Cadence Weapon Culled a Year’s Worth of Political Outrages and Interrupted Plans To Create ‘Parallel World’

Since before the release of his 2005 debut “Breaking Kayfabe,” rapper Cadence Weapon (Roland “Rollie” Pemberton) has been creating music and developing his career on his own terms — and in his own space. The Canadian native foregrounded his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta on that discordant, mesmerizing album. With each of its follow ups — and some moves to different cities — he shifted that landscape, grew his musical palette and expanded his incisive perspective and worldview. 2021 marks the release of his incendiary “Parallel World,” where he both returns to his iconoclastic roots and more vividly than ever discusses the current place and time in which he is living — discussing racial politics, gentrification, and the different roles and responsibilities of everyone from individual citizens to corporate entities, whether you’re living in his current home of Toronto or fighting for justice elsewhere in the world.

Entertainment Voice recently spoke to Pemberton via Zoom about “Parallel World,” a record that came together almost unexpectedly last year, after plans to tour got sidelined because of the global pandemic. Reflecting on his own growth and evolution since the release of “Breaking Kayfabe,” as well as the more recent process of recording and how it differed from creating his previous work, Pemberton delves into the inspirations behind his politically charged album. Pemberton discusses the ongoing challenges of absorbing what’s happening in the world — much less hip-hop music — and he has allowed that to inspire him without sacrificing the personality and specificity that distinguishes him from other artists who occupy a lane similar to his. 

What catalyzed your creativity on this album? Did you go into this having a more political drive as you were putting together these songs? 

Originally, I wasn’t really intending to make a new album last year. I was just doing my thing in the early part of the year and then the pandemic happened and it just totally stopped touring [and] changed my schedule. I was supposed to play South by Southwest, supposed to do all this stuff and that went out the window. And so for a while, I was just like, I’m just going to chill. I’m not going to do anything. But then the George Floyd murder happened and then the protests after that, and I was really inspired just by the response to that event and seeing the collective movement — and especially how it affected big institutions and corporations and seeing all these corporations were actually really flimsy and were just crumbling and falling all around me. I was like, Oh, this is really interesting. It’s an interesting time. And I really wanted to speak to it on this record.

What I think has maybe emerged as the theme of the last year is that there does not seem to be one single right response to sort of all these different issues that are going on. How do you funnel those responses down to a three or four-minute song when there’s so much to talk about with these issues?

Well, I get a lot of ideas from the news or things that I see, and I really like making connections between things that maybe people wouldn’t have thought to make the connections with. Like for me, the big thing was all these giant corporations that have caused so much misfortune to people of color for decades and centuries, all posting a black square and being like, “that’s my performative allyship for the day.” I just found that so funny and I wanted to satirize it. I was really inspired by stand-up comedy. I was going back watching old Richard Pryor specials and like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle; especially I really loved what he did last year in the summer where he was just kind of riffing about George Floyd and all of the murders — and it wasn’t funny. It was this other kind of spoken-word, amorphous way of talking about the subjects that are really difficult to talk about. And I was really inspired by that and thought, I can do that with my music. I was thinking of just different ways to communicate about things that are important, because I feel like a lot of people see you’re making a political album, and they think it’s like medicine now. This is going to be good for you, so it’s going to not be good to listen to it. But I really wanted to have a balance between that political message and the funk — that was my guiding principle.

2018’s “Cadence Weapon” felt a lot jazzier and more soulful than “Parallel World” does. What if any artists or ideas drove the production on this record? Something that is going to be slightly more aggressive or discordant here than you’d done in the past does perfectly suit the themes and the subject matter, but also, you run the risk of people going, I can’t just bang to this driving down the street.

That’s the challenge, right? My thought process was I studied a lot of classic albums that had political themes and stuff. I was thinking about “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” these really classic black protest albums, and I was thinking, how can I do this in a contemporary way? So I was inspired by that, but I was also really inspired by a lot of UK rap, UK grime, UK drill and how they have these really nasty, dark sound palettes, but they also are rapping about something. That was the big thing throughout there, those kinds of records, like the Ghetts record from earlier this year [“Conflict Of Interest”] was a really good example of that, having that balance. So in a lot of ways, it’s really me returning to my roots, with this noisy, discordant, dissonant sound. When my first record came out, I was the only artist who was rapping over beats like that, and now it seems like this is like a lane — there’s Death Grips and Run The Jewels, all these artists who did that more, but I feel like it was just kind of coming back to myself.

I read a recent interview where you listed songs from artists like Dizzee Rascal that were very influential to you, and it didn’t surprise me because I definitely hear that influence in your work. How carefully do you curate your influences or listening experiences to control what gets filtered into your creativity?

I love that question because man, I love music. I listen to so much music. I listen to everything — and when I say everything, I mean everything I can get my hands on, and it’s all levels, high and low brow. When I’m in the car with my girlfriend, we’re putting on the radio, and I love Dua Lipa and DaBaby. I love that track [“Levitating”]. But then also on my own time, I’m listening to the weirdest ambient jazz music. [But] I feel like I have a specific sonic discipline for what I like, and I’ve gotten really good at identifying it and finding it. So probably every week I listen to maybe 10 to 20 new releases. Maybe it’s a habit from being a music journalist in the past, but I just have this kind of archival mind about it, like I have a Spotify playlist and I’m just updating it every week — and I don’t want to miss something that would fit into this sound palette. So I’m constantly listening to music. 

It’s always such a fun process of discovery. I can definitely relate to that.

I love it. Like anytime anyone recommends an album, I don’t care what, I always listen to it. Like the other day, my homeboy was like, check out this PJ Harvey album from 10 years ago, “Let England Shake.” And I like PJ Harvey, but it’s not the kind of music I listen to every day, but I listened to it and it was banging. And there’s always something I can learn from a record. And I think the thing about listening to contemporary music that’s really important is you’ve got to know what you are subverting. If I was just like, I’m an underground rapper, I’m not going to listen to anything on the pop charts because it’s garbage, I’m not going to have as clear of a view of what I’m trying to do. So I need to listen to Dua Lipa and DaBaby over and over again because they play it 50 times in the car. 

You’ve always had such an astute perspective on the industry as you were creating your music. How much do you tend to create pretty intuitively and how much do you feel like you’re reacting to what’s musically happening in hip hop? 

I feel like I have a very strong musical compass within myself and I really can’t be influenced. I listen to all kinds of music and I like to stay current and I need to know what’s going on, but I’m not going to make something that is what’s popular just because that’s what’s popular. But the thing about music that I really feel like it’s a conversation, and if you’re not speaking or listening in the conversation of what’s going on in the mainstream, then you’re left out. So I feel like my role is to just push things further left; I love the idea of having me as an alternative on these streaming sites and people just stumbling onto my music, pushing where rap is going even incrementally, and I love having that responsibility.

Is there a north star for you of an artist who has been able to really successfully capture not just sort of the political ideologies of their music, but also a musicality, someone who you feel is really good at doing both of those things simultaneously?

A person I thought about a lot when I was making this album is Kendrick Lamar. He’s the best example of it, where you can have that balance of ‘this music slaps,’ but it’s about something. It’s really speaking to the times that we’re in. And it’s not easy to do this. It came quickly, I produced it quite quickly, but all of the mental and work that went behind it was not easy. I read a lot of books, I was watching documentaries, and reading the news, and I wanted to know what I was talking about; it’s almost like I had my notations and my references, footnotes, because I didn’t want anyone to be able to be like, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So when I was making this album, I was always recording ambiently and not very much of it came out. I put out maybe like 10% of the music I make, because I’m always pushing beyond the impulse to just rap about something that sounds cool, or just get away from that surface level aesthetic way of rapping — which is cool to listen to. It’s empowering in a different way. But I want to keep pushing further and go beyond that into something that is really substantial that can maybe last the test of time in a different way. And I feel like Kendrick really does that. One of the songs I thought about a lot was “Humble.” I was like, man, this is a masterpiece, because he was just like, I want to make a song that is contemporary kind of trap music, but in my own way. And I’m going to rap about what I want to rap about and I’m gonna make the radio come to me rather than me capitulating to the radio. And that’s so fire. So I was trying to do that with all the tracks on this album where there’s messages, but if you are driving around your city, you can vibe out to it too.

I was curious if you deliberately intended that female voice for “On Me” to sound like the “tour guide” on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders,” or was that just a coincidence?

No, it’s a total coincidence. So many people are saying that, but it didn’t cross my mind at all. That’s actually just my girlfriend. She’s a newspaper reporter, and I was like, do it like you’re doing a podcast about news or something. But yeah, it does have this robotic effect to it, and “Midnight Marauders” is definitely one of my all-time favorite albums. So I’m sure I subconsciously am referencing it, whether I know or not. 

Your commentary on racial politics and gentrification and these other things feel like they’re relatable in a lot of different contexts, but also they feel specific and different than maybe they would in the U.S. Do you feel a strong impulse to spotlight what’s happening where you live, or do you feel like the more specific you get, the more relatable it is to a listener in another country who might not be experiencing exactly what you’re going through?

I tried to have a balance where it was hyper-specific, hyper-local, really personal to me and my background, but was also something that is a universal issue that anyone from a big city can relate to. All of my music has been pretty regional throughout my career; my early stuff was super Edmonton focused, and that was really important to me, to speak my truth and come from my perspective and show you there’s other worlds out there that are interesting. I did that a lot with Montreal when I lived there. I’m doing that a lot now with Toronto. And I feel like you can see yourself a lot through other cities. I was really inspired recently by this book called “The Gentrification Of The Mind” by Sarah Schulman, and she’s just talking about New York and how it experienced extreme gentrification as a result of the AIDS crisis. I never really made the correlation between the cultural impact of gentrification and what it means to change a city, how it affects people and culture and the art in the city. And so that really got me like thinking, wow, that’s why it’s so wack here — when you fill a city with drug stores, weed stores, fast food restaurants and condos, there’s nothing to do, and there’s nothing really to bring interesting ideas and people and cultures to the area. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t protect culture. So I think it’s important to speak to your local experience. That’s another thing also I got from listening to a lot of grime music, because they use super local slang and they rap with their own accent and they’re not trying to be American. And that was a big thing for me when I first started; all the rappers in Canada, mostly in Toronto, were trying to sound a bit like they were from New York, using the same kind of beats and it felt very derivative. And it was very important to me to be like, listen, I’m from Edmonton. I sound like myself and I’m not going to pretend to be somebody else.

If you’re recording all this music throughout the year and you’re only releasing 10 or 20% percent of it, how do you decide what ends up getting released?

Well, on my last record in 2018, I recorded maybe like around a hundred songs when I was doing the sessions for that album. And that was a process where I really culled it down and I was picking certain ones out that I felt would maximize this style of song. That was the way that I saw it. But with this record, it was weird because it was so hard to record because of the pandemic. My studio was closed, I couldn’t really properly record at home, and I also was not inspired at first at all. So this album was really a burst of energy that kind of started in July, and then basically every week I would just do one or two sessions at my studio whenever I’d written a song at home, and I was just like going, boom, boom, boom, boom recording. And I have this word document that I always update with every song that I ever record in a year. And I’m always looking at the total number and I’m just trying to break my record for every year — my fun game for myself. And I notice I will also highlight and bold — I’m a huge nerd — I’ll bold the songs that end up on the album, and then I’ll be like, which ones didn’t make it onto the album that would I release later? Or, which ones are features that are coming out? So I like to be really organized in my mind. And with this album, you can see [on my spreadsheet] that all the tracks are very close together, like they were recorded almost back to back.

So how many songs did you end up recording over the last year?

Let me pull up my document (laughs). I don’t think it was anything as crazy as my last record, because that was a case where I didn’t really have as much of a focus on a concept that I do this time. But for last year, I recorded 21 songs, and the year before it was 24 — and only one of the songs from 2019 has come out, and then in 2020, right at the end of the year, back-to-back, every song except for “On Me” and “Seanna,” I wrote last year between July and December. So I was thinking of maybe doing a deluxe version of this album, because there were a couple of songs that were a super on-point concept, but for whatever reason, I just wanted to be very sure. But I was doing a live stream the other night for a little album release party, and I played some of these tracks. My fans were like, come on man. But I guess maybe I should put them up.

Artists seem to have more opportunities and more control than ever in terms of being able to release and potentially re-release their music. Is that how you feel?

Yeah, I feel like I can do whatever I want, but I’m still in this old mindset of being an artist first, a capital-A artist, and I don’t want to affect the impact of the original release by potentially diluting it with other tracks or something. But I don’t think anybody else thinks like that or listens to music like that. I feel like people are just kinda like, oh cool, it’s more songs. Like, I don’t think anybody is going to be mad that it’s not on the vinyl or something. The way I could think of it is almost like a system update, like how Kanye was doing The Life Of Pablo, just kept changing stuff and updating iTunes. I thought that was kind of radical. And it’s very messy, but I was hoping more people would do that.

The appetite for physical media, particularly collectible vinyl, is greater than ever. Do you have any plans, or is it a priority to create physical media versions of any of your older albums?

I want to re-release my old albums with maybe some bonus tracks — because I always have bonus tracks. That’s something that’s really important to me; I’m a big vinyl fan and I always like to create a lot of value with what I put in the vinyl packages and try and make it really beautiful. So look out for that. If anybody wants to know when I’m going to be dropping stuff like that, I would suggest they follow me on my mailing list,

What’s next for you? How much do you thrive on performance as opposed to this ongoing creative process of recording?

[Performing live] is really important to me. It’s one of the things I miss the most, and I realized how much I miss it now when I don’t have it. So I’m really looking forward to getting out there. We’ve got some American dates planned in the fall. It’s looking like I’m going to be doing a tour with Fat Tony. We’ve toured together a bunch of times and he’s one of my best friends, so that should be fun. But we’re going into this new optimistic era, and I hope that people use my album as something that they’ll remember this time by. I really am glad that I made this album because I feel like it’s a time capsule that I’ll always feel really fondly about. I didn’t want to make a pandemic ‘yo, I’m stuck in the house’ album or whatever. I just wanted to make this time capsule or this kind of diary entry of 2020 for myself.

Parallel World” releases April 30 on Apple Music.