How Angel Haze Turned Tragedy Into Triumph On Back To The Woods

The 23-year-old rapper has been down, but their new mixtape shows you’d be a fool to count them out.

September 17, 2015

Angel Haze isn’t one of those people who replies to a question like “how are you?” with “great, thanks!” no matter how they’re really feeling. “Last night I was super, super suicidal,” they tell me two minutes into our phone call. “I didn't want to put out the record today.” Although their new full-length project Back To The Woods dropped a couple hours before our phone call, and praise is already blooming for the 23-year-old rapper on social media, Haze recalls crying and pleading with their manager not to release it a matter of hours before. “It’s a little bit hard to believe the record is out, so I don't really know how to feel.”

Haze—who this year came out as agender and stated a preference for gender-neutral pronouns—has a reputation for that candid voice. Their breakthrough mixtapes, 2012’s Reservation and Classick, dealt bracingly with the realities of their upbringing in a strict religious community and their sexual abuse as a child (most notably on a remix of Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet”). Drawn in by this blisteringly honest voice, Republic signed Haze and set about work on a studio album; but relations fell apart, and in December 2013, Haze deliberately leaked their debut Dirty Gold in protest over its delayed release.

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But after an eventful two years that included a high-profile relationship with model Ireland Baldwin, an overdose, and stays in a psych ward, Haze has returned with the best music of their career. Back to the Woods, dropped for free on Soundcloud this week before also being made available to buy on iTunes, is somewhere between album and mixtape. It’s intended as a bridge, Haze explains, between the first album and the second, which they are currently working on. It’s also the product of an intense period of creativity and self-discovery, that saw Haze link up with friend and producer Tk Kayembe (after the two connected emotionally while tripping on shrooms in the desert) to make the entire soul-wrenching record in two months.

The record is characteristically forthright, like the pre-Dirty Gold mixtapes; but it also sees Haze experiment, and contort their voice into new shapes. Haze explains that the project displays several of their alter-egos: Angel Haze is the voice that’s “too wordy,” while Babe Ruthless is the name of their “wild” side, “saying the shit that no one expects me to say.” RÖES is their singing alter ego, as appears on the glimmering “Moonrise Kingdom,” and the one that Haze identifies as “the only boy inside of me.” There’s a lot of RÖES on this record, cooing to the ghosts of lovers long gone, making for an album that’s one of the sexiest, most romantic things Haze has ever made—even if it is also bitter, even if it does also feature bars hurled like grenades. As they sing on “Moonrise Kingdom,” there’s no escaping truth.

Haze took a break from soundchecking in L.A. on the day the project dropped to tell me about how they reached this new level of emotional honesty in their work, by learning to live with PTSD, to run towards the unknown, and to trust a good collaboration. You get the sense they’re as proud of this project as they were scared to put it out into the world a few hours before, which is understandable—something this honest is as brave as it is terrifying. But for Haze, it was about saving themselves: “I had to make some person that I could stand behind or inside and be okay with. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I’m starting to look a little bit like a masterpiece.”

What was life like for you right after you leaked Dirty Gold?

ANGEL HAZE: It was really weird, ‘cause that was something I really had no control over, that area of my life. That’s a gray area for me, so I don't really like to revisit that. What it did was, I learned the importance and value of art, and the importance of artistry and how it completely connects to my person. I felt really worthless for a while after that happened, because I feel like I sort of played the fucking game—I didn't say things I wanted to say, I didn't do things I wanted to do, and I still got fucked, you know? And now I just feel like, fuck all the games.

I'm learning, because that situation with my label led me to this record. Like if I didn’t [make Dirty Gold], I wouldn't have OD'ed, I wouldn't have met and connected with my producer on such a heavy deep level—looking for serenity, looking for sobriety, looking for whatever. So as fucked up as it is, Dirty Gold was a great stepping stone, [and] it was a great body of work regardless of what happened with it.

How did you and producer Tk Kayembe get to know each other?

[Tk] saw me before I knew he existed. He sent me this track to my email, and he was like 'hey, I think you should rap on this,’ and I was just checking beats for Reservation—this was like in 2012. I was at my computer and I really liked the beat, but I was stupid and I couldn't think of anything at the time so I kept sitting on it. I wrote a verse, and sent that shit back and he was like ‘this shit is fire!’

He ended up producing “White Lilies / White Lies” on [Dirty Gold]...then I moved to L.A. and Tk moved to L.A. as well. So we went to the desert...we did the shroom shit and talked, and it just so happened that we were both in difficult places in our lives, in regard to believing in oneself and aspiring to be greater, and not leaning on anything but ourselves, and our talent. We both went a little ape shit together, I’ll be honest—I think the whole inspiring part of this project is that two people did it in two months..

I think we just work very well together, because I can say 'hey, I just did some fucking blow and popped like three Xans right now, and I feel like a fucking looney mess. I need to make something that expresses what the fuck I'm feeling inside.' And he's like perfect, and he makes the track. And then there you have “Impossible”—I'm a little bit out of my brain, that’s what it sounds like. Tk is a mad fucking scientist.

How did being in a L.A. impact on you as an artist?

Being in L.A. depresses the fuck out me. It drives me crazy. Maybe it’s because I was in love with someone there and I feel the thickness in the air, you know? I just don't want to fucking breathe when I'm there. But I think I needed that, I needed to be strangled while I recorded this record and wrote it. Because if I left, ran away from my feelings...I would have made a bullshit record about things I don't care about.

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At the end of the record there’s a clip of you talking about the woods feeling like home. What do the woods mean to you, why were they so influential on this record?

When I was dealing with all this shit on the record, and losing my cool online, I had to find a place in myself where I felt comfortable sitting and saying, ‘you need fucking help.’ I was going to go to rehab, I started therapy, I paid $15,000 for someone to fucking read my brain...I got diagnosed with a lot of shit I'm not comfortable with in my life at all, like dissociative identity and borderline personality type shit, and it’s really wrecked me. But when I got stuck in Virginia [on tour, en route to Sweden], I hadn't been home for some time, and I went to the woods and I was just fucking running through it like a psychopath, with Tk—I'm begging him to come with, like ‘please, it'll be perfect I swear to god.’

I've never had a childhood. Since I was seven, I've been doing things that were much too advanced for kids my age. I had to take care of my mom, I had to take care of everyone around me, I had to offer advice on shit that I never experienced and knew about...so when I get to feel like a kid, I go apeshit. When I get to feel that freedom children feel, like you don't have any responsibilities...Out in the woods I learned to experience myself as a child, a child who doesn’t understand that the world is an unsafe place. I only understand that nature is a thing. That’s the fucking best I can ask for in my life right now. It’s the only place I can breathe and my chest doesn't feel like I have a billion fucking pounds of weight on it, and I'm trying to like gag and cough up any love I can muster. The woods is where I feel most safe.

One of the reasons that I've really appreciated you is you always talk so frankly about mental health, both inside your music and outside it. Does it motivate you to think that you're reaching people who may feel the same way?

If I can't say how I feel I go crazy...Every day I wake up and I'm like ‘goddamn, you lived. You're alive again.’ And sometimes that makes me very upset, and then other times I feel very very proud. I know there are other people in the world going through this shit, and I wasn't made to feel horrid about who I am….You can judge me forever because I don't need your approval. I have my own. I feel great about who I am because most people could not live in my shoes for even a second, most people couldn't survive my life, most people would be fucked up. I’ve been in a cycle where I've been there, I've done that shit, and I survived it and I'm here. But people have to know that there are people who are just like you who have fucking survived, who have the best of what they had and the cards they've been dealt.

You sound free on these songs. Do you feel like you know yourself better today?

Yeah. It feels so good to just jump. Because what’s down there, you want to see. You want to know if there’s a hell, you want to know if there’s a fucking heaven and you want to know what’s in between...I wasn't this person two years ago, I didn't understand myself this clearly two years ago. I used to wonder why like, I couldn't fucking eat any different food, I ate the same thing for seven years straight until I started therapy and understood that post-traumatic stress says that, if someone puts fucking salt and pepper on your PB&J every day and laughs when you eat it, the only things you're going to eat is things that you can control and things that make you feel safe, you know? Starting to understand my brain and my tendencies and shit like that helped me understand myself as a person. Tragedy becomes triumph if you let it.

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How Angel Haze Turned Tragedy Into Triumph On Back To The Woods