathers and Little Mix

O2 ABC, Glasgow
With her beefed-up beats and social skills, the Detroit-raised rapper charms the crowd with a fearless, urgent set

Eyes flashing in the shadow of her pristine white baseball cap with its breaking black heart motif – the brim seems to have been extended to keep as much of her face out of direct light as possible – Angel Haze spits out the introductory lines of her current mixtape: “I remember all my Detroit days up on Seven Mile...” Anyone expecting to relax into a sepia-tinted celebration of fleeting childhood innocence – the hardy perennial Hovis advert interlude to which even the most hardcore of rappers will at times have recourse – has not been following the backstory.

Angel Haze was born Raykeea Roes Wilson, and raised just a few blocks from Eminem’s old stomping ground. Her declamatory, staccato rapping style can fairly be said to be similarly located. It seems a carnival of midwest familial dysfunction can bring that out in a person. But even within the hollowed-out confines of Michigan’s erstwhile Motor City in the early 90s, the circumstances of this wiry 23-year-old’s upbringing pushed back the boundaries of formative bleakness.

The song for which Angel Haze is still probably best known (and anyone who’s heard it will find it hard to conceive of its impact being surpassed) is the brutal 2012 reboot of Slim Shady’s matricidal threnody Cleaning Out My Closet, wherein she flips Eminem’s script to give a gruellingly graphic and psychologically acute account of the extended period of rape and sexual abuse she suffered between the ages of seven and 10 at the hands of two family associates. But if there have been times when the rest of Angel Haze’s career has threatened to get lost in the shadow of this sombre landmark, this particular chilly Thursday night in Glasgow isn’t one of them (not least because she doesn’t actually play it).

Angel Haze: Battle Cry

At first, her barked imprecations to “make some noise, Glasgow” bristle, and a curt request to the soundman to “make my music a little louder before I come back and fight you” does nothing to dilute this impression, but her reception by a rapt crowd soon softens this stern facade. And as Angel Haze powers through track after track from her Back to the Woods mixtape (for now freely available to all via Soundcloud), her rapport with the audience develops a warmth far beyond the fairly strict etiquette of personal space usually observed by visiting US rappers.

On two separate occasions, female fans are invited up to be serenaded in a manner whose vestigial social awkwardness adds a charm often lacking from this most ritualised of encounters. It’s hard to intuit the proper response to Angel Haze bellowing the scourging verse of Detox in your face, but the gentle waving of arms above the head to the more participation-friendly chorus – “How are they expecting me to detox when I still can see you dancing in your knee socks?” – was probably the right way to go. And by the time she’s returned the participatory compliment by doing a whole song amid the crowd – bathed in a cameraphone glow as a security guard hovers protectively just out of reach – Angel Haze’s physical fearlessness has given her confessional lyrics an added dimension.

Her music has beefed up too. In current producer Tk Kayembe (who doubles industriously as on-tour hype man and DJ) she has found, if not quite the Timbaland to her Missy, then certainly the sympathetic and intuitive foil her skills as a rapper have long cried out for. A blatant mismatch with Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons producer Markus Dravs was just one of many depressing aspects of the major label deal that ended in 2014, shortly after Angel Haze leaked her own delayed debut album on the internet with a valedictory “Sorry... but fuck you.”

While such confrontational tactics have (the odd potentially career-ending court case excepted) generally worked pretty well for MIA, a little lower down the scale of visibility they can be a risky strategy. In Angel Haze’s case, happily, the risk seems to have paid off. Kayembe’s abrupt jackhammer beats and vertiginous sub-bass give her newer material some of the compressed urgency of the first two Dizzee Rascal albums, and there is now light as well as shade in her musical palette. She sings her own vocal hooks with the melodious rasp of a harder-edged Lauryn Hill. And as she encores with her finger-clicking Big Apple neophyte’s anthem New York and the bludgeoning Sia co-write Battle Cry (trailed with: “I would be a dick not to play this”), Angel Haze feels like the missing link between Young Fathers and Little Mix. Which is a pretty good thing to be.


Ben Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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