POLITICAL INSIGHT AND GOOD HIP-HOP WIN IT
Toronto rapper’s socially conscious album takes the 2021 Polaris Music Prize
“Justin Trudeau has worn blackface so many times, he can’t even remember how many times,” said 2021 Polaris Music Prize winner Cadence Weapon in his acceptance speech last Monday.
“And he was just given a third term, and that’s exactly why I need to be making rap records that are so political.”
Watching the Edmonton-born musician raise a metaphorical middle finger at our disappointing and wounded prime minister on the award show’s livestream broadcast had me thinking that, yes, Polaris got it right again.
What’s unique about the 16-year-old award is that it’s unafraid to acknowledge controversial, decidedly non-mainstream work. And it happily shines light on under recognized musicians we may not have met otherwise. Those include the indigenous, operatic and culture-preserving Jeremy Dutcher, bold Colombian transplant Lido Pimienta, Toronto’s rapping Haviah Mighty and Montreal-based, Haitian-born electronic, hip-hop DJ Kaytranada. (This isn’t to say that Polaris jurors don’t miss the mark or show bias. Jazz, classical and folk, for example, have yet to show up in the winner’s circle.)
Polaris challenges listeners and that’s a good thing
I like that Polaris asks – and challenges – us to consider genres, artists, ideas and communities that reside outside our normal wavelength. I’ve heard of Cadence Weapon but am not familiar with his work. His Polaris win urges me to explore and give him a listen. And, share with you.
35-year-old Rollie Pemberton (aka Cadence Weapon) is no newcomer to Canada’s music scene. His prize-winning collection – Parallel Vision – is his fifth album and the third to garner a Polaris nomination since 2006.
The Globe and Mail’s Brad Wheeler calls the record ” …a topical, stylistically futuristic and socially conscious hip-hop album powerfully and eloquently of its era, yet with historical inspirations that include the political music of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot going On and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as well as the writings of the American sociologist, Pan-Africanist, teacher and writer W.E.B. Du Bois.”
Cadence Weapon – the name is as much a statement of artistic purpose as it is a good handle – is an erudite, well read, informed rapper, producer and writer. He was the poet laureate of his hometown Edmonton for two years. His upcoming book, Bedroom Rapper will be published by McClleland & Stewart next year.
In a July interview with CBC Music he outlined why he made the record:
“I made this album want[ing] there to be multiple ways of reading every song. I wanted it to be audio essays. I’ve been enjoying all the responses by listeners because they’re seeing all these things that I never intended. I love that people [are] finding their own depth in what I do. But specifically, that idea that this album is so dystopian, noisy, [and has] dark themes. I’m reflecting the world back to you. This is what it’s like. This is how the world sounds to me. It is dark — have you looked outside lately? I want people to take something from every song.
“I’ve left all these breadcrumbs of literary references … I want people to learn something. I want it to live in people’s lives outside of the music.”
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Stay tuned and enjoy,
Cadence Weapon Is as Clever as Ever on ‘Parallel World’
By Daniel Sylvester / Exclaim!
Although each Cadence Weapon album could be billed as his ‘return to form,’ the truth is that the Toronto-via-Edmonton rapper has never lost his form in the first place. But it may be the infrequency in which Rollie Pemberton releases his albums that makes each one a standout event.
On his fifth full-length, Parallel World, you can tell just how hard Pemberton works on his craft, ensuring the album’s 10 tracks don’t just pass by passively. His beats are exploratory, his flow enormously flexible, his guests relevant and his lyrics eloquent. Although it’s been three years since his stellar self-titled album, Pemberton has kept himself extremely busy. He’s made music with Montreal electronic producer Jacques Greene, acted in Sean Nicholas Savage‘s Please Thrill Me musical, written a forthcoming book, been a mentor at the Banff International Songwriter Residency and advocated for the Edmonton CFL team’s name change. This may be why Pemberton sounds so confident and poised on tracks like on the rubbery tongue-twister “Play No Games.”
Although the record clocks in at a brisk 27 minutes, Pemberton nonetheless packs the album with a bevy of ideas and moods, from the brief Kool Keith-style futurist opener “Africville’s Revenge” to the minimal whisper rap closer “Connect.” Though the music of Parallel World is powerful, the message is infinitely more so. The bouncy “On Me” (featuring grime MC Manga Saint Hilaire) has the duo rapping about facial recognition technology’s links to racial discrimination, while the plain-spoken but commanding “Skyline” explores Pemberton’s struggles with gentrification within the city of Toronto, featuring the immortal couplet, “Ford Nation’s for the corporation but he don’t care about the public / Whenever we ask for what we need he says there’s no room in the budget.” “Eye to Eye” explores his fear of being targeted by the cops for the colour of his skin. Even when Pemberton switches gears to boast on the dank “Ghost” (featuring a bone-shaking turn from Backxwash) and the jittery “Hard to Find,” he still manages to come off commanding and stimulating.
Although producers Greene (on the aforementioned “SENNA”) and Jimmy Edgar (on the Fat Tony-guesting “Water”) disappointingly deliver of-the-moment trap beats that just yearn to sound dated by decade’s end, Pemberton still figures out how to save those tracks with his buoyance and clever songwriting skills. While it’s true that Rollie Pemberton is known to release music on his own unpredictable schedule, Parallel World proves that a Cadence Weapon record is always an event.