Angel Haze – ‘Back To The Woods’

New York-based rapper veers between self-empowered hardass and desperate loner on fascinating new mixtape

Note: In February this year, Angel Haze came out as agender, stating they prefer to be described using gender-neutral pronouns, which is respected in the following review.

About the second single to come off ‘Back To The Woods’, Angel Haze recently said, “‘Babe Ruthless’ is my Machiavelli… It’s me becoming Super Saiyan. It’s me becoming something you can’t label or contain and being better at it than all the versions of myself who’ve stepped up to bat before me.” It’s quite a statement that tells you much about the mixtape as a whole – a follow-up to 2013’s debut album, ‘Dirty Gold’.

First up, ‘Dirty Gold’ was a misfire. Haze’s early EPs showed immense promise, then the New York-based rapper signed a major-label deal for the album, warred with the label, then leaked it without their permission, scuppering its chances of commercial success. It flopped, and also – by dipping its toe into EDM and pop – didn’t seem true to Haze, who, as the above quote suggests, is hard to box in. Formulas for other rappers on the rise were never going to apply.

And so, ‘Back To The Woods’ is both a consolidation for Haze (they sound like themselves again and there’s clear sonic unity – all the tracks were produced by old friend/collaborator TK Kayembe) and something of a hangover of a record, across which they are getting over ‘Dirty Gold’, addressing the considerable problems they’ve encountered in their personal life over the last couple of years (heartbreak, mental illness, drug dependency) and, one hopes, getting primed for a second studio album that will place them firmly back on the rap map. ‘Back To The Woods’ is, in effect, a bridge, and it’s also a crutch.

When Haze said “you can’t label me”, it wasn’t a joke. On ‘Back To The Woods’, they slip in and out of characters and voices, sometimes playing the role of self-empowered hardass (“Nigga, I am leader of the pack and that’s it/Every time I howl, wolves come, and you get bit”, they rap on ‘Wolves’), but also frequently dropping their guard and admitting they’re desperately alone (‘Moonrise Kingdom’, ‘The Eulogy’). They both confront the world with a startling ferocity (‘Impossible’: “I got my middle finger up to white America/But tryin’ to whitewash my blackness/Fuck you, you could never break me”) and demands to be left alone, particularly on devastating closer ‘The Woods’, on which they say that walking into the woods as a kid was, “I swear to God … the only time in my life that I felt like I belonged anywhere”.

The mixtape cover finds Haze in a forest, but there’s another, less physical side to ‘Back To The Woods’ that’s just as fascinating. ‘Impossible’ begins, “There is no part of me left in my brain/I am outside it, man, I can’t complain” an intriguing couplet followed up later by, “Sorry, I’m crazy, but I open my third eye/And the view is amazing”. Despair for Haze means both reconnecting with nature and also taking off into another realm, both of which offer refuge to a person who, for now, feels like “a wandering soul with no place in this world” (‘Dark Places’). And yet, by using ‘Back To The Woods’ as a kind of exorcism – a massive splurge of agony and frustration, written and recorded in just two months – Haze places themselves very much back in the world. You can’t hear this and not wonder where on earth, or beyond, they’ll go next.