AMERICA’S MOST WANTED

From VMAN 29, Spring 2013

PHOTOGRAPHY BJARNE JONASSON
FASHION TOM VAN DORPE
TEXT PATRIK SANDBERG

MEEK MILL

Generally soft-spoken and reticent about his personal life, 25-year-old Meek Mill is inclined toward privacy, a rare asset among a generation of big personalities who often issue more bark on Twitter than bite on a track (although Mill’s Instagram account, featuring dirt bike stunts and flashy whips, is the stuff that legends are made of). He chalks this tendency up to a pensive nature, which is at least partially a result of the eight months he spent in jail, in 2008. “I’ve been in jail fifteen months altogether,” he says. “I had the time to think and I took my career more seriously when I came out. I took everything more seriously. I’m kind of a professional now.”

Shortly after landing in stores and on iTunes, Mill’s debut studio album, Dreams and Nightmares, became the number two album in the country, and number one on the Rap and R&B charts. It sounds like a dream come true, but there were definitely a few nightmares along the way. “It’s about my life,” he says. “Things I’ve experienced even making it to this point. Where I am right now, I could have been dead or in prison. Getting involved in the streets, I had close calls.”

Born Robert Williams, the Philly native began his career in music with a group known as the Bloodhoundz, which released four mixtapes, earning him a deal with T.I.’s Grand Hustle Records. “My friend and neighbor used to call me ‘Meek Millions,’” Mill says of the name he goes by now. Indeed, money was always an effective motivator for the young artist. “I just handle my business,” he says. “It’s something I learned, for a long time.”

Mill mostly sees success as manifested in wealth and doesn’t dwell on the value of accolades, which he’s earned from the likes of Nas and Mariah Carey. “I’m the type of guy who doesn’t actually get excited,” he shrugs. “But it gives you good feelings to know that you are working with a legend like Mariah. To hear a statement from a person like Nas, it feels good, man. But then, when the time comes, I handle my business. I’ve always had a level head.

“But it isn’t all money,” he continues. “I love making music. I always write and I like to hear good music, so when I’m done making it, I like to have a good piece of work. I like every song to be loved by the fans and played and taken seriously.” Looking toward the year ahead, he says, “I’m just turning up. I’m still young in the game. I just dropped my first album and I plan to have a nice, long reign in the game. This is the beginning of a legacy. I’m staying out here and staying hot.”

Dreams and Nightmares is out now from Warner Bros./Maybach Music

ANGEL HAZE

“I came from underground, dude.”

It’s as succinct an answer as any to the question of where the prodigiously talented, beguiling young female rapper called Angel Haze hails from exactly. Despite popping up on YouTube freestyling at the beginning of 2011, the 21-year-old’s 2012 emergence—heralded by the impressive 14-track EP Reservation, released online—came as a surprise. Made popular by intense word of mouth, the record instantly felt like a breath of fresh air for listeners who prefer a more introspective, thought-provoking style of hip-hop.

“I wasn’t ready back then,” Angel says of her initial exposure. “I kind of prepared myself this year and thought, Fuck this. It’s my turn now.” With two more mixtapes since, she has swiftly established herself as a big name to watch, inking a deal with Universal Republic while her EP was still catching fire in the blogosphere. Born Raee’n Wahya, in Detroit, Michigan, the artist has overcome some adversity to get to where she is today. Raised in what she describes as a “cult situation”—the controversial Apostolic Pentecostal sect—young Raee’n frequently resided in homeless shelters and was forbidden to listen to secular music. “Either you listened to Hezekiah Walker or you listened to nothing at all,” she says, laughing. “I was allowed to listen to music when I was 16, and the first person I found that I related to was Eminem.”

Still, rapping was not the young girl’s first choice of profession. “I actually wanted to be a traveling poet,” she says, “which to my despair is kind of what I am now.” She started to rap at the urging of a friend. “He was like, ‘You write great poetry, you should turn it into rap.’ When I first started I was fucking terrible. Learning wordplay and metaphors was what I spent most of my time doing. For me it was learning the craft before I could claim that I mastered it. I still haven’t, but I think I’m pretty good now.” Evidently the feeling is shared by fans of all stripes. Today Haze splits her time performing for urban hip-hop crowds and indie-leaning Pitchfork readers alike.

“I love the diversity, honestly,” she says of her fan base. “I can relate to those kids who are thrashers or metalheads or who love acoustic rock. Then I can relate to kids who love Eminem or Kanye West. I play shows and I am completely confounded by how many different types of ethnicities are in the building.”

As for the inevitable female rap comparisons, Angel is unconcerned but realistic: “I’ve learned through observation that the way hip-hop works is generally that when girls come out they are always compared to whoever the hottest rapper was before them. It’s a rite of passage. When you’ve established your own voice, then everyone who comes after gets compared to you. To be a female rapper, you have to be pitted against other females. You have to be the only bitch that matters. In other genres, females reign collectively because they realize their sounds differ tremendously. In hip-hop, they say she sounds like Nicki Minaj even if she isn’t doing anything like Nicki Minaj. You get compared because she’s the biggest one. She was the only one for a while. She started it for a generation of female rappers who are coming up now. You have to give her credit. I feel like some sort of cosmic shift is happening where, goddamn, there are more female rappers than any of us imagined and they’re all pretty fucking awesome. I love Missy Elliott so much. She’s instilled in me that you respect everyone, regardless of how they treat you and how they come off. Respect your peers. Missy Elliott is like the bejesus of rap.”

One thing besides her unique sound that sets Angel Haze apart is her style. “Every day people say to me, ‘Oh my god, you look like Aaliyah so much.’ And then they say, ‘Are you a lesbian?’” She laughs at this juxtaposition. “It’s like, bro, it doesn’t matter. I’m not fucking you. Everyone in TLC wore boxers and baggy pants and they were still cool!”

As she puts the finishing touches on her debut album, Dirty Gold, with producers like Salaam Remi and Malay, known for work with artists including the Fugees and Frank Ocean, Angel Haze is ready to leave her own mark of strong, female hip-hop. “I want to evolve more sonically. I want to sound like I took a step up. It’s fluid in the way that I write, it’s written based on the emotion I put behind it. Everything I do is working up to that album release. But I also have like five other EPs. It’ll be fun. I’m a working girl.”

Dirty Gold is available this spring from Universal Republic

FRENCH MONTANA

“It was two days ago. But, you know, my birthday lasts for a week or a month.” French Montana is in Miami, where he’s come to celebrate his twenty-eighth year on earth. But then the musician’s life year-round tends to come across as one epic, neverending party. It was during the last year that Montana “made it” on a mainstream scale, thanks to numerous rap features on songs with Rick Ross, DJ Khaled, Diddy, Waka Flocka Flame, Chief Keef, and A$AP Rocky, among others. His breakout song, “Pop That,” featuring Drake and Lil Wayne, came complete with a hyphy, scream-chanting refrain and an opulent video starring bikini-clad girls poolside at a mansion, both of which helped propel it to number two on the U.S. Rap and R&B charts—no modest achievement for a debut single. In the next few months, the rapper’s headlining prowess will be tested further, when he releases his first official album, the long-anticipated Excuse My French from Maybach Music Group and Bad Boy Records.

“It was just me sitting back and making my situation work for me the best way it can,” French says of the two labels coming together (initially each competed to sign him, but ultimately they came to the unusual decision to share the honor). “I got myself hot to the point where I could demand what I want. It kinda worked like that. If I had been a new artist, there would have been zero percent chance I could have made that happen.” Indeed, despite his sudden rise, the boisterous, Moroccan-born emcee is no rookie, having released 20 mixtapes with his group, Coke Boys, since 2007, and collaborating on dozens of songs with other artists. “I guess they measure you by successes,” he says of the media’s tendency to label him as a new artist. “As soon as you have a success, they say, ‘Oh, this is the new cat.’ You never know all the history that people have.”

It’s no surprise that French’s history was not always bidding wars among labels or mansions in South Beach. Born Karim Kharbouch in Rabat, Morocco, French emigrated to the Bronx at the age of 12. He describes his teenage years there as “the hustler life,” where he made ends meet any way he knew how, in order to support his family. “If you wanna make anything out of yourself, you gotta have a hustle,” he explains. “As soon as you’d come downstairs, there would be people selling this and that, selling T-shirts, people selling…” He trails off, but it’s not difficult to fill in the blank. One fateful day, during some type of deal gone awry, French was shot in the back of the head. Miraculously, the bullet entered and exited through his scalp, and he survived.

Today, he’s inarguably one of the industry’s best-loved personalities, known as much for his humor and positive attitude as for his party-starting verses and trademark Versace scarf ensembles. “I learned something a couple of years ago when I got shot,” he says. “I learned that you’re the only person that can make yourself happy. Nobody’s got control over what happens in life. So I feel like, if you’re not going to make yourself happy, nobody else can.” Wise words from someone who literally pulled himself up off the pavement and came out on top. Of the album, he says, “I feel like it’s a record that will be around for years. It’s going to be the best party record that’s come out in a long time. Nobody is gonna believe what I’m going to do. You know when something comes along and smacks people in the face and they don’t expect it? This record is everything you never thought it was going to be, and that’s what it will be.”

Excuse My French is available March 12th from Bad Boy/Interscope

DOMINIC LORD

“In seven years, I want you to hear that Dominic Lord is designing for Dior…but not now,” the rapper says of himself. It’s a brash statement to make to a fashion magazine, but at least you can’t say that this young recording artist isn’t ambitious. “I’m someone who’s always wanted to do those things, and I have those things designed out. It’s like having an explosive pop song—you have to make sure you have enough money behind it to hit the radio hard. While you’re gathering that up, you’re doing the stuff that you love. The buildup is the buildup, but if you don’t got no bombs after the buildup, it ain’t shit.”

The Harlem-raised 19-year-old unapologetically explains that fashion is his first passion. “I was sidetracked all through high school, looking at clothes and reading magazines inside my binder,” he says. “I’m Italian, so my dad is really into brands and stuff. He’s into dressy minks and he would have those brands lying around. When I would ask if I could have them, he would tell me about them. He would teach me how to know a real Versace tag from a fake.”

It’s a bit prosaic then that the tuned-in teenager—who counts both Grimes and Alicia Keys among his favorite artists—named his debut EP Fashion Show, which he released last September. Featuring a buzzy, baritone singing-rap style and dark electronic-synth production, the seven tracks are born of the same DNA as work by predecessors like Kid Cudi, Kanye West, and A$AP Rocky, with whom Lord has collaborated in a fashion capacity. “It’s cool when you find people that are similar and we have similar things in common,” he says of his time spent downtown designing with the A$AP crew. “Things happen and time goes by and everyone gets focused. Everyone shines and they do their own thing. I was a part of that and we influenced a lot of people, and in some ways we always will. I got tattooed. I don’t remove tattoos, know what I’m saying? This is real shit.”

Though he’ll always keep an eye on design, Lord is quick to declare that his main focus right now is putting out music. Though it’s been less than a year since he dropped his first song, “Pierce,” on YouTube, he says, “I’ve been creating and understanding for all my life. I don’t like to prove anything to myself, but I want to make that groundbreaking album that I am destined to make.” In terms of production, he finds inspiration in “a push, a new element. The thought of creating something new—because we all know that there’s nothing new under the sun—is what captivates me.” For his next EP, entitled Gawk, Lord plans to establish a sound that is completely his own. “Warm, captivating tracks that are giving ME, in a way where I am coaching myself and pushing myself. You know? I’m happy for Kendrick Lamar. I love that album [good kid, m.A.A.d city]. I listen to a body of work for what it’s worth, and I love that shit. Recording out here in California, I’m unleashing a lot of different sounds, creating this shit from scratch. I want my music to speak for everything.”

Gawk (EP) is available in February from Geffen Records