Hands up, who likes binaries! You can’t have a dialectic without a binary, and you can’t have a contradiction without a dialectic. It’s an old critical chestnut to point out that an artwork is contradictory, either in content or in interpretation, and then explain how it’s precisely this that makes it sophisticated — the audience member who identifies a position and responds with praise or blame is either naïve or reductive. Now, hold that thought, and let’s see if we can’t sublate it, too. Angel Haze’s devastating Dirty Gold embodies internal contradictions, yet it’s not about to collapse under them — anything but. The question, then: what is a contradiction? In what way can there be a tension between speech (identity) and sound (location)? Where and to whom can this occur? Let’s take as our arena two versions of “the view from nowhere” — contractive and expansive.
The View From Nowhere (Contractive)
“I remember being asked a lot by, like, a lot of different magazines and shit, like, why don’t you incorporate your race, your ethnicity, like, where you’ve grown up into your music. I don’t identify with that shit, like, my identity is the music, everything that you need to know about me is in the music, my home is the music, it’s where I originate, it’s where I fall apart, it’s where I come to life.”
– “A Tribe Called Red”
“Identity politics” has become a knee-jerk placeholder term, as was “political correctness” before it, for everything seen as wrong with contemporary resistance strategies — a vague term that pertains, somehow, to any critique related to identity or power.
Yet, despite the argument that the cultural is somehow unreal and that critique in this realm is a waste of limited resources better spent on “reality,” meaningful pain threatens to erupt into our placeless place and reveal as much of the Real as we can ever expect or hope to encounter. And this on both sides of this equation: in the speech of the artist and in the response of the audience.
Last year, some thought the cultural was somehow quarantined from the real, that the concept of privilege was a joke. A Third Wave threatened to crash over us all. Yet Kanye West’s Yeezus — an album on which women are consistently degraded and treated as a sexual battlefield for conflict over race and class — was the darling of the music press, its objectification and sexism at best euphemized as “difficult” (with the self-congratulatory corollary that one can come to grips with difficult works — that is, overlook such peccadilloes). In a criticsphere dominated by men, it became apparent, the subject position from which the critic spoke felt invisible, as if it were an objective “view from nowhere,” irrelevant to that speaker’s speech.
At the same time, a woman who dared criticize Tyler, The Creator for his rape-culture lyrics was met with onstage dedications of rape and violence from Tyler himself (“Bitch Suck Dick” says it all), as well as an inundation of similar threats from legions of his fans — who evidently weren’t knowing, postmodern subjects capable of distinguishing between words and deeds, and ascribing reality only to the latter. This is not a game (as studies have shown). Art bleeds implacably into action. Culture is not the sole realm of significance, but neither is it a diversion. It’s almost enough to make one wish for the return of the days of NME’s infamous zero score — for Momus’ “morally perverse” Hippopotamomus.
Into this contractive championing of an artistic and critical “view from nowhere” steps Angel Haze, expressing a paradox in which she disavows the influence of “identity” — and by this we mean history (“Blood is just memory without language,” as Lydia Lunch and Rowland S. Howard had it) and the experience of the lifeworld. Yet at the same time, identity is fully incarnated in her reinscription of her personal journey. In interviews, Haze talks gender, race, and religion, but on Dirty Gold, she expresses her desire to disappear her identity — literally, on “Black Dahlia,” an ode to her mother where she offers up the event of her own birth as sacrifice to maternal happiness (“And if that meant the end of me/ I’d do it all for you so you could have your happy ending.”). And it’s the very expression of this desire that gives the album the marrow of its substance and its authenticity.
The View From Nowhere (Expansive)
With the question of identity thus displaced without being disposed of, on Dirty Gold Haze deals not with the strawman of “offense,” but with pain and hurt — which is what is actually at stake — with empathy and, most of all, with vulnerability. How so?
It’s a cliché to bewail the loss of the political impulse of early hip-hop, and the ongoing relevance of that debate has been obscured by its seeming tiresomeness. Meanwhile, “the personal is political” has been turned to the defense of objectification as empowerment. Yet it’s still a phrase with meaning beyond that oversimplification, as Dirty Gold demonstrates. Haze’s cry to those who are ostracized or traumatized to make it through is not a structural analysis, but her personal politics of accepting and revealing vulnerability, refusing to conceal shame and self-hatred, nonetheless bloom freshly in hip-hop culture. Lydia Lunch, also an artist who uses her own experience of abuse to challenge both rape culture and conservative sexual mores, put it thus:
I never claimed to have any answers or solutions to the world situation; I merely report on it as I see it. But a common complaint about me is: “offers no solutions.” Just because I call what’s going on ‘disintegration’ or ‘apocalypse now,’ I’m supposed to provide the salvation?!
When people ask me, ‘How can you tell these really personal stories to everyone?’ I reply, ‘These are universal stories. Merely because I use myself as an example’ … I’m only using my own example for the benefit of all who suffer the same multiple frustrations: fear, horror, anger, hatred… I speak for those who can’t articulate it, that’s all. And the stories aren’t just personal — often they’re very political, too. But the sexuality, the politics, the abuse — it’s all interrelated, it’s so historical.”
In narrating her identity in this way, Haze subtly disturbs familiar tropes of pop and hip-hop. Perhaps the most obvious of these is dissing self-aggrandizement — to be sure, we hear on the album capitalist individualism, the typical Horatio Alger rags to riches of the American and the hip-hop dream (“If you want something bad enough, you get it”), but Haze’s wordsmithery reclaims and redeems what might otherwise be derided as “life-affirming,” and, too, there’s an unfamiliar self-awareness at work here (“You gotta make a decision to be the one difference in your life and turn it around… even when you feel you dumbing it down”).
And then, the trope itself shifts fluidly into a call for solidarity (which is also the reason Haze gave for her early leak of the album): solidarity with any of those who have experienced familial hurt, sexual abuse and trauma, suicidality, queerness (beyond hetero/homo binaries), or any of the other innumerable forms of “difference” (a status imposed from the outside, we should recall, and therefore unlikely to be a matter of choice). Haze has indeed expressed her admiration both for Kanye and Eminem (not to mention freestyling over Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey, and Macklemore). But at the same time, her repurposing of those artists’ work — particularly her version of “Cleaning Out My Closet,” a harrowing tale of her own survival of sexual abuse — locate her in a very different place in relation to identity, hatred, and oppression.
On Dirty Gold, Identity has become a Becoming, a sloughing off or transformation of that which wounds, without denying it, without denying that society is a straitjacket as much as history, but that the subjective and individual is the level at which one nonetheless operates. Haze tells us that we can use the closed scars and perpetually open wounds of individual identity, and of individual-as-focal-point of collective identity, as material for transcendence without imagining it can ever be completely transcended. Indeed, that’s the only transcendence there is.
Speaking of transcendence, the generous side of the view from nowhere is that, despite its desire to turn back time to an era before the recognition of the relevance of subject position, it takes the Romantic view of music as transcendent, the desire on the part of the listening subject to dissolve completely into the piece. But for this to occur, a thorough decontextualization is a precondition. Hip-hop, in particular, demands a close attention to lyrics that is necessarily immersive, and Haze knows how to wield this aspect of genre to perfection (“I’m makin’ it for people who just wanna get lost”). That desire might be compared to what Freud disparaged as the childishness of “that oceanic feeling,” and the experience of music as transcendent, as well as the desire for it to be so, is one most closely associated with the teen years.
Regardless, on Dirty Gold, it’s clearly far too late for any of that. We’ve lost the innocence that was a blessing for the privileged and a curse for the oppressed. Angel Haze’s precious metal is always already tarnished, her semi-divinity is seen through a glass darkly — the music of the spheres reaches us only through spheres that have been shattered, the Demiurge is real, we have sinned originally.
Thus, there’s theology here, too. Given that Haze describes growing up in a Christian “cult,” her close engagement with religion is not a surprise. On “New York,” she warned us that she’d take our asses to church, and now she’s making good on that promise. Vide “Battle Cry”:
“I woke up one Sunday morning stopped believing in Jesus
Stopped believing in churches, I stopped believing in preachers
I realized I was a teacher, not just one of the heathens…”
Not so much an Antichrist as an anti-Yeezus, then. Where “Black Dahlia” expresses a secular Marian devotion, a desire to give up everything to the woman who gave her life, and a coming-to-terms with the trauma of their relationship, “Black Synagogue” delivers the view from nowhere as via negativa, the Protestant and iconoclast impulse, the “soul rebel.” We must face reality here and now, as it is (what in Eastern religions would be called a Tantric perspective): God is to be found not externally, but in the self.
Where does that self end, though? It’s identity that binds us to others, to our hated as well as beloved histories that we may not disentangle from, but may come to terms with and thereby use as rungs to climb from Yeats’ “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Thus is constructed a self that is not the constipated, fearful, and boundaried Individual of modernity (he whose fear of vulnerability, terror of emasculating penetration, and feelings of self-loathing and defeat must be channeled into externalized rage and projected onto the Other, he whose bootstrapped uniqueness must be a constant neoliberalised project) but a self whose very interconnectedness transcends the limitations of separation-as-individuality. Another of Haze’s subtle discolations of pop clichés deals with precisely this: the artist transcending rejection through achieving celebrity, and in doing so, becoming one with and achieving “cult” status for (only) the lonely.
So we’re not wrong when we identify West’s phrase “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” as problematic (a term speaking to complexity, and one that can’t be hashtagged into oblivion). But fundamentally, the issue is entrapment in a hostile, binarized worldview of Self and Other, where only one of these roles is a possibility. If we can be both and neither, pleasantly paddling about boundaryless and polymorphously perverse, we might be able to reconcile the structural reality of identity and privilege, with the importance of rejecting paranoid for reparative readings.
The View From Somewhere
(…which is not to imply that there’s anything wrong with nowhere, no-one, nothing…)
Where Haze’s 2012 Reservation was a brilliant yet patch-y-work that felt like a mixtape (whatever the mixtape/album distinction means in the internet age), Dirty Gold feels like a statement, an arrival. The moments of overwrought though obviously genuinely heartfelt pathos have been replaced by a deeper engagement, the flip jokes about Down Syndrome left behind. Befitting this, there’s no single equivalent of Reservation’s world-beating “New York,” but the building majesty and emotional engagement on display here have a rare authenticity-without-manipulation that would be envied by post-rock royalty. When Haze became a woman, she put away childish things and overcame them, too, which is a paradigm that Haze takes from the Great American Rapbook and makes peculiarly her own.
The quality of statement can be seen not only in Dirty Gold’s synth lines, alternating smooth and skronking, huge without overreaching, but also in Haze’s choice to extend her R&B-style vocals into a more consistently structural part of her art, birthing an aching tension between beauty and harshness as one waits with bated breath for the rap to kick in. And her inimitable spitfire flow remains unmatchable, particularly speedwise, as does her taste for memorable, quasi-literary turns of phrase (where on “New York” she was “rapping elliptical orbits round bitches,” on “Black Dahlia” “inclement weather” is a touching metaphor for her mother’s suffering). One can’t help loving a rapper who’s read the dictionary twice. This dexterity is best foregrounded on bonus track “Crown,” with its hypnotically syncopated sample, but otherwise the bonus tunes add little — the album proper closes on the title track, leaving the listener panting on a shore at once blissful, heartbroken, and emotionally exhausted.
Is the sonic a “real” place? Initially, it seems that the view from nowhere is also found (a paradoxical discovery of nothing) in Haze’s beats — electronic four-to-the-floor and hip-slinking R&B, trap and Middle Eastern inflections, and the swelling strings of the title track, reminiscent of “Wicked Game” or even, dare it be whispered, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” Both modernity and postmodernity partake in this mélange — the former because of the way in which it denies the existence or influence of subjectivity, the latter because of its literal and metaphorical placelessness, a trope that is well-worn since the advent of “world music.”
Yet Haze takes this as the place from which she speaks, turns the “vanishing into air” of meaning back on itself to recreate significance, in a work that uses both of these paradigms as a leaping board to perform a reverse backflip into a much-needed existentialism. In a cruel, absurd, and meaningless world, where suicide is always an option, the self is and must be the only source of one’s own meaning and of the decision to live and to create. To create in all senses: not only in the formal realm of art, but living itself as, and represented as, a defiant and generative becoming.