Cadence Weapon Finds Hope In Dystopia
Rollie Pemberton on new album Parallel World, his newsletter and upcoming book, and why now is the perfect time to address systemic injustice
Whether he’s critiquing music on Pitchfork under his birth name or producing experimental hip-hop music under the Cadence Weapon moniker, 35-year-old Rollie Pemberton’s work never fails to make you think twice. On Parallel World, his first Cadence Weapon release since 2018’s self-titled LP, the Toronto-based rapper dissects surveillance capitalism, the internet’s pervasive effects on our lives, and the relationship between technology and systemic racism. These themes run throughout the album not only lyrically, but sonically as well — video-game sounds and electronic noises fuse together with critical commentary on our digital world, reflecting back a reality in which the claustrophobia of our technology-driven lives suddenly feels difficult to escape.
Pemberton is no stranger to pushing creative boundaries across artistic mediums to better understand himself and the world around him. As early as his 2005 debut album Breaking Kayfabe, he was hailed for his integration of artful raps with synth-heavy beats. Four years later, Pemberton was named Edmonton’s Poet Laureate, a position he held for two years. His background as a poet and writer continue to shine through as clear influences for his personal and sharply constructed lyrics. On “On Me,” he angrily details the ways our lives are being traced digitally: “CCTV got eyes on me they’re finding me / Bright lights look bright on me no privacy / Fine print but they’re lying to me / Phones in the sky but it’s fine to me it’s fine to me.”
Ultimately, Parallel World questions how far away the futuristic dystopian world we imagined actually is from our current reality. Ahead of the album’s release this Friday, we connected with Cadence Weapon — ironically, through the Zoom app — to discuss the pandemic’s influence on his new music, his recent obsession with writing a newsletter, and how he attempts to combat the internet’s algorithms.
How has this pandemic year been for you, and what’s the biggest shift that’s happened in your life?
CADENCE WEAPON: I feel like the biggest thing for me was I couldn’t tour anymore. I spent so much of my life traveling and playing shows at places, and that was immediately taken away. Then I had to really take an inventory of what the future of my career was going to be like. When the pandemic happened, I was like, “I’m gonna just chill out for a second,” because right before that, I was a guest mentor at the Banff Centre’s Singer-Songwriter Residency, and I was acting in a play in Montreal for a month called Please Thrill Me by Sean Nicola Savage, and I was just super busy. Then it was just like, boom, nothing. But I ended up being really influenced by the pandemic, just seeing the George Floyd protests and being in the midst of this reckoning against institutions. I think that’s really what led me to suddenly get all these ideas for lyrics, ideas for songs, and just seeing really how flimsy the foundation of so many of these institutions that you thought were infallible.
When did you start working on Parallel World and what mindset were you in at the time?
CADENCE WEAPON: I would say I started writing in July of last year, and I just felt extreme urgency. I was like, “Wow, I feel like this is a really once in a lifetime situation and circumstance.” I really wanted to speak about the times I was in. I also felt like I haven’t been in a situation where I’m able to just be in the same place for an extended period of time and really have extended focus. I was reading dozens of books and articles and watching things and absorbing the news. I absorbed all that stuff, and then ended up synthesizing it into this album. I would describe it as a frantic rush of energy.
How long did the album take for you to finish?
CADENCE WEAPON: Well, the weird thing was I would be writing a lot of stuff at home. But then I recorded my vocals with my engineer Calvin Hartwick at Dream House Studios, and I had to kind of dodge the lockdowns and stuff to determine when it was safe to go out. I would be going super hard doing night sessions and just trying to finish this album. It felt like a little bit of a race against time to get everything done. I would say I was done recording the whole album by December, and then we shot the video for “SENNA” in November, and that was one of the last days where we were allowed to be outside — not even weather wise, but also just we had extreme lockdowns in Toronto.
Your last album, Cadence Weapon, was released in 2018. Were you planning on releasing an album this year all along, or did it kind of just happen because of the pandemic?
CADENCE WEAPON: So I put out my self-titled album in 2018, and I was playing shows all of 2019. I kind of just work at my own pace, and I don’t really feel any pressure to release like a million albums per year. I work at the pace of my ideas, and I’m always recording ambiently. The other thing too is that it’s my form of catharsis. I just go to the studio all the time, and I’ve got hundreds of songs there, unreleased. But it was really this specific period of time during the pandemic where I was having all these songs back-to-back that had similar themes, and it was really coalescing into its own musical world. So yeah, it seems like the last time I put out music was a really long time ago, but it isn’t for me, because I feel like I’m always doing stuff.
During the pandemic, I noticed you also started a newsletter on Substack. What made you want to make one, and is it in any way a reaction to the internet’s pervasive effects on our lives that you describe on Parallel World?
CADENCE WEAPON: It definitely is. I started a Substack because I was getting really frustrated with social media and how certain apps extort you for your audience, which I hate. I’ve spent all these years building up a fan base, but technology and social media blocks so many things. I just wanted a way where I could reduce the friction between me and getting my ideas to my audience, and one of those things is a newsletter. I also just wanted it to be an outlet for writing and any of my ideas. If you’re signed up to the mailing list, you want to hear from me. I don’t want to be carpet bombing the internet with ads about my album for people who don’t care. I’d rather have 1,000 people who care enough about what I’m doing to get emails about it then 10,000 people who don’t really give a shit about what I’m doing but are following me for some reason.
On both your Instagram stories and your Substack, you deconstruct the lyrics and behind-the-scenes of the songs off Parallel World that you’ve already released. Would you say that you made this album as a documentation of what’s going on in our society right now or as a piece of work aimed to educate others?
CADENCE WEAPON: I would say it’s a bit of both. I wasn’t like, “Let me make this super archival album where I talk about Black Canadian history.” How I started making the album was just that there were themes that have been interesting to me for a long time. Like in the song “Africville’s Revenge,” I talk about the disenfranchised community of Black people just outside of Halifax. That was something that only came to my attention a few years ago, and it wasn’t something that was taught in school when I was growing up. Canada has this history of racism that isn’t really known around the world. I think protecting Black history is something that is really important to me, and I really wanted to emphasize that. I feel like my music is an example of Black Canadian history.
I used to hate social media, and I was just like, I don’t want to do this at all. But then I started thinking of ways where I could add on to the experience of the music and then I started getting excited about it. I started thinking, “I can show people in my Instagram story all the influences for the song and things that I read and watched, and there can be a syllabus for every song,” and it was just like, wow, I can really get super nerdy and granular with this. And I did, and I’m going to continue to. I feel like that is one of the most exciting things I realized over the pandemic. It was hard to come up with new stuff and ideas when life was normal. I just never had time for anything. I was always touring, and it was really all encompassing.
The new album gets into societal problems and systemic injustices that have been happening for a long time. What made you decide to address them now?
CADENCE WEAPON: I feel like we’re in this era where these discussions are being had by more people. I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to talk to the average person about microaggressions like three years ago, and now people know what that is. This is the perfect time to really be talking about the more specific aspects of systemic racism, because people have the language for it now. I also just feel like it takes time to absorb things, synthesize them, and then bring them out to an audience. I like to really take my time with that and think about things from as many angles as possible, and really extract every drop of meaning out of something.
I try to do that with all my songs, where it’s like you can approach it from several different angles. Maybe my album is just a bop for some people, but other people will really listen to lyrics and realize there’s maybe two meanings to the entire song. I just want there to be more for people to come back to, and more value for every person who listens to it. I want people to come away from this album with something new that they didn’t know or to come away changed in some way. I really believe in the power of art to do that, and I feel like it doesn’t happen as much with your average album that you listen to. I feel like it’s a shame. It’s like most rap albums, they come out and then the day after you never hear about them ever again. You never see anyone talk about them. You don’t encounter another person who’s heard it, and it just kind of dies. I’m not gonna do that, personally, and with the newsletter, I have so much to talk about.
A lot of the sounds on “SENNA” and “Play No Games” reminded me of our digital world, which I thought really complemented the lyrical themes within the album. Does the lyrical content of your songs influence your sound, or are they largely separate before they come together?
CADENCE WEAPON: Oh, yeah they’re very integrated. When I’m talking about a parallel world, in a lot of ways, I’m thinking about the internet. That’s a parallel world. Another way to look at the concept of a parallel world is that two people could be walking down the street living in the same neighborhood, and they can experience the world totally differently depending on their race. Musically, I definitely want the beats to be the settings for these stories and those situations. With the song “On Me,” I feel like it sounds like a chase. The song is all about surveillance and people watching you, and I wanted to reflect that with the music.
I feel like the internet used to be different. Back in the day, it was like the Wild West, and anybody could break through with weird and random ideas, and it was really exciting. Then it got co-opted by corporations, governments, and surveillance companies. I’m not trying to be a bummer, but I’m just pointing it out. I’m particularly pointing out, because it has very serious repercussions for people of color. I don’t think people are really aware of what the technology actually does. I feel like this record is like all those dystopian futuristic movies that we used to watch back in the day, where we thought, “Man, it’s gonna be so crazy.” We used to think, “What if the world becomes like Children Of Men,” and now it feels like a documentary. I’m basically trying to make the soundtrack for that feeling.
How does the album art for Parallel World fit into all of this?
CADENCE WEAPON: The album art is by a guy named Scott Pilgrim, and basically, I just wanted to play with a lot of the photography and the visuals for the album. The photo was just kind of a happy accident in the middle of doing some other stuff. The more I thought about it, the more it made me think of the masks that people wear so they can’t be captured by surveillance. I was like, “Oh yeah, it kind of looks like that,” and I feel like it also kind of looks like what it feels like to be in my head sometimes.
Being in quarantine and during the pandemic, I feel like even more of our lives are now digital — FaceTiming people, Zooming, going on Twitter more. How has this altered or fed into your perspectives on the surveillance state?
CADENCE WEAPON: I mean, it’s made me think a lot more about it in terms of people being caught on camera. There’s like this big news story in Canada of someone in the government who had a meeting and got caught naked while getting dressed by Parliament. So yeah, it’s definitely just more of a continuation of what I was already talking about and it’s just getting deeper and deeper with Zoom.
Another one of the big themes on the album for me is perception versus reality. I feel like that’s a big thing with the internet, because all of us have these cultivated personas that we have on our different social media apps that could never be a true representation of who we are. I guess certain songs in the album are trying to navigate that, especially as a person who remembers when these apps were not as important, where it was just like real life was real. I feel like Instagram takes precedent over real life for me nowadays. I’m literally on screens more than I see real people, and I just wanted to kind of investigate what that’s doing to our minds. There have been times where I feel like it’s driving me insane.
You have all these issues with technology and stuff, but you’re still very much active on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Have you ever considered stepping away? And if not, what is your personal solution to all these problems you’ve identified?
CADENCE WEAPON: I do think about that all the time, and I’ve had times where I’ve had to take a break. On the other hand, unfortunately, these are really great promotional tools and also great tools for organizing and doing positive things. I think the best I’ve been exploring ways of using social media for advocacy, and for amplifying other people’s voices. Once I started thinking of social media as a way of being creative and of adding to my music, I was like, “Maybe it’s not so bad, right?” It’s just a different art form. But I do think it has some very insidious, bad elements to it. I wouldn’t use it if I didn’t have to. I’ve also been really good about my social media diet, because I strictly don’t use it on the weekend. I’m on screens all the time throughout the week, but then on the weekend, I just unplug, and then I hang out with my girlfriend and we watch TV.
A line that struck me from “Eye To Eye” is where you say, “Thank God I made it home today/ If I walked another block, mighta gotten blown away,” because you directly insert yourself into the unjust system that you describe. Is this something you often do when writing lyrics, and what makes you so willing to want to put yourself in such a position in your music?
CADENCE WEAPON: Definitely. I think it comes from my journalism background, my poetry background, and just my background writing in all different facets. I think definitely on my last album, I was really playing with different perspectives. I found that to be something that was really exciting for me. I really liked the idea of writing from totally different kinds of people’s perspectives, and through that, really trying to understand other people and have empathy. With this album, I feel like maybe it’s more me bringing the audience into my world, and to see the world through my eyes.
In a post on Substack, you wrote about “SENNA” and working with Jacques Green. You said, “as our creative partnership has evolved, one constant that I’ve observed is that Phil and I both like to work in the ambiguous spaces between genre.” What genres or sounds were influencing you while you were making Parallel World?
CADENCE WEAPON: I feel like a really good example of that would be just grime music, and especially classic grime music, like the stuff before people even really had a name for it. That kind of ambiguous nature of music, where it’s like, you can hear people searching while they’re making the songs, I find very exciting. And I really look for those moments in my own music. I really am searching for stuff that I haven’t heard before. That’s really the guiding principle to all my music. I want to make rap unlike anyone else has ever done it. When I hear songs like “Connect,” I feel like no one has really done a song like that. That’s the moment where I get really excited, where I feel like it’s in this nether region between hyper-pop and grind and whatever else you want to call it. I feel like that’s like life. Life is not as neat as genre. Genre is just something that people use to trap artists into a way of thinking and making it more marketable. I feel like I’m constantly trying to get away from genre, because it feels like a prison.
“Connect” is the album’s last song. To me it felt like you were finishing on a somewhat hopeful note. Was it your intention to end the album with something optimistic?
CADENCE WEAPON: Absolutely. I’m a very optimistic person. I’m talking about serious themes and issues on the album, but I also want people to know, it’s a really fun album. Also there’s optimism just in knowing what problems are. I wanted to do something where there was truth in jest. I was really inspired by the last few Dave Chappelle specials. They weren’t exactly funny, because it was some kind of nebulous form of entertainment that was not entirely comedy or even spoken word, but something else. It was like sharing a message in a creative way, and I was like, “Oh, I love that.” I was just like, how can I do that with my music, you know?
But yeah, with “Connect,” I definitely wanted to end on an optimistic note. The last part where I’m screaming is kind of like me screaming into the void in the social media echo chamber. I feel like political leadership needs to think outside of the box and listen to the youth. That’s really all I was saying throughout the album. I basically talk about every level of political government in Canada at different points, and it’s like the people who’ve gotten us into this problem, they need to listen to the people who are suffering the most. That’s basically all I meant with that.
Stepping away from the album, I saw that you wrote a review of an old Freestyle Fellowship album for Pitchfork recently. I know you used to contribute to Pitchfork a long time ago, but what made you want to write for them again now?
CADENCE WEAPON: I reached out to Pitchfork to see if I could drop a new review, because I’ve been writing a book. Over the pandemic, I got a book deal through McClelland and Stewart for my book Bedroom Rapper, which is coming out next summer. So, I just wanted to get my reps up with writing, and I was just like, “I’m in the pandemic, so I got nothing but time.” It was a really fun experience, just kind of taking a canonized album that I’ve always loved and really doing as much research about it as possible and examining it deeply.
What made you want to write a book as opposed to putting your musings and thoughts across different publications and on the internet like you’ve been doing?
CADENCE WEAPON: Well, I think I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for books over the pandemic. I’ve read more books in the last year than maybe in the preceding five years total. I really like reading articles, but for this particular subject, which is largely about my music career and just my experiences in Canadian music world and just how I feel about rap, I really just wanted to put it together as this big collection. I feel like there’s a certain permanence with books that you don’t really have with online articles.
What has been your favorite book that you’ve read recently?
CADENCE WEAPON: I’m currently reading The Gentrification Of The Mind by Sarah Schulman, and it’s blowing my mind. It’s basically about how the AIDS epidemic also caused an entire arts community to be erased from New York, which led to gentrifying a class of people who don’t create and didn’t bring anything positive to the communities. It’s like one of the biggest stories about gentrification, and it’s just a great meditation on the value of art and creativity and what it brings to the community.
Parallel World is out 4/30 on eOne Music. Pre-order it here.