Angel Haze began her career with a string of mix tapes released between 2009 and 2012, starting her on a path walked by many of her contemporaries. To name a few, Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, and the entirety of the A$AP and OFWGKTA collectives have kick-started their careers with eclectic, album-length self-releases, picked up by ravenous digital sub-cultures of online rap enthusiasts, and spread throughout their communities of blogs and social networks like wild-fire.
It’s a practice which remains almost exclusive to American rap and R&B artists. In its early days hip-hop only existed as a live art form performed by DJ’s and MC’s – mix-tapes were cassettes put together by DJ’s who compiled and remixed some of their favourite tunes, handed out at shows to promote their work. As technology and the genre evolved it became a technique rappers utilised to promote their work online.
These days, after a few successful mix tapes a major label usually swoops in to capitalise on the artist’s hype, pumping money into production and PR before exploiting the dedicated fan-base of these already market-tested artists. Streams and record sales peak higher and higher but the artist’s control over their own business, their artistic freedom and their personal relationship with fans often suffers as PR companies, managers and agents join the foray and their audiences grow far and wide.
For Haze though things didn’t quite pan out like that. In 2013 she signed to Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music that’s home to Nikki Minage and The Weeknd amongst others. She was then paired with producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons) in what many consider a fairly bad error of artistic misjudgement to record her debut album ‘Dirty Gold’. The release date was then pushed back again, again and again to the point where Haze flipped out and tweeted to Republic about her fans: “They will get the music they were promised. And you guys JUST MAY LEARN TO KEEP YOUR F-ING WORD“ - before leaking her own album.
After Dirty Gold, Haze unsurprisingly took matters back into her own hands for her second studio album ‘Back to the Woods’ last September, self-releasing the record online for free, to critical acclaim and surprisingly, improved commercial success. It’s this in-control approach to her music, and the importance with which she regards her work, her fans and the way her business is run, that makes Haze such an incredible and passionate live performer. Alongside TK Kalembe, the rightfully lauded producer of Back to the Woods (who it turns out is also an exceptional hype-man,) the two make the crowd’s support their top priority tonight. After his half-hour DJ slot in which he spins some crowd-rousing classics and deep-cuts, Kayembe announces “Leeds England! Does everybody have they selves a drink?! ‘cause me and Angel are about to turn up!”
Then Haze arrives on stage – size wise much slighter than I’d guessed from the vocal power and range she demonstrates in Back to the Woods – a trait emphasised by her big camo parka, oversized grey t-shirt, and her cap, pulled so far down over her face all that’s visible is the spliff in her mouth which she lights, tokes and passes to Kayembe.
After ensuring the crowd are ready to commit every ounce of energy they’ve got to the show tonight, the duo kick off with a quick-fire trio of tracks – ‘D-Day’; a brief interval in which TK drops Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, (probably rated the best song of the decade by most of the people in the room tonight); and ‘The Wolves’, for which Haze pulls a few of the crowd onstage for ‘The Wolves’ – a stunt she repeats throughout the night.
For the first half of the set Haze sticks to her aggressive, staccato rapping style, tearing through ‘Dark Places’ and ‘Eulogy’ as she intermittently crouches down to spit lyrics into the front row’s faces. Then she yells “Leeds do you have more energy or do you want me to come down there and pump it into you?!”, and actually jumps into the crowd to perform ‘Babe Ruthless’.
On record, the most striking thing about Haze’s talent is her ability to switch from this ferocious rapping style to more soulful, sung out hooks, without either seeming insincere. For the first forty-five minutes, she performs her heavier rap orientated material without breaking. It works, as it ensures the crowd are well and truly on board before she switches to her more sensitive, soulful singing style later on, in the more R&B influenced songs ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, and ‘Detox’; and when she switches, it is as seamless and as on record, but with incredible atmospheric impact. Easing the electrified crowd into momentary, respectful trances in which they follow her every word, she wails “you know I'm breaking again, you know I'm caving again” into the completely silent room.
Not only does Haze make sure every single person here tonight is completely immersed in her performance – but she also actively engages in making sure the crowd are having as much fun as she is, letting them know how important they are to everything she does. Several times throughout the night she invites people on stage - for her encore it’s open to anyone, and at the end of the night when I come back to say bye to the promoters – she’s still there chatting and taking photos with a very, very long line of fans.
Maybe, this is why Haze is so comfortable in-control, self- releasing and leaking her own work – because she knows that after all, as tonight’s show demonstrated, the energy that she feeds fans directly will eventually feedback to her.