cadence weapon. break the internet
rollie pemberton is searching for a better world. he's not using google
I was jealous of Rollie Pemberton before I even knew he could rap. Back in the mid-aughts, Rollie was a 17 year-old guy writing for Pitchfork, putting together reviews of the kind of knotty rap music I was just starting to get into. Which is to say, Rollie was one of the people writing my Bible. His style stood out; it was weirder than most of Pitchfork’s content by then, while not exactly holding on to the website’s early indie jock type of writing. I don’t remember any of his reviews in particular – it takes some trickery to find them on the site these days – but I do remember feeling like he was capturing the sound and feel of whatever he was covering. Pitchfork disagreed, according to music journalism myth. They felt like his reviews were lacking clarity and stopped giving him assignments.
Maybe I wouldn’t remember any of this if it wasn’t for Cadence Weapon. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe I only learned about Rollie’s rap project because I already knew him as a writer. Most likely, these things are intertwined. Shortly after his reviews stopped appearing regularly on Pitchfork, Rollie re-emerged as Cadence Weapon, releasing his debut album Breaking Kayfabe on Big Dada Records in 2005. While it would be unfair to call the record a journalist’s project, Rollie still seemed to care about the same things most music writers (and mostly music writers) associate with good music. He was merging genres. He was making weird sounds. He was being clever. He could also rap, though.
Breaking Kayfabe was built on video game samples and other noise that sounded like video game samples. It reminded people of Antipop Consortium who, back then, were considered rap music for people who didn’t like rap music. 15 years ago, this was supposed to be a compliment, but it didn’t fit Cadence Weapon at all. Rollie was obviously a hip-hop nerd, a guy trying to push things forward while also acknowledging the art form’s history. Back in the 80s – once again according to music journalism myth – his dad had moved from New York to Edmonton and started a radio show, essentially introducing the city to rap music.
Cadence Weapon’s first album ended up receiving an 8.0 rating from Pitchfork. Take that for clarity. Rollie just kept going though. He released another record, Afterparty Babies, and became Edmonton’s poet laureate before even hitting his mid-20s. More albums followed, a collection of poetry, even some theatre work. More and more clearly, a personal style emerged; a style Rollie could build on, abandon or fuck around with. Sometimes, he would step away from the hyper-focused delivery and beat-making of his earliest songs, only to return to that approach with renewed energy. His lyrics grew more reflective, both of his surroundings and his role in Canadian underground rap. He’s always felt like an outlier to me, though, even in a scene of outsiders.
These days, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rollie was more interested in reading the Pitchfork Union’s tweets than any of Pitchfork’s actual content. He’s a way more prolific Substack writer than I am, handing out regular commentary on politics and the pandemic, exploring the inner workings of his own music as well as other artist’s. He’s also getting a book ready, Bedroom Rapper, scheduled for release next year. And then there’s Parallel World, Rollie’s fifth album as Cadence Weapon, which was released in late April. It’s by far his shortest, most concise project to date; a 26-minute reckoning with technology and surveillance, social media’s alternate realities and the racism of our everyday digital lives.
People have rapped about this stuff before; Rollie knows, obviously. On a track called On Me, he’s listing all kinds of devices, apps and institutions that are tracking his every move, but the song isn’t really about big tech or big data. Rollie’s protagonist is looking for a way out of his own complicity with being tracked. He thinks about cracking his phone, ad-blocking himself out of surveillance footage and the validity of real life protest. “Offline when I hit the street,” Rollie raps. “That’s history, I’m a mystery."
His music corresponds thoughtfully with this kind of subject matter. It’s both a return and an update to the dense electronics of Breaking Kayfabe-era Cadence Weapon, capturing the sonic and mental overload of days upon days spent online. There’s broken beats and melodies, lots of distortion, some of the arcade sounds that made Skepta’s That’s Not Me such a banger. This is an internet record, so nobody should be surprised that Rollie is referencing UK grime and even European trance music; after all, this stuff is just a click away. What’s remarkable, though, is how he manages to turn these disparate influences into a cohesive record, never sounding like anyone other than one of his many selves.
At least one of these selves is still a journalist. Rollie has written so much about the ideas and influences behind Parallel World on his Substack that the newsletter almost feels like an extension of the album by now. It’s an open-hearted way of putting together a project, a different approach to getting it out in the world. It can also come across as educational, which might be exactly what said world needs right now. Rollie is amplifying his own voice as well as some of the voices who taught him how to think, write and rap. Like his dad back in the 80s, he’s building a community and introducing it to something new.
Which is why Parallel World is a dark record but far from a hopeless one. On album closer Connect, Rollie turns down the volume, half-singing over one of those pretty electro-pop tunes Hot Chip used to end their stadium workouts on. He’s still overwhelmed by the current world but also outlining what a different one might look like. Synths soaring, voice distorted, Rollie reads his list of demands: Institutions will have to do better, constitutions will have to be written over. Wealth will have to be re-distributed, marginalised people will have to be protected. It’s that simple but it’s also that huge of a task. “I know exactly what I want,” Rollie says towards the end of the song’s last verse. “How about you?”
To check out Rollie’s previously unreleased poem Song For a Failed State, click here.
Daniel Gerhardt has been writing about pop music for 20 years. Yikes! He was the editor of Spex Magazine until late 2019 and is now working mostly for Zeit online, covering rap music and his toxic relationship with indie rock nostalgia. Daniel’s picture was taken by Anna Wyszomierska.