Written by: Max Szyc
In the past few decades, virtually every genre of music finally started to plug their gender divides by featuring a significant increase in prominent female artists. Unfortunately, hip-hop remains one of the few holdouts, still being a mostly male-driven genre in the 21st century. While exceptions like Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott emerged and rose up to fame, there still weren’t enough young girls taking action, picking up microphones, and trying out the hip-hop thing for themselves. Fortunately, the tides have been slowly changing in the last few years, with New York’s Azealia Banks scoring a major hit with her intense dance floor stomper “212” back in 2011. Unfortunately, Banks’ career has since been hurting from cancelled concerts, a continuously delayed album, and increasingly crappy new singles. Fortunately for rap fans craving the next non-male star, Angel Haze turns up.
The 22-year old Detroit native – real name Raykeea Wilson – has been steadily releasing mixtapes since 2009. Gifted with an incredible flow that puts modern superstars like A$AP Rocky and Drake to shame, Wilson’s vocals stand out thanks to her fast, hard-hitting delivery. Laced with just as many vile expletives and subtle metaphors as the genre’s best can muster, she’s proven to be a rising star worth watching. Her style was best displayed on “Werkin’ Girls”, a track from her 2012 Reservation mixtape whose video got her noticed by the underground hip-hop community. Containing a wonderfully eerie beat, Wilson’s dark lyrics and tough-as-nails rapping revealed how tame modern “horror-core” rappers like the Odd Future fellas really are. Even though the song was damn good, it was just one of many styles present on the diverseReservation; the highly-emotional conscious hip-hop found within songs like “This Is Me” and “CHI (Need To Know)” contrasted heavily from bangers like “New York” and “Jungle Fever”. As a result, one couldn’t help but wonder exactly what kind of rapper Wilson wants to be: atmospheric or aggressive? On her debut album Dirty Gold, we learn that the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Listeners going into the LP expecting nothing but heavy bangers might be a little disappointed as Dirty Gold is a relatively pop-oriented affair. This isn’t too surprising considering the list of producers that helmed the album. With a star-studded cast that includes Arcade Fire collaborator Markus Dravs and recent Tegan and Sara producer Greg Kurstin on board, it’s amazing that Wilson’s debut still manages to be a hip-hop album. Despite the numerous cooks in the kitchen, the album still sounds like an authentic Angel Haze record, only a little more upbeat and playful than usual.
This is immediately apparent on the album’s catchy-as-hell opener “Sing for Me”. Sporting bombastic beats that are riddled with electronic effects and an occasional vocal effect that Kendrick Lamar occasionally uses, listeners can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the poppy direction hasn’t affected Wilson’s delivery. Similarly, second track – and Dirty Gold’s first official single – “Echelon (It’s My Way)” continues this style by upping the party-vibe hard, featuring an irresistible synth-driven chorus and even a Toronto name drop – any Canadian reference generally excites this patriotic reviewer. Additionally on the topic of Canadians, the album’s third track, “A Tribe Called Red”, features production by the innovative Ottawa First Nations DJ trio of the same name. The song is one of the album’s standouts and Wilson rapping over the group’s aboriginal-inspired beats proves to be a perfect mix.
Dirty Gold generally doesn’t deviate too much from the pop sound established on the record’s initial tracks. Curve-balls are only occasionally thrown at the listener, such as in the form of a few almost-ballad numbers like “Angels & Airwaves”. Also, the album features very few guest artists – Australian singer Sia appearing on “Battle Cry” being one of the sole exceptions. While the beats and production are fun yet hardly ground-breaking, Wilson’s vocals still remain the biggest draw of her music. The LP’s only real drawback would be her cheesy voice-overs regarding personal issues that are placed throughout. On “A Tribe Called Red”, she discusses why she doesn’t showcase her ethnicity in her music and on “Black Dahlia” Wilson debates what kind of song she would write for her mother as a child. It’s generally interesting stuff and she clearly means well but these voice-overs tend to come across as rather forced and skippable. Fortunately, there aren’t too many of them to deal with and they don’t detract from the music.
For hip-hop fans hoping that Angel Haze’s debut would contain mostly hard tracks in the vein of the aforementioned “Werkin’ Girls”, they might be a little disappointed to find an album dominated by poppy beats. However, look beyond that and it becomes apparent that Wilson’s flow has not changed one bit and her vocals still make the album worth checking out. She can also brag about beating Azealia Banks to the punch and getting her album out first – even if it involved strong-arming her label and leaking the album herself in order to get Island Records to bump up its release date. Will it sell as well due to this? Probably not, but with tunes this solid, Angel Haze’s debut will surely be heard by many in time.