Back in 2012, NYC rapper Angel Haze was one of hip-hop's most talked about newcomers, breaking out with ferocious tracks like "New York" and "Werkin' Girls" that established her as a serious force (in fashion, entertainment and beyond).

Then 20 years old, Haze was swept up by the major label machine and, at the time, largely grouped into the "gay rap" narrative that mainstream media continued pushing out — as if rap was limited by only one sexuality. The following year, Haze leaked her debut studio album, Dirty Gold, a project packed with shining standouts — "Echelon (It's My Way)" and "Battle Cry" with Sia — and, in 2015, she dropped Back to the Woods. But then, Haze went completely quiet.

More than five years later — and a decade since Haze first burst onto the scene — the now LA-based artist is back with her first single, "Never Seen," off a forthcoming EP, Girl With the Gun. Significant time away from music helped Haze grow up and, most importantly, face herself after a whirlwind experience navigating success and public attention in her early twenties. "The work has been tremendous, but the results are palpable," she tells PAPER.

This transformation is reflected in "Never Seen," which Haze says is an introduction to a "new Angel," like the "fucking phoenix." On the track, she explored different sides of her voice, "both in and outside my mind," as she explains. "I wanted to play with different tones and intertwine certain phrases to create a woozy, dreamlike impression. This song is my daydream of a life bigger than my eyes can hold. I'm massive. Take it all in."

Beyond music, Haze's period of self-discovery also saw her begin to explore painting as an outlet for "spiritual healing." The Girl With the Gun artwork is one of her original pieces and aims to bring the project's larger themes to life visually. "This record, to me, is about taking a shot on yourself, seeing through all the fog and failure and expectation, and understanding that the real target is purpose," Haze says.

Below, PAPER caught up with Angel Haze to talk about her time away, the new single and EP, and reentering a more LGBTQ-friendly era in music (Lil Nas X!) with way more representation for queer artists than when she was helping to lead the charge.

It's been a while since we've heard new music from you. What happened in between then and now?

Lots of things, but I feel the most important thing to name is growth. I started my career as I was about to turn 20, and I still had a lot of growing up and facing myself to do. I've been pretty much everywhere you can name in between then and now. Woke up in some not so nice places and mentalities, lost some people I loved in horrible ways and had to find the courage to face all the things I'd accumulated inwardly over the time.

Long story short, I did. I feel amazing about it. I healed my relationship with my family (Hi, Mom. I love you). I started painting, which is something that comes into play a lot more in my life now. A different way to express my struggles. I also started doing more philanthropic things, learned some instruments, produced some songs, started sculpting and building things with my hands. Then finally, I started to talk to God again and ask for a way through to myself. The work has been tremendous, but the results are palpable. There are so many greater things in the world to access after pain and I'm proof of that.

How do you think this single is a reflection of who you are as an artist, right now?

The single is just an angle of Angel. It's just about the different sort of strength I've found, in all my voices and in all the many selves I've been. Feel like a fucking transformer. "Never Seen" is an intro to a new Angel. The fucking phoenix.

Who'd you work with on "Never Seen"? What was that collaborative process like?

I worked with Wave IQ on "Never Seen." It was a hilarious experience because I'm such a character and Q in his own way is this mad scientist. So we had a lot of moments, like the one in the beginning of the song where I'm telling him what to do and he's telling me not to do that [laughs]. He has an incredible ear and really helped me to make sense of all the voices I have. And this woozy drum heavy reflection is insight into that world.

For you, what is the song about, lyrically?

For me, the song is about fucking shit up, birthing new light, being a jiggy ass nigga and just how fly I am overall. I have bills to pay! Pay up nigga. You know? I have a different fire, a greater hunger than ever before.

"I have a different fire, a greater hunger than ever before."

Your new EP is titled Girl With the Gun. Tell me about that title and what larger message the EP aims to tell?

Girl With the Gun is a character I created in order to tell a different version of my story, but also to get through some of the tougher moments in my life. I painted the cover after reading an old manga I love. She has the power to rise up and tear down anything in opposition to her dreams, anything in opposition to her love for self or anything else and, more importantly, she has the means to protect all that she is — especially the gift.

With the EP, I wanted to tell a story of change and love, as well as doubt, fear and the overcoming of the self. I also wanted to light my heart differently. Music is a power tool; you can use it to highlight so many areas and qualities of life and I wanted to make sure I was clear with my intentions. My favorite song is "Girl With the Gun," specifically, because it tells you everything in such beautiful notes.

How do you think music – especially hip-hop – has changed since you first broke out in 2012?

THERE ARE SO MANY WOMEN! I love it. For the first time, I feel there is a healthy space to compete in and that I won't be forced to lighten more extreme and masculine colors in my personal make up. I think it's amazing that there are so many people trying so many new things, and part of that gave me the courage to go back to the Angel that wanted to experiment and be playful with music, rather than so serious. I love the landscape, so many flowers blooming.

We finally have a lot more mainstream representations of queerness in music today. What're your thoughts on that and are there any contemporary LGBTQ+ artists you're inspired by?

I don't want to sound cliché or like a dork but I live for Lil Nas X. There is no language to describe everything he risks by being true to himself, but he does it anyway. It's so inspiring to see someone constantly and hilariously thwart the attempts to kill his joy and self-love. I root for him all the way.

How do you think your music-making process has changed since you first started making music?

I realized it can be used more creatively, and I mean that in the sense that when I started making music, it was a cathartic outlet for where I was. It was how I dug myself out of the hole of home and self-hatred. I used it to create a way out of my own hell. I think the problem is that once you have a formula, you kind of stick to it because you know what results it'll produce. The thing I didn't realize before that I understand now is that every level requires different formulas. My mom used to tell me that life and death is in the power of the tongue, and all that means is what you say comes to pass, even if you've already experienced said thing. Your life is your tongue's mirror, so I learned to use my music for my benefit and to free myself. Not just to escape.

Photography: Christine Kim

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