Thursday, January 2, 2014

album review: 'dirty gold' by angel haze

Let's talk a bit about record labels.

It tends to be a well-known fact that the music industry has taken several body blows with the rise of digital distribution, streaming, and iTunes, with major record labels taking the majority of the heavy hits (no matter how much they like to blame it on piracy or artists behaving badly). And thanks to the connotations in popular culture associated with record labels thanks to endless negative portrayals in music, television, movies, etc., most people don't have the slightest degree of sympathy and would be happy to see them abolished entirely.

Now, I don't really share this opinion - in fact, I'd argue record labels play two important roles in the music 'process' that is often overlooked. For one, they handle a lot of the 'business' side of the industry in terms of promotion, production, and distribution, leaving the artists to be concerned about the art - like it or not, most artists aren't Jay-Z and don't have the business sense to handle this effective. And for another, record labels often act as an editorial board, something that artists might not like but is an essential part of the process. Speaking as a published author, it's always irksome to go through editing and criticism, but my work is often better for it and it's a constant acknowledgement that I'm far from perfect. Or let's put this another way - while I'm all for preserving the purity of artistic digressions, people have to eat, and session musicians, producers, managers, and the rest of the personnel involved in the creation of an album have to get paid - if the album doesn't sell well, that doesn't always happen.

So yeah, record labels have a purpose - the issue becomes how those labels are run. Thanks to the CD bloat of the late 90s, many major labels experienced obscene growth thanks to shady business practices, chart manipulation, and executive meddling in album releases - and that boom was unsustainable. But while the labels' relevance have waned, their attitudes haven't changed - and for once, artists aren't taking it lying down anymore. Macklemore wrote several songs about industry politics and ended up being the biggest charting success this year off of his own independent label, and I did a special comment discussing RCA and Kemosabe's disastrous business decisions in cancelling the Ke$ha and Flaming Lips collaboration Lip$ha in order to try to rein their rebellious artist in (and man, that's backfired big time - have you all seen the 'Dirty Love' video yet?). So I wasn't entirely surprised when upcoming hip-hop artist Angel Haze threw her label obligations to the wind and leaked her entire debut album in frustration. The story goes that the label said they would release the album if Angel Haze had finished it during the summer - but when the label went back on their word and scheduled the release for early 2014 (after Angel Haze finished the album in June of last year), she leaked the album. On the one hand, applause for being gutsy and following through on the bluff, but on the other hand, she basically guaranteed that outside of her fanbase, she's not going to be getting the same degree of promotion from the label, to say nothing of critical attention because nobody covers albums released in mid-to-late December by people not named Beyonce. But let's put the politics aside: how's the album?

Eh, it's okay. It's sad to think that the tumultuous release of Dirty Gold by Angel Haze might be the most interesting thing about the whole album, because I was not impressed or all that moved by this record. Let me stress that it's not bad by any stretch, but it's a messy, messy debut album that doesn't really come together and really could have used the promotion that the label will now be reluctant to provide. So what I'm going to do is bring back something I haven't used since I reviewed Kay's debut album a few months back: my list of requirements that make a strong debut album, and see if Dirty Gold accomplishes them in some vein.

So let's start with the establishment of personality - and you know, I'll give Angel Haze this, she's got personality, or at least energy. Indeed, her technical skill as a rapper (while not perfect) is her strongest quality on this album, and she spits with impressive speed and technical chops. But I can't help but feel she's got a limited range, and this comes across whenever she's on the hook - she's not especially emotive in her singing and she doesn't sell vulnerability well, which becomes a problem when we get to the lyrics and themes. And as a rapper, her wordplay and punchlines aren't in the same league as an act like Dessa, mostly because Angel Haze doesn't really modulate when she's rapping. She's got intensity, to be sure, but she doesn't vary the speed or cadence enough, or produce solid memorable lines that distinguish songs. For me, Angel Haze sits between where Nicki Minaj once was and where NIcki Minaj is now.

Now this isn't a bad thing - Nicki Minaj had a lousy 2013, and there's room where she was, so if Angel Haze wants to step into the pop rap mold, that's not a bad thing. But this takes us to establishing her brand, and here's where we run into problems - because this album doesn't show any coherent sign of what Angel Haze wants to be. If she's looking for hard-hitting, emotionally evocative hip-hop, as songs like 'Black Synagogue' or 'Angels & Airwaves' and 'Black Dahlia' and 'Dirty Gold' seem to indicate, where she talks about religion and suicide and her relationship with her mother and self-esteem, then there's a certain emotional range or lyrical flair that's required to pull those songs off effectively, and there, only the title track partially coalesces around a feel-good sentiment that doesn't really distinguish itself. What's worse is that it becomes painfully obvious which other rappers she drew influence from when she writes her more emotionally impacting songs, both in her flow and delivery, which doesn't help her stand out.

So okay, what about on the shallower, pop rap side of the spectrum, where Angel Haze doesn't need the same emotional range? Well, while her punchlines aren't bad, none of them really stand out or distinguish Angel Haze beyond just being a solid technical rapper (and even then, I wouldn't say she's great). But this is where we get to the third criterion: making sure your artist is shown in the best possible light, and this is where we have to talk about the instrumentation and production, the big weak point of this record. Yes, 'Planes Fly' and 'Battle Cry' (her collaboration with Sia) are good in this regard, but that's because they're the only tracks with solid or even passable hooks on this album! And while the record does get better in its second half, it doesn't start strong, thanks to a selection of terrible synth choices. On top of too many tracks early on sounding cluttered and with weaker percussion (which really doesn't help the songs sound nearly as 'epic' as Angel Haze seems to want), the synths are squealing and watery and lack anything close to a good melody, and they distract and take away from Angel Haze's performance. And while the production does have more texture than you'd expect and some interesting rhythm sections show up, I can't help but feel none of them add enough to really stand out.

To summarize, a debut album should establish who the artist is, why they are special, and why the audience should care - and Dirty Gold by Angel Haze only maybe accomplishes one of those. Yes, she's a skilled rapper, but as I've stressed, that's my baseline for good hip-hop, and this record doesn't do much above that. On a pop rap level, her instrumentation and lack of solid hooks really hurts her, and while she's better in a more serious vein, I don't feel like any of her songs build to a satisfying emotional climax. She talks around the issues with a lot of intensity, but doesn't hit them directly and that mutes the impact of the album. That being said, this is a debut album, and Angel Haze does show enough talent that does knock this album up a few points above strictly average. So with that, it's a 6/10. So in the end, Dirty Gold is a vaguely positive-looking album that really could have been better with a tighter focus, and Angel Haze shows some promise for the future. But I get the sinking feeling she'll be overshadowed by the controversy of her debut and it won't end nearly as well as she's hoping. Let's hope I'm wrong.

1 comment:

  1. pssst you should get a tumblr or a facebook pls

    it is 2014 most people are completely over twitter