It was a surprisingly foolish article. It probably should have never made it past the editor at CBC Music. While there were indeed two Canadian rappers — Drake and Cadence Weapon — vying for this year’s Polaris Prize, the fact that “hip-hop expert” Alex Narvaez wrote an entire commentary comparing the two incomparable emcees was naive, to say the least. Topping the whole mess off was Narvaez’s assertion that Cadence Weapon was recycling “what’s already been done” by resorting to “old-school” production and a “vintage flow.”
The rapper under fire wasn’t overly impressed by the overgeneralizing analysis, either. “I’m trying to make futuristic music, and I think Drake is too,” explains Rollie Pemberton, otherwise known as Cadence Weapon. “I just thought it was kind of funny. You would never in a million years see CBC put up a thing that was like Feist vs. Grimes. That would be totally ridiculous and everyone would be really pissed off: they’d say it was really weird or sexist or something, but because it’s rap and because they expect it, it’s like that.”
And yes, that is the reality of the rap scene in Canada: it’s tiny, insulated and consequently misunderstood. As Pemberton points out, “the way rap shakes out between the critical world and people who actually listen to rap is disproportionate.” That’s perhaps why celebrated records such as Pemberton’s Hope in Dirt City get snubbed by the jurors of national awards and writers of overgeneralizing articles alike year after year. But Pemberton, who just began a nationwide tour, seems too laid back to really care.
A quick glance at what the Edmonton-raised, Montreal-based rapper has been up to since his last Polaris shortlisting provides ample reason why. The last five years of his musical life have been unlike any other, defying categorization or shitty head-to-head blogs: he was the poet laureate for Edmonton, defender of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X for the 2010 iteration of Canada Reads and a participant in the enthralling National Parks Project. He’s been a busy man.
Of course, that’s not to mention his recorded accomplishments, which include three splendidly distinct albums, another three remix-filled mixtapes and collaborations with almost every significant underground rap artist in Canada, ranging from Shad to Buck 65 to The Joe. His willingness to work with other artists seems in itself a sign of Pemberton’s openness to new opportunities and sounds, exemplified by the massive live instrumentation on Hope in Dirt City that complemented his historic fixation on synthesized beats.
“I came from a background of, when it came to my music, I was the only one working on it,” he says. “It was like a purely insular pursuit. But the more people I meet that seem to understand my perspective, the more likely I am to work with other people. I’m still constantly looking to collaborate.”
Hence the move to Montreal. It certainly wasn’t an original idea, with everyone from Braids to Michael Dowse uplifting from Alberta for the cultural mecca, but it’s paid off for Pemberton. He’s already enlisted Grimes, a fellow Montrealer and Polaris shortlister, to create the trance-inducing beat for “88,” and featured an assortment of hometown producers on Hope in Dirt City. He’s also scored a DJ residency at a bar and spun the set prior to Lil B’s performance last month for Pop Montreal.
“You never thought it would ever end,” says Pemberton, describing the Based God’s terrific 90-minute set, after which the Californian rapper signed autographs for the entire crowd. Cadence Weapon could have just as easily been talking about his own career, arrogantly pointing out his own adaptability and intuition. But that’s not his style: he’s just as willing to talk about the NFL replacement referees or Death Grips or his uncle — the saxophonist on his latest album — as he is about himself.
Perhaps, in that sense, Pemberton is more comparable to the hide-under-the-table Feist than the too-good-to-show-up-for-the-national-indie-prize Drake. But why bother even likening him to anyone else? This dude’s paving his own way, making obscure references to The Wire and Andre Nickatina the whole way. While hip-hop might still be receiving the cold shoulder from Canadian critics, Cadence Weapon will continue to make some of the most interesting rap in the country.