By Russell Warfield
A guessing game for those of you who have seen the menacing little trailer for Reservation which was put on YouTube in advance of the album’s release: what immediately recognisable sample do you think Angel Haze’s debut record opens with? (For those who haven’t seen it, allow me to paint a picture: a collection of masked, hooded types hold flaming torches aloft, set to eerie and tense drone. Cut to Haze herself, peering intensely out of a headscarf, being slowly unveiled to reveal an unsmiling face of menace and power). I’ll wager that none of you guessed that a trinket box rendition of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ was the sample in question, and setting into motion such an assertively named song as ‘This Is Me’, at that. Even more surprisingly (and disappointingly) it’s not employed with any sense irony, neither as deliberate contrast with a sudden onslaught of undercutting grime or terror. Worst of all, it sets the tone for most of the album rather nicely.
This is a turn of events as unwelcome as it is unexpected. Early cut ‘New York’ roared with a visceral intensity. To be sure, borrowing the hand clap frame work of Gil Scott Heron’s ‘New York Is Killing Me’ almost unaltered is a great starting point for any gristly rap onslaught, but Haze herself delivers the goods in some order on that album highlight. Sheer speed of delivery in rap is always impressive enough, but too commonly overzealously gushed about as evidence of artistic merit. With Angel Haze, however, the sheer shock and awe of her inhumanly rapid syllable-discharge during certain passages is staggering, arresting and wholly deserving of praise in and of itself. ‘Werkin Girls’ erupts with unbridled force, sounding like an extended freestyle played on fast forward, with paranoid stabs of rhythm and noise making up the understated backdrop.
But, let’s go back to that first track. We’ve got a sung chorus, overwrought string samples, clean and safe beats, and – worst of all – lyrics like “I swear I’ll always love you, you know I feel the same / and I just want to say, we’ve made it through the pain”. This opens up a deluge of melodrama, over seriousness and trite buzzwords like ‘struggle’ and ‘pain’ at the end of what feels like every line through Reservation. You could quote pretty much “CHI” from start to finish as an extended example of Haze at her most irritating, but let’s just settle for: “if you’ve never felt love, I’ll make it tangible / and show you how to do it right, I could be the manual / I just believe that you and I are meant together / baby, put your hands up and we can reach forever” (whatever the fuck that last bit means).
As odd as I feel to be advocating hostility and aggression over expressions of love and resilience, Haze’s machine gun rapping is undeniably perfectly conducive to the mode of delivery. And while about seventy percent of the record running time is spent in a hyper-safe, mid-tempo, gratingly-melodic mode, the flashes of Haze’s ferocious ego dripping from lines like “I think I was God in a first life”, or – even more economically – demanding that someone “fuck me til I’m numb” sound all the more enticing and thrillingly alive owing to their rarity, making the long, long passages of featureless landscape even more frustrating than they otherwise would be. It’s maddening to hear her so neutered and sappy. Angel Haze: put that headscarf back on, and light that torch back up.