A few weeks before Christmas, rising-star rapper Angel Haze was getting restless about the release of her debut album, Dirty Gold, out today. So restless, in fact, that the emcee's handlers were checking her SoundCloud profile every morning to make sure Haze wasn't giving fans an unauthorized sneak peak. "If I didn't have Angel on lockdown, she'd just put [the album] up there," manager Nicola Carson told Billboard. "She wants people to hear it now. She's so caught up in the moment and the creative space. She doesn't get caught up in the politics."
How prophetic. In a lengthy series of tweets on December 18, a fed-up Haze announced she was doing exactly what Carson feared: leaking her entire album on SoundCloud. "So sorry to Island/Republic Records, but fuck you,” the 22-year-old wrote. Haze said she had been promised a 2013 release if she finished the album by summer's end, so when the record, originally due in January, was pushed back to March, Haze decided she was tired of waiting. Within a few hours of the leak, Haze's label took Dirty Gold off SoundCloud but capitulated to Haze’s demands, announcing a December 30 release date.
Haze is just the latest in a line of artists to take charge of release dates and skip the often-interminable promotional campaigns. In August, M.I.A. also went on Twitter and threatened (with success) to leak her fourth album if her label wouldn’t hurry up and put it out. Earlier this month, Beyoncé, without any warning, dropped a self-title record on iTunes that became one of the year's biggest-selling albums. In doing so, she joined the ranks of other big names like Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Lil Wayne, who’ve ambushed the world with surprise albums in recent years.
But Haze’s move differs in a crucial way. Her ability to get Dirty Gold released ahead of schedule suggests younger, relatively unproven performers wield more power and demand than labels might think—and her success could be particularly beneficial to other new artists who've been told, like her, to wait over and over again.
M.I.A. hangs with Madonna and crashes the Super Bowl half-time show. Beyoncé makes headlines whenever she gets a haircut. Haze’s accomplishments pale in comparison, though her brutal rhymes, rapid-fire delivery, and unbridled ambition certainly make her a prodigious talent. So far, she’s put out just handful of EPs, mixtapes, and freestyle covers. While acclaimed, these aren’t the milestones that suggested she could elbow her way into the driver’s seat of her career. So if Angel Haze can force her label to do it her way, what’s stopping her peers from doing the same?
Sometimes, release-date purgatory is the artist's fault: Despite the promise of her bouncy, trash-talking breakout "212," Azealia Banks seems to have spent the past two years by mostly picking fights. More often, though, label politics appear to be responsible for delays, and it seems to be an especially common occurrence for other women working in R&B and hip-hop. Iggy Azeala, another rapper who's often lumped together with Haze and Banks, vented to an Australian news site that “the marketing team gets to control me” after her debut was pushed back to 2014. Even more experienced artists aren't immune: In the year-long run-up to Ciara's self-titled fifth album, she released three different singles—two of which got music video treatments—until another, the bedroom slow-jam "Body Party," finally stuck and the album went ahead without the other tracks. And rap's reigning queen Nicki Minaj didn't get a release date for her debut album until after the underperforming “Massive Attack” was scrapped in favor of "Your Love," a surprise radio hit she never wanted to release.
When she leaked the album, Haze implied there could be serious consequences, such as having the project abandoned, and it's not hard to imagine things going the other way for her. But the take-away from Dirty Gold’s unconventional release isn't that labels need to hurry up and put out some albums out before artists leak them first. It’s that musicians, even those making their debuts, can still call the shots. And If Angel Haze succeeds on her own terms, other labels might dispense with waiting for the right single or the critical mass of publicity and let artists do the same.