Afterparty Babies, the sophomore album from Canadian music critic-turned-rapper Rollie Pemberton, is a tough but scattered affair, referencing almost as many styles as those he lambasts. Well, it’s been a while since Pemberton wrote about music, and he’s grown into this renegade hip-hop star’s persona comfortably.
As on his debut Breaking Kayfabe, the highlight of the album is Pemberton’s varied and witty lyrical content. Whether he’s talking about Gorillas in the Mist and Heroes villain Sylar in “In Search of the Youth Crew” or referencing The Wire later on, Pemberton is an insightful and spry parser of pop culture. Moreover, Afterparty Babies is well aware of young life’s various absurdities, commenting on them from the point of view of a hyper self-aware, intelligent twenty-something outsider. But it’s when he’s dealing with more personal matters that Pemberton’s language probably hits hardest — “Tattoos (And What You Feel Like)” twists after a verse on the theme of the title to a self-analysis of sensitivity and failed relationships. Speaking to the tattoo artist, he says “I’m just a really sensitive dude … You’re a cheaper shrink and you put something on me”. It’s ironic, of course, but still compelling.
When Pemberton’s being only half-serious, or when he’s playfully experimenting with different genres, he shows he can write either a savage musical hook or craft a fierce club beat. “True Story” showcases both, its stuttered beat aggressive and mechanical and the synth theme that builds into the refrain. “Do I Miss My Friends?” is a cheerful nostalgia-rap couched in a capella beatboxes and an mm-bop, mm-bop accompaniment. “Messages Matter”, an angrier track that uses pointed loops of strings, is Cadence Weapon at his most cerebral, lamenting with acute observation the lack of feeling in the MySpace/emoticon/Cobrasnake generation. If there is a constant throughout Afterparty Babies, it’s the club-oriented, aggressive electro beats. These come into focus through echoing ’80s drumbeats and hyperactive computer-generated imitations of old-school rap scratches. Mostly this is employed for pointed, upbeat effect — occasionally, as on “House Music”, it parodies itself. When it accompanies an innovative flow, as with the 1-3, 2-4 rhyme scheme of “We Move Away”, this can be quite compelling. But it’s also, generally, club music rather than music that works particularly effectively as songs.
The old-school-tinged refrains to the songs is where Cadence Weapon consciously veers away from the mainstream. “The New Face of Fashion” is all ironic complement, making fun of the Misshapes/Nudie Jeans/Diesel-wearing crowd mercilessly. However, on tracks like “In Search of the Youth Crew” the repetition of the chorus eventually drags the track down. Overall, Pemberton has solidified the distinctive elements of his style on Afterparty Babies — but in so doing, he’s perhaps narrowed Cadence Weapon’s appeal. Positioning himself as defiantly outsider suits the Canadian rapper, though. You get the feeling he wouldn’t want to be one of the “rappers on the radio” anyway.