Weekly Pick: Cadence Weapon – ‘Hope in a Dirt City’

So the weekly picks haven’t been quite ‘weekly’ recently, but I’m working on that. The point here isn’t to make you like the same music that I do – it is to give you something (possibly) new to listen to while getting dressed or baking cookies. And if you want to read my two cents about it, you are welcome to do that as well.

Lately I’ve been totally immersing myself in new music, new genres and different approaches to composition. With an open mind I’m rediscovering the art of listening to an album – although albums these days are just binary code on the computer, I’m relieved that musicians still write quality full length albums and not just singles. I still miss the excitement of unwrapping a new CD and popping it in for the first time though. I also used to be one of those guys who religiously listened to rap in grade 10, thinking Tupac Shakur was the messiah and that the 7 Day Theory was actually true. Since then, my taste in music has matured a bit but I’m still always open to listening to good hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys and J5 opened my eyes to intellectual hip hop and the power it has to represent real skill and technical ability over the gangster image.

A lot of times Canadian rappers remain under the radar, as hip hop seems to be disproportionately centred around the United States. Not to take anything away from what Drake has achieved, but his breakout came from getting signed by Lil’ Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment. Even more, I still think a lot of it is about the fame and fortune. It still boggles my mind how rappers make money from writing about how much money they have – it’s like a never-ending circle that promotes being a douche. I guess that’s one of my main problems with so many rappers, that they are consumed with the wrong things and then writing songs about stuff I would never care about. I can’t connect to something I don’t care about. The pretentious aspect of it all takes away from the core of what hip hop is all about: the human condition in urban culture.

Obviously this isn’t a blanket claim. The fact is that most ‘real’ hip hop remains unseen and unheard by the general public. I’m not claiming to know everything about underground hip hop, far from it. I’m only starting to get back into it again. One Canadian artist that stands out is Cadence Weapon (Rollie Pemberton) of Edmonton, AB who now resides in Montreal. His latest release Hope in a Dirt City through Upper Class Recordings has been getting huge reviews and critical acclaim. His recent short-list nomination for the Polaris Music Prize is a result of delivering a risky, yet dynamic album that forges different styles of music together. It includes everything from jazz-influenced intrumentation to 80’s sounding bass lines – the rules of hip hop composition have been thrown out the window in favour of a completely original sound.

The overall  approach to this album is the use of unconventional approaches. The lyrical phrasing is often ‘sloppy’, but intentionally so. Pemberton goes back and forth between verses with rhyme and flow to  ones that are more disjunctive and almost spoken. The use of synth to create a darker aura in several songs, and there aren’t many repetitive loops or samples. This makes the album one that requires a few listens to really develop an appreciation for – with so many different things happening, it might come across as strange at first. Personally, I’ve had it on repeat since I downloaded it.

Part of what makes this album a success is the way Pemberton explores darker themes, and how he reflects them through lyrics. The narrative changes throughout the album, songs like ‘Hype Man’ look at the hip hop scene through different perspectives and tell a story through an interesting dialogue. Tracks like ‘Get On Down’ really focus on the technical aspects, as he provides an unrelenting and intense flow that makes you wonder when he has time to take a breath. His skills as a DJ and producer are apparent throughout the entire album. The production is more intricate and developed than his 2008 album Afterparty Babies (also a Polaris Prize nominee), and offers listeners a much different sound to almost anything out in the music world right now. Overall, listening to this album is a refreshing experience.

I recommend giving all the Polaris Prize shortlist nominees a listen. This year’s crop of artists won’t disappoint. I recently saw Pemberton on Discovery HD’s National Parks Project, an incredible documentary-style series that brings together Canada’s rugged and beautiful landscapes with our nation’s most promising and talented musicians. He joins musicians Laura Barrett and Mark Hamilton in Waterton Lakes National Park, AB, where they band together and create incredible music that reflects their experience. I can’t recommend this series more, it is impossible not to enjoy. Check out the Waterton Lakes EP features Cadence Weapon, Barrett and Hamilton here.