“I meet so many people who tell me they were scared to say hi to me. I’m like, why? What am I gonna do to you? I’m just a person, you know.” Slouched in her chair, drowned in an army coat, skinny as a bird, with steady eye contact maintained from beneath a black baseball cap that says “R.I.P. YOUTH”, it’s fair to say that Angel Haze is somewhat intimidating.
That feeling is more to do with struggling to approach with tact the various elements of the 23-year-old rapper’s dramatic back story. It turns out that black humour is the way to go. When in doubt, allow the former Raeen Wilson to make a joke, even if it doesn’t sound like one. “People get really weirded out by me because I’ll say something really casually like, ‘When I was young my mom tried to kill me multiple times,’ and I’ll laugh about it. Everyone else is like, ‘What the fuck? That’s not funny.’ It’s funny to me now, because I’m not dead.”
Then there’s the issue of how to address Haze. Last year the musician expressed a preference for gender-neutral pronouns, identifying as agender. It appears that wasn’t quite so serious as it seemed, either. When arranging our meeting with Haze’s people, I tie myself in stammering knots trying to avoid saying “she” or “her”, but both the tour manager and publicist say “she” and Haze tells me that she/he/they doesn’t especially care.
“I sound like four people when I get written about as ‘they’. It drives me crazy,” the rapper tells me. “Sometimes I want to be a dick and say: ‘Call me they,’ just to see how seriously people take me. But they do take me seriously so it’s not that much fun. If you call me ‘him’ or ‘her’, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t consider myself of any sex. I consider myself an experience.”
Let’s stick with “she” for now then. After a series of mixtapes and then a major label debut album in late 2013, there were expectations that Angel Haze could become a female version of her fellow Detroit rapper, Eminem – delivering songs about a twisted personal life in such unflinching detail that they dare you to turn away. In 2012, her version of Eminem’s Cleaning Out My Closet, with her own lyrics, became a horrifying calling card, telling of her repeated rape as a child growing up in the Greater Apostolic Faith, a cult vaguely attached to the Pentecostal church. “Disgusting right? Now let that feeling ring through your guts,” she rapped.
She was mostly homeschooled and was forbidden from secular music and trousers. “I was like Cinderella, stuffed in a basement, not allowed to do anything,” she tells me. “Ask my childhood friends about me. They’ll say Raeen could never come outside because she was always in the basement.” She says in the song about her attacks, “I’m sorry Mom but I really used to blame it on you.” Today they have no contact, though it hurts Haze more that she cannot see her younger sister.
However, the way she tells it, songs like this don’t define her. She has only performed Cleaning Out My Closet in concert once, and says she only listened to it once after recording it. “It’s so heavy… like, Jesus. I’m actually really private but for some reason I can’t help but think of music as a confessional. I don’t know why, it’s weird. It’s the difference between being an artist and an act.”
She doesn’t seem to care for much of her early material, especially her first album proper, Dirty Gold. I tell her that Echelon (It’s My Way), a song with a racing pace and bright flurries of synths, is one of the few in her back catalogue that I listen to for fun. “Ugh. I hate Echelon,” she retorts. She calls it “mainstream pop – polished, plastic stuff.” Mostly it’s still heavy and anguished, though. Another song, Angels & Airwaves, offers a glimmer of hope to anyone contemplating suicide. She’s not too keen on that one either. “I fucking hate that song. It feels very preachy.”
Her feelings may be darkened by the circumstances in which the album came out. Frustrated with record company delays, first she leaked it herself, accompanied by a barrage of angry tweets. Then the label released it properly in the dead time between Christmas and New Year 2013, and it only went to number 196 in the UK album chart. She clams up when asked about it. “It’ll take me some time to get over the whole thing. No one knows what really happened, the private shit that really tormented me during that time.” But she says that there’s a new deal with a new major label on the way, and a second proper album coming hopefully a year from now.
In the meantime, she’s excited about a new collection, Back to the Woods, 13 tracks made in just two months with producer Tk Kayembe at her home in LA. She calls it a “project”, not a mixtape or an album. “It’s something I learned from. I was experimenting and I didn’t get the chance to do that with my first record. Some of the songs I freestyled completely. I didn’t have any lyric sheets, I just stood at the mic until it came to me.” There are deep, crashing beats, some soulful singing from Haze, and still plenty of raw lyrical honesty.
There’s none of her hated preachiness, just the facts this time, as with On Fire, which details two recent suicide attempts and stays in a psychiatric ward. “I’m just saying ‘This is what happpened to me,’ and expressing it,” she says. “There’s no solution, dude. The only solution is living. I’ve tried a lot of different therapy, spent thousands, and been diagnosed with lots of things. It’s hard to be in my body and be normal. Therapy requires you to be in a perpetual state of turmoil. How do I live if I’m dwelling on all this? I’ve stopped wasting my time on it. Life is therapy.”
For relative light relief, Back to the Woods also has a couple of break-up songs, Detox and Gods, most likely about her high profile relationship with Ireland Baldwin, which ended last year. As the daughter of Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, the model was used to all the attention; less so the rapper. “The fact that the family is so in the public eye like that, that’s their thing, I get it, but it’s not my thing. I want a certain type of attention. I want acknowledgement for my music and my art. My relationship is behind closed doors, no one needs to see that.”
There may be plenty of pictures of her and Baldwin online, but it won’t happen again, she says. “Now, the people that I date, I have all the pictures. They’re not allowed to have them. I want to meet someone who makes me want to change the world, not someone who gets off to fucking Instagram likes. That’s weird.”
In concert in Manchester, where we meet ahead of her London show this weekend, she’s remarkably friendly and accessible. She heads into the crowd, invites girls up on stage and raps to them, and encourages a stage invasion at the close. This person who admits she is damaged is surrounded by goodwill and looks far from broken.
“Being on the road feels like going home, almost,” she says, having said on record that she doesn’t feel that she belongs anywhere. “It’s awesome because I know that every night I’m gonna feel alive. When I’m at home I feel so useless and dead, like a fly caught in one of those bug zappers that’s halfway alive. On stage, I’m God.”