“Just so you know, I want to be a rock star.”
That was one of the first things Angel Haze said to Nicola Carson, an alum of Modest! Management (Leona Lewis, One Direction) who was looking for her first major client since stepping out on her own at the top of 2013. The statement stunned Carson, as Haze was best-known for hard-hitting rap tracks like “New York,” “Werkin’ Girls” and her brutally honest freestyle about sexual abuse over Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet.”
“It was very surprising-she was saying, ‘I love Jason Mraz, I love John Mayer,'” Carson recalls of their meeting at the Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood in February. “She talked about Kings of Leon for about 40 minutes. She said, ‘I want to go out with a live band, not a DJ. That’s how I want to translate my record.'”
Carson quickly signed Haze, who extended what was planned as a 24-hour trip to Los Angeles and dove into the creative process for what would become “Dirty Gold,” the rapper/singer’s debut album, set for an early-2014 release on Republic. Helmed primarily by Grammy Award-winning producer Markus Dravs (Mumford & Sons, Coldplay), the album is a strategic bid to position Haze as equal parts pop star and confessional rapper. Or, as Republic executive VP of A&R Rob Stevenson says, “She’s like an edgier TLC all wrapped in one person.”
In a departure from early mixtapes like “Classick” and “Reservation,” Haze sings nearly as much as she rhymes on “Dirty Gold”–belting out her own hooks in a limber, smoky alto on inspirational anthems like “Sing About Me” and “Angels in the Airwaves,” delivering a haunting falsetto on “Black Synagogue” and first single “Echelon,” or affecting a British torch singer on “Planes Fly” (co-penned by Natalia Kills). Many of the songs produced by Dravs feature live drums layered on top of dense, snaky beats, with choruses tailormade for the festivals Haze will likely play in 2014. (She made stops at Lollapalooza and Osheaga this past summer.) The album’s only guest is Sia, who handles chorus duties on the Greg Kurstin-produced “Battle Cry,” slated to be released as “Dirty Gold’s” second single in January.
Haze knew her singing would surprise her mixtape fans, so to bridge the gap between projects she started a series of freestyle covers on her SoundCloud account called “#30Gold,” through which she’s releasing up to 30 tracks prior to Dirty Gold. The project has thus far ranged from rhymes on Macklemore’s “Same Love” and Jay Z’s “Tom Ford” to straightforward vocal takes on Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness,” the lattermost having been streamed more than 150,000 times.
“The aim is to kind of go there,” Haze says. “I did a Miley Cyrus cover just because I genuinely could, to display the diversity you’re going to hear on the album. I saw a tweet the other day like, ‘I would never expect the artist who rapped ‘New York’ to sing ‘Wrecking Ball.’ So, it’s like a setup–now you expect it.”
Republic senior director of A&R Nigil Mack aimed to pair Haze with nontraditional hip-hop producers to capture a sound that could incorporate all her myriad influences. “We wanted to show people that urban is changing,” he says. “She’s into different things-alternative, poetry, all types of music. She has a lot of things to say, and we wanted to reflect her art form.”
Dravs was intrigued by the creative challenge of taking on his first hip-hop album after years of collaborations with musicians like Brian Eno, Björk and Arcade Fire. “I work best with people who know exactly what they want but aren’t sure how to get there,” Dravs says. “I don’t really know these days anymore what ‘hip-hop’ is, but as a record by a rapper, I’m very proud to have had some input here.”
Beyond her budding music career, Haze has also established herself as a style magnate for her butch-meets-glam take on street fashion. Karl Lagerfeld shot her for the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue.com featured her wearing Helmut Lang, and Donatella Versace has become a friend. “As much as she’s a promoter for the record, Angel sees the fashion things as part of the bigger movement for herself,” Carson says.
With a release date for “Dirty Gold” still being finalized (Republic is eyeing late February/early March for a simultaneous launch in the United States and the United Kingdom), Carson keeps checking Haze’s SoundCloud page every morning. “If I didn’t have Angel on lockdown, she’d just put [the album] up there,” Carson says with a laugh. “She wants people to hear it now. She’s so caught up in the moment and the creative space. She doesn’t get caught up in the politics.”