The optimist rapper: How Cadence Weapon keeps himself going — and stays excited about the future
Despite navigating the music industry's constant changes, he believes the future will shift in exciting ways
I Fell Out of Love is a series of frank conversations with artists untangling the messy relationships between art, passion, work and money. Do you need to love what you create? Does seeing art as work make things easier or harder? What follows is a conversation about making art: the philosophies, the realities — and the drive to keep doing it.
Passion is integral to creating art, according to Cadence Weapon. But like a lot of other musicians and performers express, the drudgery of touring can make maintaining it tough. He's also acutely aware of our culture's growing obsession with newness and how discouraging this reality can be. Fortunately, Cadence Weapon finds music itself — and meditating on how music is taking shape and where it might go in the future — to be a continuous source of creative fulfillment. The artist is, after all, an optimist.
Cadence Weapon's career trajectory has been quite a ride. The Edmonton-born rapper released his debut studio album, Breaking Kayfabe, in 2005 and soon found himself shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. By 2009, at the age of just 23, he was named poet laureate for his home city, drawing admiration and some pushback (including one mind-boggling article seeming to set him up to fail at what a poet should look like). He's also worked as a cultural critic over the years, contributing music reviews to publications like Pitchfork and Hazlitt under his given name, Roland "Rollie" Pemberton, while continuing to release records of his own. Last year, he released his fourth, self-titled album, approaching the music with collaboration in mind and garnering even more critical praise.
Cadence Weapon has a unique view of the current landscape of music, and what work and art are going to look like in the coming years. Here, he talks about the realities of his multidisciplinary work, and how he believes the future — the reason he is so optimistic — will shift things in exciting ways.
Sarah MacDonald: You've done a lot of creative work, and I do want to touch on all of it, but I'm going to start by asking about your music. When did you decide that you wanted to make music and be a performer?
Cadence Weapon: It's something that came very naturally to me because my dad was a DJ. He had a radio show for over 20 years in Edmonton. My uncle was a funk musician — he played in a jazz quartet and stuff. I just always had music around me. It seemed like a family language, you know? I took after my dad a lot. I had this kind of archival mind from the age of 12 on, where I was, you know, obsessively listening to every rap album that would come out. I listened to everything you could possibly think of because I grew up in a library of music. The moment when I was like, "Oh, I want to be a rapper," was probably when I got the internet. Then I was online sharing stuff I had written on message boards, rapping with people around the world, sending my little demos, and I started feeling like I had something interesting here. I always had an interest and an industrious spirit about that kind of thing.
SM: Did you enjoy writing before you started sharing your music online?
CW: Yeah, I wrote poetry and used to get it published in my high school newspaper. I took [the paper] really seriously — like, "Are we trying to be a real publication or not?" [laughs] I did a lot of [creative] stuff in school. I was DJing during lunchtime, too. They would connect me to the PA system, and I'd play tracks in the lunch area. I would burn CDs. I'd also make clean versions of tracks on my computer so I'd be able to play them at school.
SM: What excites you about rap, both as a means of creative expression for yourself and in general?
CW: The thing I've always loved about rap is that it feels very open-ended. When you think about the way the music is actually made, it usually features samples of any genre you can think of — but when it comes through rap, it becomes rap. I always love that. I love that it's this amorphous sponge of music. I also love that it's a direct reflection of culture. Not all music is like that. The thing about rap is that there could be a cool dance in this weird part of America and only a few kids know, and they associate it with a [certain] song. But then you put it on the internet and everybody starts replicating that. Then it gets to a point where kids are doing it at NBA games during halftime. You know, something can come from somebody's bedroom and go all the way around the world. I feel like that's a very distinctive thing with rap. It's a genre that's so connected with language and movement that I find it changes so quickly. It's easy to not get bored, I should say.
SM: Was that a very quick little reference to the Lil Ballas? Because they're my favourite dancers. [laughs]
CW: [laughs] Yeah, well, yeah! I was just thinking of the kids in the stands — when they get put on the camera and they all usually dab.
SM: Do you think passion absolutely needs to be involved in what you do for your art?
CW: Passion, yeah, absolutely. It's a key component. You can hear when it's absent — you know what I mean? When people are going through the motions or doing it for clout or money or whatever. You can hear it in the quality of the music. You can hear it in what the music's about. I feel like it's important to have passion behind what you make. For me, that's never been an issue. I've always been a creative person. I've never had writer's block or anything — never had any moments where I'm like, "Oh, what am I going to do next?" I always have tons of ideas. In fact, I have the opposite problem where I have too many ideas. And getting them all organized and deciding what to do next is a big issue for me.
SM: So how do you generally prioritize? Is it based on a mood? Is it ever an economically driven decision?
CW: Typically, it's mood. I've been talking to my girlfriend about this a lot. One week [it might be] writing songs — like I'm in the zone. I feel like rapping a lot right now. But then another week might be more production-oriented — only making music, maybe not even rapping on any of it. And then another might be like, "OK, I want to reorganize my DJ system and clear out records, and be more on that side of music." Or I might have a week that's all administrative. I manage myself. There are some times where I'm just going to do my taxes. And sometimes there are some other factors, like [if] I really need to get an album done soon. Because, like, you make the album, then you can tour off the album...There's an inevitability behind that.
SM: Do you remember the first time you felt that your art became work — as in something routine or not as creatively fulfilling?
CW: The first time I probably felt like that was when I was first going on tour when I was younger. I was touring very extensively, and it was weird. I was going all around the world, in Europe, playing all of these cool places, travelling so much. But I was finding I wasn't enjoying it at all. I guess I was having trouble appreciating it. The drudgery of that tour lifestyle, it can really weigh on you. It gets to the point where you're like, "Wow, I am doing the exact same thing, over and over. Exact same songs. And the kids are all wearing the same shit in whatever city in the world I'm in."
SM: People often think the administrative stuff is what limits creativity, but going on tour for months on end — this repetition — can take its toll.
CW: Yeah, that can be very stressful. I did a really big tour last year for my last album. You know the kind of up and down nature of touring: you could be playing a huge show in New York and then play Buffalo the next day. Keeping yourself emotionally steady and focused on what you're supposed to be doing at that time, then keeping up with everything that's happening online and abroad, [and] all the kind of stuff you normally have to take care of on top of that like having a personal life, maintaining your relationship at home...All of those things combined can get in the way of creativity. I think what we're going to be seeing is a real downturn in that kind of punk band-style touring. I don't think it will be around for that much longer. I think the focus will be on people playing festivals, one-off special events, things like that. I think, in the creative arts, there's definitely a feeling of things downsizing. And it's not just music — journalism is an example of this. Or you can talk about photography or any of these needs. There are less resources for everybody. I think you're going to find there will be less of things but each of those things will be of higher quality — hopefully.
SM: That's interesting. The way that I see it, there were fewer performers, say, 40 years ago. You would look at, I don't know, Patti Smith or Lou Reed. To me, those people got to where they were because there were so few of them. Now, it's seems like there's a surplus of performers because anyone can make anything for any reason. And now we have to downsize again, I guess?
CW: With the internet, there's an oversaturation of everything, and you can get so many things just for free now. [But] do we need these industry gatekeepers, like the old guard publications and stuff? Not really. I can decide what I like for music now. I don't need any reviews to point me in that direction.
SM: Or exposure, right? It's tough — what I do, pitching musicians to write about. There's always a goal to tell someone's story, but increasingly it becomes less important because people don't want to hear a story from a critic. They want to hear it from the musicians themselves.
CW: Oh yeah, I think that's the thing with the internet, too. There's more focus on identity. That's really what draws people in. It's like, "Oh, this is somebody's real, personal experience — their personal thoughts." Back in the day, [a writer] used to be able to be like, "I like this cool kind of music, let me talk about it." And now it's kind of like, "OK, so how did your upbringing make you interested in that kind of music?" They want part of your life in [the story]. I find that the same with music. Nowadays, I think people are inclined to listen to an artist if they ideologically agree with what their opinions are and where they come from.
SM: How is your own work affected by how the industry is changing, with identity as more of a focus and how much easier it is to find someone new to listen to?
CW: I think nowadays you just have to become, in my opinion, more specialized in what you do. What I've done in the last few years is go super hard in the style of music I make, and make the best, craziest version of that — and the people will come. That's the way I think. You're not going to have that same broad appeal that maybe you would in 2009 or something when the internet wasn't as poppin'. But I also think it's important to be diversified...to not limit yourself in what you're willing to do as a musician. In the past, when I first started out, I really felt like I was a total outsider artist, whereas in the last few years, I've opened myself up to different experiences — you know, the idea of writing with other people, writing with pop artists, making music in a studio/songwriting capacity in L.A. It's something I never would've imagined [doing] in the past. But you never know what's going to come out of these things. You also never know what you're going to learn from them, and I've learned a lot in my own personal artistic practice by doing things that are out of character.
SM: In a recent interview, you said that you made your last record consciously with an audience in mind, which you hadn't done before. How does that writing or thinking process invigorate how you work?
CW: It's cool because it's like a visualization process to me. I look at myself and how I listen to music in my house. You know, I put this record on, we're drinking wine, we have people over. [I think about how] it would be cool to make a record like this that I could just put on and then flip over and listen to every track — and it's fluid. I try to listen to music in different ways and try to apply it to the way [I make] music now, which is not something I thought about at all when I was first starting out. I've gotten very involved with using the streaming services so I can understand how they work and how to make things more effective for those services, you know? It's also so I can be aware of the trends because you don't want to be totally out of step with what's going on in the world. For instance, in rap, right now, it's all about shorter songs, right? One way to think of that is super crassly commercial — people just trying to make as many short songs as possible to up their streaming revenue. But I also think it's kind of punk. It's kind of badass and rad. You can just come through, have an idea and boom! The song is over. I actually find it to be a cool creative challenge, too. That was my thought process with the song I just put out today, actually.
SM: Do you think you'll ever write a 25-song album at any point?
CW: [laughs] I don't know if I'll do that. But I may do a 20-minute album.
SM: That's also punk.
CW: Honestly, I don't know, a lot of people feel more jaded about the direction of music and where it's going and how it's going. I guess the main topic of this [series] is falling out of love, but I honestly feel like change happens so much. If you're open to the changes and if you're willing to engage with the way things shift, and see how you fit into those things, see how you can subvert those things or go with those things, that's cool — and a game you can play that changes constantly. I find it very exciting.
SM: Someone once told me they top-load their record because certain streaming services will only show the first four songs and these will get the most streams. How do you approach writing something that's not exclusively a product for someone to listen to but also something that's creatively stimulating?
CW: Well, yeah, for me you have to think about things on multiple levels: how someone would appreciate this in the streaming architecture, how someone would appreciate this if they didn't have a computer and they could only buy it on vinyl. Would it stand up to these kinds of listening? And that kind of passive listening in your home? Does it stand up to close listening on your headphones? There's a test people do when they make music — the car test. You try and take your song and play it in as many different environments as possible to see how it sounds. I feel like, now, we have to do that on a larger scale technologically. It's kind of cool.
SM: You're a rapper, a producer, a DJ, a poet and a cultural critic. It must be interesting to create art and then be critical of art, as well. It's not as though the two things can't exist harmoniously, but do you ever feel a conflict?
CW: You know, that's a good question. It's something I've been engaging with a lot in my mind. I feel like there will always be a place for good criticism. [But] I definitely think we're in a world that's a little too critical, and I feel like I almost want to remove myself from that side. I think about the times I was writing reviews of albums. I've gone back and regret some of the things I did. I had someone recently tag me on Instagram in this super negative review I made of their album. I went back and listened to the music again — and this was from like over 10 years ago. I still didn't like the music, but I was unnecessarily harsh in a way where I took it really personally. I didn't realize the internet was different back then. I pretty much ended someone's career. Just thinking of that and the role of criticism has made me more conscious of it and more on the side of, "Let me tell you what I love." When it comes to music I want to tell people what I really love. I'll tell people what I see and what I think and stuff. I think there's a future where I would put out a book of that kind of thing — of cultural analysis, you know?
SM: I've also read that you've thought about writing a series of rap essays.
CW: Yeah, that's definitely one of my big ticket projects. I'm still just trying to get doper before I put that out. It's weird — I have so many different sides and so many things I can draw on. Right now, I'm heavily into production and working on stuff that's more electronic. It might not have vocals. I'm just making so much stuff. It's confusing for myself. [laughs]
SM: Have you ever fallen out of love what you do? And if you have, how did you make your way back?
CW: You know, it's easy...especially when you've been making rap for a while and you've seen it change a few times. There is this obsession with newness that can be damaging to the artist before, right? And yeah, it can be very discouraging. I remember for a while people were making crunk music, then they were making snap music, then trap. I was always making none of those things. You're being told over and over that what you're doing isn't valuable. That can be discouraging. But I'm always going to love music and rap. I'm always going to find a way to reflect that joy I have for it. It's like any other relationship: you can't expect things to be good all the time. You gotta be like, maintaining it — keeping things fresh. You know, you have to renew your vows. I listen to all the Instagram or Twitter rappers and I find something I like and go, "Oh, this is actually sick as hell. It's super fresh and super weird." And in my mind, knowing all about rap, I can see the connections. I can see it all. It's galaxy brain shit. I listen to it, and I'm like, "OK, it's all part of a continuum." So I never get mad at any new rap now. I never get mad. I see how it connects to the past.
This interview has been edited and condensed.