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The rebirth of Cadence Weapon: how the rapper is making his biggest shift yet

Melody Lau

Listen to Cadence Weapon's new self-titled album before its release via our First Play series.

“I’m actually extremely social!”

It feels like a strange statement for Rollie Pemberton to make but the rapper, who goes by Cadence Weapon, is afraid his music over the years may have convinced people otherwise.

Pemberton’s decade-plus career has, in some ways, operated in a solipsistic vacuum — one that has allowed the Edmonton native to experiment and develop his craft over the course of three Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums. But, on his new album (his first in five years), he’s ready to open up.

“In the past, I didn’t trust other people to bring my vision all the way to completion,” he says, over a cup of coffee in Toronto. It’s a process that he admits, in retrospect, felt “a little lonely” because he not only wrote and performed everything by himself, but he also created the beats as well; a true solo project for Pemberton, who had trouble finding contemporaries let alone collaborators in his hometown.

But, Pemberton later moved to Montreal, an artistic hub that sparked a “creative awakening” for him. There, he also struggled to connect with other rappers, but he found like-minded artists and producers who would foster a community spirit and energy that continues to invigorate him every time he steps foot in the city.

It’s a sense of pride he wants to convey in his music: “What I’m trying to represent is a different side of Montreal, a different perspective — different than it was in the ‘60s.” Far from the past, one of the new album’s lead singles, “My Crew (Woooo),” produced by Kaytranada, whom Pemberton met while DJing in the city, is a blast into modern Montreal and highlights the possibilities of its many musically eclectic talents.

Playing around with sound, genre and beats is integral to Cadence Weapon. Pemberton doesn’t deny that he’s a rapper, but neither does he want to be boxed in. Instead, he considers what he does to be “experimental music,” a catch-all phrase encompassing his exploratory tendencies that often slide into electronic, dance and funk territory.

“I know I’m rapping, but I usually don’t resonate with other rappers,” he reveals. “I’ve never had a crew of rap people to hang out with; I always resonated more with people who are experimental.”

Nowadays, he’s repping Montreal and its diverse scene all the way from his current home of Toronto, which has also motivated Pemberton, but in a different way. “I feel like there’s definitely more of a priority on working hard,” he explains. “Everyone I meet is grinding super hard and that’s really inspired me.”

That combination of linking up with other musicians along the way and his continued desire to represent his various homes throughout the years makes up what Pemberton calls his most “autobiographical” work yet, thus self-titling his fourth full-length record. He adds, “It’s a real reflection of where I was at certain times, in the last few years.”

As a nod to his roots, Cadence Weapon opens with a clip from his father Teddy’s radio show, The Black Experience in Sound, on CJSR-FM. It’s an excerpt that he only discovered recently, via his mother, where Teddy announces the birth of his son on air: “If I don’t get you, my son will,” he says, with a prophetic wink.

“It’s almost like being reborn on this album,” Pemberton says, explaining why the throwback audio made the perfect opening. “It’s like, it’s me. I’m back.”

And he’s not alone this time. Backed by friends Blue Hawaii, Deradoorian, Brendan Philip and Casey MQ, Pemberton says working on songs became an “extension of our friendship,” and the lyrics are reflective of conversations he’d have with them, whether about microaggressions (“System”), reminiscing (“Five Roses”) or the condo surge in Toronto (“High Rise”).

It’s not only his way of connecting more to collaborators, but also reaching out to his audience. “This album is really me attempting to engage more with the rest of the world,” he states. “When I was first starting, I wanted to push people away, I wanted to make the noisiest, craziest rap and be like, f--k you, man! That was my whole thing. And now I want to make a record you can put on in your house while you’re having a dinner party and turn it up after everyone’s had a bunch of wine.”

It’s a maturation for the rapper, and he’s not afraid to embrace that word. “Maturity is not a bad word to me,” he says. “I wanted to rap about stuff that people can actually relate to because I don’t hear a lot of that in the rap that I listen to. If you’re looking for some rap about urban topics that you can actually relate to, in a way that you can actually appreciate, I can provide that. That’s my vibe.”

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