Angel Haze

Leeds can be a fickle place, and sometimes shows that look like stellar bookings end up as an almost empty room so it was good to see that, although not a sell-out, the room was pretty full by the time Angel Haze wandered on to the stage around 9.30pm. Not bad for a Wednesday night in early January when we’re all broke and supposed to be dry.

Haze is tiny in the flesh, wafer thin, engulfed in an out-sized plain grey tee, face in the shadow of a plain black baseball cap. Don’t make the mistake of mistaking stature for fragility though; she’s sharp-edged as a steel blade and from that diminutive frame she conjures up the force of a hurricane.

On stage with her was TK Kayembe, long-term collaborator and producer of many of her best tracks, and the sole producer of the new album Back to the Woods. You can hear exactly why she didn’t bother looking elsewhere – his brutal basslines and melodic spaces are a perfect foil for Haze’s mercurial flow and the two of them created a buzz that some six piece bands struggle to produce on stage. The bulk of the set, unsurprisingly, was drawn from Back to the Woods with just a few nods to her back catalogue; Werkin Girl (another Kayembe production) and the encore, BattleCry. This isn’t a bad thing – Dirty Gold sounded like a series of compromises with the label, glossy production and smoothed out edges. The latest release is a return to the promise shown on the mixtapes Reservation and King.

Haze has a delivery style that isn’t dissimilar from some of her contemporaries; the percussive stress on the consonants and sing-song tone could put you in mind of either Nikki Minaj or Azaelia Banks (though I would never say that to any of their faces). If you’re looking for substance though check Haze for lyrics that cover more than sex, beefs, and bravado (though there are also all of those things).

I’ve written before about the dilemmas faced by women in hip hop and the compromises that the industry demands and lately I’ve been thinking about that again. Don’t get me wrong, I have respect for Nikki (as an example), even though I don’t like her work much. She’s a talented rhymer, and has had the savvy to market herself to the top of the earnings tree. But I’m afraid I don’t buy into to the notion that converting your physical assets into commercial assets is necessarily the same thing as empowerment, and I’ve been wondering what young women looking at hip hop might see. What is there to aspire to beyond a physiologically impossible derriere and a Louis Vuitton suitcase full of Gucci? Where are the other kinds of role models?

On stage, at the Belgrave Music Hall.

Uncompromising in every way – musically, lyrically, visually – Haze’s songs clearly speak volumes to the large chunk of the crowd that’s made up of adoring teenage girls and young women. Just as the songs switch rapidly between sweetly melodic hooks and pulverising rhymes, the lyrical content ranges across the full range of emotions. This is what empowerment sounds like; not some preened and preening PR friendly “girl power” but an uncompromising celebration of self-reliance; a defiant and profane refusal to conform to expectations, and an underlying pride and hope in simply surviving this shit intact. Impossible sets the tone early on in the stage and the dance floor explodes on the hook “there is nothing that can hold me down that shit is impossible”. The crowd, by the way, is one of the most diverse – in age, race, sexuality and gender – I’ve ever seen at a hip hop gig.

Haze’s music is explicitly sexual and these days the lyrical subjects are generally female – the volunteers plucked from the crowd to join her on stage for the tender “Moonrise Kingdom” and the brazenly erotic “Detox” are female and, for the latter, chosen by Haze because “they cute”. I’m not sure that this kind of stuff can ever avoid being tacky but during Moonrise Kingdom, at least, it was sweet. One of the girls called to the stage was young, in the kind of clothes teenage girls who worry about their weight wear to try to make themselves disappear. Nothing about her screamed confidence, but for those four minutes she didn’t care who was looking at her, lost in the moment as she sang every word. The hug Haze gave her at the end seemed like a gesture of kinship and I suspect it’s warmth will carry her through many lonely walks along the gauntlet of her peers. In this context, Battlecry, which sounds a little over-wrought (we’re talking power ballad territory) at home, made perfect sense as an encore and it tore the roof off.

There’s nothing fake about Haze. The emotional intensity in the room is so powerful at times it could knock you off your feet if you’re not braced for it, and when she left the stage to perform Babe Ruthless it almost did. Don’t know when I last saw a mosh-pit that mental, certainly not on a Wednesday night.

I’m glad Angel Haze is carving out her territory and claiming her space. She may never sell out the stadiums but you can rest assured she won’t sell herself out either. That shit is impossible

Words by Vicky T