21-year-old Angel Haze is making waves for a simple reason: She raps hard and she raps well, speaking her truth in a way that’s impossible to ignore. A Detroit native, Haze now resides in Brooklyn, where she’s been establishing herself as a rapper to watch, praised by The New York Times, The Fader, The Village Voice, The Atlantic, and Pitchfork, among others. Last month, Haze released her latest mixtape, Classick, which builds upon the lyrical dexterity and explosive flow displayed on her last tape, July’s Reservation. The new songs invite us into the kind of private, painful experiences that few hip hop artists reveal so early on. Haze separates herself from her contemporaries by sticking to a simple creed: sell stories, not gimmicks. She'd like you to see her as a rapper first, a female second.
On Classick, Haze delivers battle rhymes and arresting tales of heartbreak and trauma with equal ease. She recasts Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad” as something more precise, examining cycles of domestic abuse with a keen eye, and describes the crumbling effect of unreciprocated love on a deft reworking of Jay-Z’s “Song Cry.” But it's the last track, “Cleaning Out My Closet,” that's gotten people talking. "Closet" chronicles the years of sexual abuse Haze suffered as a child, starting when she was seven. Over the instrumental from Eminem's song of the same name, Haze details her history of rape in plain language, forgoing metaphor and euphemism. Like Eminem, whom she’s often compared to, Haze can articulate her verses at machine-gun speed, never letting a syllable drop. She takes us through the despair and claustrophobia of her situation -- “And I would swear that I would tell but they would think that I was lyin’/And now the power that he held was like a beacon of mine” -- and offers a glimpse, by song's end, of how she persevered.
Perhaps inevitably, Haze has been compared to Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks, the two biggest female rappers of the moment. There are definitely similarities among the three: All of them can spit fast enough to make you dizzy, all of them sing in addition to rapping, and all of them like the trick of changing tempo mid-song, shifting the music into an entirely different gear. Still, there’s one way in which Haze stands apart from most female rappers -- she doesn't wave her femininity in your face in any way that's supposed to be alluring. That's in contrast to Nicki, who's almost never seen in outfits that don't accentuate her curves, and Banks, who played up the cuteness factor in the video for her breakout hit “212,” sporting a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and braided pigtails. This isn't anything new, of course -- most female MCs end up trading on their sexuality in one way or another, from Lil Kim and Foxy to Trina and Missy Elliott. For her part, Nicki suspects that the "only time you on the net is when you Google my ass," and while Azealia doesn't quite match the Pink One for raunch, she did grab the limelight with a song featuring the refrain “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.”
As for Haze, she couldn't be more the opposite. “Cleaning Out My Closet” is a boner-killer, plain and simple. Haze spares no detail, even when you kind of wish she would: "I know it's nasty, but sometimes I'd even bleed from my butt." And then she breaks the fourth wall and asks the listener, “Disgusting, right? Now, let that feeling ring through your guts.” She goes on to detail the fallout from the abuse, the thoughts of suicide, revenge, self-hatred and anorexia, as well as an intense fear of men that contributed to her self-described pansexuality. It's sort of refreshing to hear a musician talk about having such a complex relationship with their own body—in real life, a lot of people have these kinds of issues and insecurities, and it's weird that there aren't more voices in pop music reflecting that. When Haze does flirt with some “sexy” moves, it’s a little awkward. In the video for Classick’s “Gossip Folks,” she has no problem spitting confident bars about her mic skills, but when she busts out a little body-rolling and booty-popping, you see her breaking out in laughter. It’s just not what she’s about.
Haze is, above all, a storyteller, working in the old-school emcee tradition of just a mic and a song. It's not like there’s only one correct way to be a woman in hip hop; there’s room and a need for everyone working now, the Nickis, the Azealias, the Rye Ryes, the Kreaysahwns, the Dominique Young Uniques. But it's nice to have someone like Haze who's a little more down to earth, someone who’s been through hell and is willing to talk about it. No disrespect to Nicki, but she can't be the only name in the game. The more voices we have, the closer we'll get to a point where we can just talk about female rappers as rappers, instead of talking about how they fit in among other lady rappers. In order to get there, you need to have a lot of female rappers, representing a lot of different perspectives, so it stops being remarkable when a new one comes along. And Haze is moving us that way. Despite her name, she's helping us all see more clearly.