Angel HazeAngel Haze is an exciting prospect. The 22 year old rapper and sometimes singer from Detroit’s flow is like an exhilarating and effortless amphetamine hit; you hear her, you sit up and you ask ‘who?’ Her story is one of cult religions, abuse and an exploration of her sexuality and sexual orientation and how all of these things have resolutely not made her into a victim. After several mix tapes it was 2012’s unexpectedly diverse and brilliant “Reservation” and her covers EP “Classick”, both exploring all of these experiences, that guaranteed she could no longer go unheard. Her biggest hit to date, the skeletal and booming “New York” has now become a club essential and a classic in itself. So why exactly does “Dirty Gold”, Angel Haze’s first official album release sound like such a step backwards?

It may take a while to pull your already-established fan base along with you, but the decision to move from the relatively underground to the mainstream is not necessarily bad. It’s apparent after hearing  the opening track, the scene-setting “Sing About Me” that Angel Haze wants to make it big as a crossover act; not as a rap artist or a hip-hop artist but as a pop star. Listening to recent interviews and the snippets of dialogue contained through “Dirty Gold” this indeed would appear to be Haze’s choice. Beginning with a sung chorus, shimmering synths and a repetitive R2D2 whistle, “Sing About Me”, is uplifting and pleasant but completely derivative r’n’b pop. With sing-song rapped verses, Haze encourages us to celebrate her success and this formula of sung chorus and rapped verse is repeated almost throughout the entirety of the tracks on “Dirty Gold”. On the third song, “A Tribe Called Red”, a trapped-out and dub-stepped rhythm supports Haze’s rap spit efficiently enough but then  is completely compromised  and crushed by the excruciatingly heavy-handed (sung) chorus telling the listener  ‘Don’t give up…turn it around’. It already sounds dated; the EDM ticks, the histrionics and the self-empowering sentiment.

As if any further confirmation were required, the presence of omnipresent songwriter and pop star in her right, Sia, both singing and writing on “Battle Cry” (the hands in the air chorus actually states ‘lift your hands towards the sky’) and with production by equally in-demand Greg Kurstin (Kylie, Britney and Lily Allen), there is no doubt that Haze is aiming stadium big. But even with such dependable collaborators the overall sound of this is overwrought and clichéd, particularly in the slower and more ‘serious’ second half. The most obvious comparison is that of Nicki Minaj who, like Haze, released early mix tapes and through thunder-stealing features proved herself as a gloriously eccentric, genuinely witty and charismatic performer and then her debut “Pink Friday” appeared and  it was sonically safe, overly sentimental and, worst of all, dull. The Minaj that was initially promised was not the Minaj delivered and the Angel Haze that we expected has similarly been mislaid somewhere in transit.

There are moments of “Dirty Gold” that do work well within this new format. The first single taken from the album, the Markus Dravs-produced (Bjork, Arcade Fire and Coldplay, amongst others) “Echelon (It’s My Way)” sounds fresh and relevant. It has the best chorus on “Dirty Gold” by some distance and its trap styling and deceptively shallow subject matter (fashion, basically) are pretty perfunctory –  it’s pretty much the second instalment to ASAP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” – but on an album that is looking for instant pop gratification and perfect hooks this does the trick very well. “Deep Sea Diver” has a tight groove and throbs and rattles like prime time Missy Elliott and “White Lilies/White Lies” has breadth and an epic feel that moves away from the more predictable structures found here with the spaghetti western-type loop and long instrumental fadeout adding atmosphere.

It’s maybe important to point out that the deluxe version of this album, and I am loath to review these ‘versions’, which are essentially just marketing tools and undoubtedly cynical, contains four of the most compelling, sonically-challenging and vibrant tracks contained under the “Dirty Gold” banner.  Admittedly one of these is the previously-released “New York”, but listen to the baroque and oddly beautiful “Rose-Tinted Suicide” and marvel at what could (should) have been achieved. The decision to still include these tracks, albeit in this unabridged version of the album, confirms that the young star’s talent is still very much intact. It might be of course that Angel Haze herself wants to distance herself from these more nuanced and disturbing tracks but one can only hope that she changes her mind and finds again the bright light that’s hidden beneath the dirt here, the one that attracted us to her in the first place. The three-star rating is based on the Deluxe Edition.

CiaraIf Ciara were a cat she’d definitely be on her ninth life by now. After massive success, a number one no less with “Goodies” in 2004, and also responsibility for pioneering a music craze with krunk, further long term success, which she has tried commendably hard to achieve, has all but eluded her. A surprisingly prolific artist she has been gone from one record label to another, seen release dates pushed forward to the point of exhaustion for all concerned and promoted incredible singles online which then never got to see the light of day. This, her self-titled fifth album, is her best since her debut and is certainly her strongest set of songs to date and as I’m actually holding it in my hands I can confirm that does in fact really exist.

Over an economical ten tracks, a wise decision maybe, Ciara still plays around with what could be considered as her signature and most weird sound of all; moody, skeletal soundscapes which are slowed down, sped up again and demonstrated best on the spacey and drunken “Keep on Lookin’” and the buzz and drama of “Super Turnt Up”. The current single “I’m Out” plays to current r’n’b trends with its rapid handclaps and Nicki Minaj feature and is a decent, if derivative, attempt at a ladies anthem, Minaj being on good form especially here with her explanation of the consequences of having a big bottom being particularly to the point and hilarious.

It’s on the perfectly formed playful slabs of pop r’n’b however, the likes of which haven’t been heard since the golden days of 2001 (Christina Milan “AM to the PM”, J-Lo “Play”, Mya “Case of the Ex”), that really pushes the quality skyward and potentially places Ciara in a very powerful position again. “Livin’ It Up”, again featuring Minaj, but unnecessarily on this occasion, is a funky, breezy and just so easy blast of pure, feel-good adrenaline and on the even better “Overdose”, which must refer to the amounts of hooks contained within it, Ciara has never sounded so self-assured. The Rodney Jerkins plip-plopping drum machine-dominated “Read My Lips” doesn’t quite scale these heights but it comes a close second and is beautifully sweet sound whilst being hysterically pornographic lyrically.

It’s hard to say where this will take Ciara; the slow jam of the predictably sensual “Body Party”, also featured here in a more interesting slow/fast trap remix, has already featured on the US Billboard charts and she is now a smooth and capable performer; her determination and ambition cannot be faulted. R’n’b in 2013 is still a confused genre but Ciara has remained a constant for coming up to a decade now and the overall strength of “Ciara” combined with the oh so necessary go-hard marketing could see her propelled her back into the limelight, her natural home surely? Let’s certainly hope so.

Lip LockEve made the transition from American hip-hop star to first name-only sitcom superstar  somewhere around 2003; ambitious, talented and with an androgynous beauty that sells (a clothing line and perfume) she was on the way to becoming a household name, at least in her native country. Since then though, no new music, although she’s been trying since 2007, a year after her sitcom was cancelled and new material was ‘tested’ (a depressing phrase if ever there was one) and didn’t get the required reaction. Record label problems and personal issues have finally been resolved resulting in “Lip Lock”, Eve’s first album for a decade.

Eve’s two previous albums were built around the tried and tested formula of rapped verses and sung choruses, ably demonstrated on one of her biggest hits “Who’s That Girl”; her assured, effortless rapping far more distinctive and compelling than her just adequate vocal abilities. It’s her rapping that is featured almost exclusively on “Lip Lock”, the bloated list of collaborators usually providing the endless, radio friendly choruses. It’s not a coincidence that the tightest and most impressive track is the Major Lazer indebted “Grind or Die”; it snaps and bleeps and is the essence of Eve. There’s no chorus to speak of, just that hungry, defiant rap; it lasts a little over 2 minutes but is the track that makes the most lasting impact.

There is some fun to be had here with the big and stupid, Swizz Beatz produced “Mama In The Kitchen” featuring Snoop Dogg and Dawn Richard, an artist who truly understands what’s required to be innovative r’n’b star in 2013, which adds colour to the one true attempt, thankfully, at EDM on “Keep Me From You”, sounding so like Calvin Harris that I must check that it’s not on his album. “She Bad Bad” balances hard and soft nicely and the opening track “Eve” makes a snaking, hypnotic use of the word ‘eve’ and is at least a pleasant listen but then you’ve probably not come for that.

The remainder of “Lip Lock” struggles. “Make It Out of This Town” is one of 3 inspirational, ’empowering’ stinkers, the type of which clogged up Nicki Minaj’s debut album (when I say debut I mean the first version of ‘Pink Friday’, there have been 2 further re-issues since – but that’s another story) and typifies the radio friendly (bland) pop r’n’b that along with EDM currently dominates American radio. This one features Cobra Starship on the chorus and Chrisette Michele does the exact same thing on the chorus of the soggy “Never Gone”. “Forgive Me” is a thin, disposable, island- pop Rhianna reject and the crowded and dated “Wanna Be” features, amongst others, a phoned-in and almost unrecognisable Missy Elliott. Pale and stale indeed.

A lot has changed in ten years, not just music but the entire music industry itself. There is a feeling that Eve struggles to understand what her place is now in 2013, there are new female rappers like Angel Haze, Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea who feel far more complicated and relevant and, just as importantly, sonically propulsive with the most successful, of course, being the global brand that is Nicki Minaj. “Lip Lock” contains a couple of dancefloor bangers at most and with “Keep Me From You” she could have a sizable hit but, apart from that, there is little here that reasserts Eve’s position in contemporary music; a disappointing, confused return.