There’s been something quietly remarkable happening on Soundcloud over the last couple of weeks. In the lead-up to the release of her debut album Dirty Gold, Angel Haze has been releasing a freestyle a day, setting her coruscating raps over a series of beats borrowed from notable contemporaries: Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” Jay-Z’s “Tom Ford,” and Drake’s “Worst Behavior,” among others. Pretty much all of the tracks she’s released so far have been worth hearing, but yesterday, she delivered the best yet: a deeply personal reinterpretation of Macklemore’s “Same Love” that discusses her own history and sexuality.
Angel Haze’s version of “Same Love” is the most powerful and moving rap released since… well, since she last discussed her personal history, on a harrowing reworking of Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” last year. This new track also discusses her childhood, and specifically her mother’s reaction to her sexuality (“At age 13 my mother knew I wasn’t straight/ She didn’t understand but she had so much to say/ She sat me on the couch looked me straight in my face/ And said you’ll burn in hell or probably die of AIDS”), before moving to a more general examination of homophobia and prejudice.
It’s both honest and genuinely moving, even for an artist whose music has an entirely deserved reputation for being both of these things. It’s filled with concise lyrical insight (“You’re driven by your choice is an optical illusion/ Here’s to understanding that it’s not always confusion”), fueled by both rage (“Fuck your religion/ Fuck constitutions/ Fuck superstitions/ There are no lakes of fire, we’re here on earth”) and compassion (“I stand/ For the boy who died by his hand/ To the sound of his father screaming, ‘Woman loves man’”). On the whole, it comes across as a very, very real version of what plastic anthems like “Born This Way” or the original “Same Love” wish they might have been.
And, remarkably, it finishes by borrowing some lines from Andrea Gibson’s poem “Andrew,” lines that discuss the fluidity of sexuality and the generally pointless nature of arbitrary labels: “No, I am not gay/ No, I am not straight/ And I’m sure as hell not bisexual, damn it/ I am whoever I am when I am it/ Loving whoever you are when the stars shine/ And being whoever you be when the sun rises.”
How many other rappers — or musicians in any genre, really — do you hear quoting from genderqueer poets? Or addressing these topics in the first place? (Or, for that matter, tweeting things like her recent evisceration of the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen over his comments on Miley Cyrus?) Haze’s take on gender and sexuality is so much better than Macklemore’s well-meaning but kinda dim treatment of the same subject matter that there’s not really even any comparison between the two, because this track isn’t just better than the original — it’s better than pretty much anything. And here it is, a rap most other artists would kill for, casually released on Soundcloud as part of a one-a-day series.
But then, no entry in the series has been less than virtuosic. Beyond “Same Love,” the whole project is serving as an ongoing demonstration that Angel Haze is quite likely the most innovative and important hip hop artist working in America at the moment. It’s no accident that she’s killing it over others’ beats — it’s something she’s done her whole career, with her early mixtapes characterized by freestyles over borrowed backing tracks. It’s notable that she’s returned to doing so here and now, because whether it’s intentional or not — and she’s is precisely nobody’s fool, so it’s hard to imagine she isn’t aware of this — the 30 Gold series represents Haze claiming ownership of hip hop’s canon.
Remember how the Internet went crazy over Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control” a couple of months back, wherein he called out a bunch of rivals and proclaimed, “I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you niggas”? As others pointed out yesterday, Angel Haze hasn’t been talking about doing that — over the course of her career, and definitely over the course of this series, she’s been doing it, one-upping her contemporaries over their very own beats. Taking a Jay-Z or Drake beat and doing a freestyle that shits all over their verses is essentially saying, “I am better than you… and you… and you…” And not just saying it: showing it.
And she’s right. In terms of both emotional resonance and ferocious technical ability, there’s no one who can rival Angel Haze at the moment — and no, I’m not just talking about female rappers, because too often she gets pigeonholed because of her gender. (See this Noisey article, for instance, which proclaims a “golden age for hip hop” by lauding a bunch of inferior artists — Drake, Tyler, Chance the Rapper, Danny Brown, fucking Riff Raff — while mentioning Haze precisely once, as a “female MC.”)
Angel Haze is better than all of them, and she’s proving it every day. What she does with “Tom Ford,” for instance, flat out puts Jay-Z’s lackluster rapping to shame. So does her romp through “Worst Behavior,” wherein she notes that “I do it for the passion/ You do it for acknowledgement,” which can’t help but sound like a jab at the track’s original started-from-Degrassi owner. Really, though, these tracks aren’t about anyone else. For all that they’re dismantling her rivals, what they’re really proving is that she’s already leaving them behind. Whether Dirty Gold will live up to the premise of 30 Gold remains to be seen — but boy, is its creator tearing shit up at the moment.