Angel Haze has been through a lot. Since releasing their 2011 mixtape debut King (Haze defines themselves as agender, with a preferred use of gender neutral pronouns), the Detroit native has used their music to parse through the emotional struggles of physical and sexual abuse, suicide and depression. After building buzz with a string of mixtapes, including 2012’s Reservation and Classick, they released their Republic Records studio debut Dirty Gold at the end of 2013—without their label’s consent—in an attempt to combat the LP’s mishandling and delay.
The 23-year-old also faced personal issues beyond music. In the past few years, they’ve overdosed and been sent to the psych ward twice, and their publicized relationship with Ireland Baldwin fell apart earlier this year. But their resilience shines on Back to the Woods, which Haze isn’t terming as a sophomore album but rather a “project.” On Woods, exclusively premiering on Billboard.com, they confront the difficulty to overcome loss, be it romantically or with family, over a dark soundscape provided entirely by producer Tk Kayembe (“It’s like an accidental masterpiece,” he says.)
Speaking with Billboard, Haze candidly discusses their label woes, mental health and the pursuit to find meaning in the craziness of life.
At what point did it click for you that that’s why you wanted to call this Back to the Woods?
When I started to make the record, I was really lost, whether that was emotionally, mentally, spiritually — everything was gone. When Tk and I did it, we would sit down because I’d be crying or I’d just done a million drugs and was going crazy and saying, “I need to express myself, I need to say this.” What I didn’t know was that while I was expressing myself, and I was doing it almost in a way that I was on autopilot, I was also stacking up Greece and I was supposed to go to Sweden to play a festival and I had a flight to D.C., which is… I consider Springfield, Virginia to be most home to me than anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s the first time I ever had a house, it’s the first time I ever lived in a house, so it’s the only place I can call a home. It’s where I used to sleep. Since I pretty much started rapping at 19, I hadn’t been back to Virginia and it was f—king crazy. When I got there, my flight was delayed, but the airline gave my tickets away, it was crazy. It was a whole situation. Basically, I ended up being stuck in D.C. about 15 minutes away from where I used to live. And so I was freaking out like, what the f—k is going on? I’m not supposed to be here, this is crazy. So I just kept pressuring Tk to come to the woods with me, and I was like let me just take you to where I’m from, where I grew up. So we went, and there’s a video of me there on my Instagram and I’m like, with a friend and on top of this rock I spray-painted and would sleep. And then I was like, wow, for the first time in my life, I realize that I do have a connection here on earth, I’m always looking for an anchor, something that made me feel real. But the only thing I’ve ever connected with is nature, is being in the woods and being so unafraid of anything. There’s nothing out there that scares me, because I understand myself as a part of that nature. That’s when it all clicked. Even the song titles… I feel artistic expression, it’s a medium for everything and I considered this record to be one of my best projects to date, because it’s just me talking and I feel like it’s natural, almost. And that’s where I completely got lost in the whole title and the meaning.
There are a lot of themes of darkness and isolation, and it almost feels like a breakup record. Was this a way to parse through the demise of a relationship?
The demise of many relationships. What I learned with music, it’s interesting because I’m an autodidact and really observational person. I learned in music that you can express anything in the world under the guise of love. There’s a song on the record that’s called “The Eulogy,” and that’s a song about my little sister. I miss her so much, every day I think about her. And I realize I’m never going to have the chance to reconnect or make that relationship. “The Woods” is about my mom. “Gods” is about my ex. There are so many different songs on there that are about so many different people. But it doesn’t matter because they all sound like love songs. I think it’s cool because it makes it universal but it also gets me a catalyst to say what I need to about everyone in my life that I have feelings for. It might seem a little overbearing and bizarre, but that’s how I’ve learned to cope, I think.
All of the tracks are produced by Tk. What made you want to go that route in comparison to Dirty Gold, which had numerous producers?
With my debut, I think it was different because it’s not like a bad thing. I don’t view it in that way anymore. I took it as a learning lesson, but there were more writers and producers on my record than there was me. I thought that stripping everything down — because I’d been recording a lot, with a lot of different people, like Fraser T. Smith, so many different people, and all of it was great and connecting and I made great records with those guys. But at the same time, I felt the industrial pressure to be this sort of artist, to make this sort of thing, to make mainstream music. I don’t really care much about connecting with a world that doesn’t understand me. I care more about having the ability to express myself through music. Tk and I, we’ve done a track together on every single record I’ve put out, whether it was “Werkin’ Gurls” or “White Lilies / White Lies.” We sat down and it was a really tough time for both of us. I think it was more of a learning experience. I was like, I feel this way and I want a song that makes me feel it. If you listen to the sonics on this record, it’s all as equally sad as the lyrics are. And I thought he did a really good job of sort of encapsulating the feeling I was going through.
Earlier you’d said that when you started making this record you were really lost and doing lots of drugs and on autopilot. Are you still in that phase or did this record help pull you away from it?
Oh god. [Laughs] I think I’m a work in progress. I’m the wild face that everyone has in their life, but it feels very permanent to me right now. I think learning, and a lot of stuff I did with this record, specifically “On Fire,” it’s sort of a recall of two times I’d overdosed in the past two years. You hear the sirens and you hear the radios and you hear the ambulances and I’m coming on and I’m telling you what happened. I swear to god, I almost lost my mind. I was in a f—king psych ward. But I got out and I ran from New York and I didn’t look back. I’ve been going since then. Everything I put in my music, for some reason, music makes everything feel beautiful to me. It makes me feel uninhibited. It makes me feel completely boundless. There’s nothing in this life I can’t face, because it’s in my music and it’s great to me. So I think that I’m still in a really weird phase. I’m sort of trying to realize myself and actualize. But I’m pretty far f—king gone.
You said you went to a psych ward. What was that like?
Oh man, it was horrible. Well, the first time, I don’t really remember. The second time, I threw up the lining of my stomach and wouldn’t stop throwing up in there. There was a nurse who asked if I wanted a shot to help me stop throwing up and I said no, and she looked at me and she stabbed me in the arm with a f—king needle. Then I looked around and realized where I was, and realized how different I was from everyone. I learned a lot about myself over the past few years. I think as an abused child, you come to realize things as normal and you come to only understand abuse as a sort of primary feeling in life and I didn’t understand a world wherein I could exist and be loved and be cared for and not be attacked or hurt or essentially abused. So I was just learning a lot of shit about myself and consequently, I got really, really f—king lost. But yeah, I don’t know. It was really crazy. It was even more crazy than I care to talk about but I just never want to go back there, ever.
That’s concerning. Do you feel like you’re OK now?
Of course. I learned that living is the only true therapy, because you have to have something that you aim for in life or else it’s just boring and you’re just a shell of a person and perfection is nothing. I think me coming to understand myself and going through these experiences, none of them are negative to me. Nothing that’s happened to me is bad at all because it all landed me here and in a better place with myself and my art and with various different coping mechanisms that keep me alive and keep me going. Everything’s positive on this end. I just use these experiences as sort of a catalyst for learning and expression. Basically, if I say this, there’s going to be 10,000 or 15,000 kids who don’t go through this because I said it. For me, it’s not that big a deal. I don’t really care.
You’ve always been open about who you are in your records. Obviously, this is a very personal record. In saying these things and being open about who you are and what you’ve gone through, with the intention of helping others, is it also about helping yourself?
Yeah, it is. The best self-medication that anyone can do is honesty. There’s a difference when you’re lying to yourself and lying to everyone else. Or you’re lying to yourself and you’re trying to pretend to everybody else. I think for me, the fact that I go through this life and I experience what I experience and I divulge whatever I feel, there’s no part of me that I feel ashamed of. That’s a big thing for me. I grew up feeling ashamed a lot. I can’t explain to you. I went from shelter to shelter. I moved around every year. I never had a family, I never had anything to be confident about. For me, going through life and being able to bear my scars and feel like if I’m ugly, I’m ugly, if someone finds me beautiful, they find me beautiful. But I’m completely detached from any sort of care in that area. I’m more conscious of helping myself and making sure that I can wake up every day and not want to blow my f—king brains out. There are just so many levels to this shit. I’m just learning and living.
Speaking to that, your split from Republic was very public. What did you learn from that experience?
Oh man. I think it’s something I had to go through because again, when I consider myself and consider my art, I’ve never had any really personal attachment to it. And so I went through that situation with Republic where I felt like I couldn’t have any say whatsoever with what I did because you get so used to being you that you don’t really think about what’ll happen when someone takes that ability away from you. For me right now, I value so much. I f—king value the freedom to say what I want and be who I am and to mold my image myself. I don’t think I would have changed much, because again, with learning experiences, they’ve made me very headstrong in my art and the way that I approach things in life and branding and everything. I am me now. There’s no one that can take away the reins from me and there’s nobody who can tell me how to make this music, because you’re not me. I just think it’s cool because I’m going to go back into another label deal anyway, and I’m probably going to experience bullshit, but it’s whatever. I’m here. Angel Haze is Angel Haze, and you’re going to know, learn and love or hate me—but you’re not going to change me. That’s not going to happen.
What do you hope people take away from listening to Woods?
I haven’t thought about that. I think it’s just like Reservation. I was so scared to say so many things that I said on that record. I was so afraid to open up and even scared to sing. I listen to it and I hear how timid I was. I listen to this record and I hear an exponential amount of growth. Not just as a person, but as an artist. I don’t really know what people will take away from it, because I think interpretation is up to everybody. I just hope in some way, shape or form, they understand that I am who I am. I am just trying to feel my way through life. I’m not trying to take a form. I’m not trying to change any minds. I’m just expressing myself, and if you feel it, you feel it. If you don’t, then they motherf—king don’t, and that’s just it.
Now that the record’s out, are you thinking about the next album?
I’m f—king crazy, dude. If you leave me alone for a few hours, I can do the worst shit possible. I always have to be doing something with music, whether it’s recording or working. I have 190 songs I haven’t done anything with. So I’m creating right now at such a reckless pace. I’ve started my sophomore record, which I want to be so huge and diverse, especially sonically, orchestral shit. You know how at the end of “The Wolves” it switches up? I wanted to put a huge black choir on the end of that. Unfortunately I ran out of time because I wanted this record to come out this month. But I want to take my music 60 steps up. Because the visions that I have and the things I’ve grown attached to are so much bigger than me. I feel like everything is a canvas. With my next record, I want to paint the world like I see it. I was listening to a lot of old Fugees records and shit, “Fu-Gee-La” and Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation and Missy Elliott’s old shit, “Minute Man,” all of the sonics I’ve become obsessed with. So Tk is teaching me a lot about it, producing and shit like that. So the next record should be pretty crazy because I’m the new f—king Basquiat. I’m the new Frida Kahlo. I’m that shit. But instead of with a paintbrush, I have a microphone. I’m working to make something as visually beautiful and f—ked up as I am. I think hopefully, it’ll come into fruition.