Cadence Weapon kicks off his third LP Hope in Dirt City by employing similes bursting with classic hip-hop boastfulness: “Nobody fresher, flyer than a single engine Cessna / With the propellers, I’m stellar, more electric than Tesla”.
The opening cut that contains this couplet, “Get On Down”, is no Saturday night club banger, mind you. Commencing with (perhaps self-mocking) laughter, the smile is quickly wiped off of its face by a tinny television score sample and a tripping old-school drumbeat. Cadence Weapon’s flow on “Get On Down” migrates from syllable-spitting quickness to a pastiche of Jamaican dance-floor stutter just as the tongue-in-cheek chest-beating of his rhymes morphs into the trenchant critiques of mainstream American hip-hop that define the genre’s bohemian offshoots. Still, his dig on rappers who broadcast their wealth while paying underlings to be the pack horses for their illicit drugs is indeed a sharp one.
Cadence, a.k.a. Rollie Pemberton of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, deploys certain rap tropes while conscientiously avoiding others; you’ll find more wordplay than gunplay on his records, and no homophobia or misogyny of any sort. Pemberton represents an interesting hybrid of classic rap posturing and the precious mix of cleverness and self-doubt inherent to alternative culture. Well-schooled in the tenets of the former by his Brooklyn-born father, a pioneering hip-hop DJ on college radio in Edmonton, Pemberton is tightly enmeshed in indie culture as well. A former Pitchfork reviewer, Lollapalooza performer, and more recently the poet laureate of his Northern Canadian hometown, he spent most of his previous release Afterparty Babies wrestling with the implications of a subcultural scene of simultaneous creative verve and pretentious poseurhood.
Afterparty Babies suffered mightily from being an act of position-taking first and a musical statement second. To its great benefit, Hope in Dirt City inverts that relationship and then rubs out all trace of a position with a big fat pink eraser. Pemberton lets Cadence Weapon free here, donning masks and reveling like a dissolute Venetian. If his sonic palette has always tended towards innovation, then his writing and rhyming styles have proven elusively chameleonic. As a pure MC (and he can never be purely, merely that), Cadence Weapon is a restless ventriloquist, lowering his timbre or slowing his tempo just to see if he can before his wanderlust kicks in and he ventures towards an approximation of the style of another of his influences. This is neither tribute nor homage, nor is it lazily nostalgic appropriation. It’s a running dialogue with stylistic annotations, and it combines with Pemberton’s fantastic wordplay to make for a compelling musical product.
This effect is on full display on the first single “Conditioning”, Cadence Weapon’s most virile pop composition since his debut record’s glorious Edmontonian anthem “Oliver Square”. Everything on the record is beautifully produced, and the sonics on “Conditioning” are no exception. But the sharpness of this cut is down not just to the quality of its sound or of its rhymes (“I’m not trying to diss you, but I look so drained / Because I weight train as a form of dismissal”); it features Cadence breaking out of his usual aloof flow into a passionate, soulful interlude of broken-hearted directness.
It’s a striking moment that sets “Conditioning” apart from the rest of the album, which generally sticks to the usual sonically-rich aloofness. “Jukebox” surfs on Stax funk and saxophone solos, as Cadence Weapon gets his dander up about the titular bar-room music machines. “Cheval” samples Curtis Mayfield and drifts into Quebeçois French, mixing equestrian references with thesaurus vocabulary. “Crash Course for the Ravers” evokes the club-scene extroverted introspection of his last record with its bubbling electro-dance sound, and the title track that follows it deploys 1980s synthetic production alongside Pemberton’s slightly forced puns and extremely forced crooning.
“I don’t need no fucking hype man,” Cadence Weapon claims on “Hype Man”, which repeats and extrapolates on the criticisms of mainstream hip-hop’s greed and self-absorption hinted at near Hope in Dirt City‘s beginning. But he does unleash a hype man of sorts on “(You Can’t Stop) The Machine”, allowing fellow Canadian indie MC and one-time tourmate Buck 65 a characteristic verse (“taking my money to the bank in a wheelbarrow”). If Cadence Weapon is not always secure with either hip-hop convention or indie scene expectations, he is undoubtedly secure in his own artistic voice. Hope in Dirt City is the sound of that varied and surprising security.