On Cadence Weapon's Parallel World, every song is an audio essay
In our first Polaris Spotlight, the Edmonton-born rapper explains how Black history inspired his album
Written by Huda Hassan
Cadence Weapon is no stranger to the Polaris Music Prize short list. In the past, he has been longlisted for the prize once and shortlisted twice, for Breaking Kayfabe (2006) and Hope in Dirt City (2012). This year, he adds another shortlist nomination to his name with his album Parallel World, alongside fellow shortlisters DijahSB, Mustafa, Tobi and more.
While the world underwent social and political awakenings at the peak of the pandemic, Cadence Weapon, given name Rollie Pemberton, wanted to compel the world to listen more. Parallel World is a 26-minute exploratory and moody rap album that uses distinct references to Black experiences, histories and archives in Canada. Some have called it dystopian and dark — which the artist admits he finds frustrating.
The album begins with "Africville's Revenge," an ode to the nearly 150-year-old Black community in Halifax that was demolished in the 1960s by the City of Halifax. The song was inspired by his new neighbourhood, Little Jamaica, a cultural heritage locus that has been impacted by gentrification, transit construction and the City of Toronto's failure to claim it as a protected heritage district.
In his song "Eye to Eye," Pemberton explores feeling like an outsider, referring to Toronto author Desmond Cole's The Skin I'm In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power when he raps: "Tried to fit in/ tried to get in where I fit in 'cause the skin I'm in." Parallel Worlds was inspired by a wide array of music, literature, and art by Black creators, such as Sly & the Family Stone's 1971 album There's a Riot Goin' On, and the 2017 novel Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. For Pemberton, the album is the result of a pandemic-induced self-reflection period that led him to recreate new ways of communicating with an ever-changing world. It's also a way for the artist to educate listeners.
When Pemberton isn't making music, he is penning essays. Last year, he began writing his forthcoming book, Bedroom Rapper, set to be released in 2022. In his self-titled newsletter, he dissects music, politics and changes in the media landscape. Most recently, he wrote about the exploitations that come with being a Black entertainer in Canada, signing a 360 deal — a business relationship between an artist and music company that promises to cover all expenses in exchange for an increased percentage from the artist — at a young age that impacted his career, and how isolating that moment was.
CBC Music spoke with Cadence Weapon about those challenges, being nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, and the inspiration behind Parallel World.
Congratulations on your fourth Polaris Music Prize nomination and your third appearance on the short list. How are you feeling?
I feel amazing. It's very meaningful for this album. During the pandemic, I went all out on this record in a way that I don't think I've had the capacity to [do] in the past. Everything slow[ed] down — not having shows, no distractions — in a way that benefited my process. I wanted to do something for every song — to me, the rollout became this kind of art form of itself. To see it get to this point where I'm on the short list means a lot because the last time I was on the short list was [in] 2012.
I noticed a few references to Black literature throughout the album, such as an ode to Desmond Cole's The Skin I'm In on your track "Eye to Eye."
It's a direct reference. He inspired me. I was very inspired by the original article that he wrote for Toronto Life [in 2015]. I felt so seen. I've had these experiences before. It gets to the point where you're thinking: "Oh, maybe I did something to make the police want to come up to me, maybe it's my fault." Desmond realizes there's an institutional systemic problem, and that was the thing that inspired me. During the pandemic, everyone in my life who is not Black [said] I'm noticing this stuff for the first time. [But] I've been living with this shit forever. It felt like I used to be a conspiracy theorist. I [would say] I swear that was a microaggression. Nobody believed me. And then finally, everyone is seeing what I'm seeing. That made me emboldened to just go harder on this album.
I appreciate your reference to Black authors in the U.K. Black experiences in Canada are so commonly compared to our neighbours in the U.S., but we can draw more similarities to the Black British experience, I think.
We're always compared to the American experience. I have a bit of both 'cause my dad's American. The thing that people would always say: "Oh, you know, it's not so bad in Canada." We know that is not the truth; the difference is people here do it with a smile.
Tell me about the first song on the album, "Africville's Revenge."
That track came out of research I was doing for an article I wrote for Hazlitt about Little Jamaica in Toronto. I live on Eglinton West and I became very passionate about the neighbourhood and started looking into the history of the LRT construction. I was blown away with everything I was learning and realizing that this isn't just an isolated situation where there's transit-based gentrification happening. This has happened not only all around America, but it's happening a lot in Canada in similar situations. And that was how I looked more into Africville, which I never learned about in school. I never [learned] about any Black people doing anything for my entire childhood in Canada. I'm only hearing about this community [and what] happened a couple of years ago. This song, for me, is all about Black Canadian history, preserving it and sharing this information. The idea of "Africville's Revenge" is all about Black Canadians doing well. You disenfranchise us, put us in a community that is just surrounded by all your most undesirable things, [a] garbage dump ... and still we rise.
It appears that there were a lot of cultural producers in your family growing up. How did it shape you and your creative work?
My mom was born in Edmonton. She went to Shaw University [a historically Black private university in North Carolina] where she met my dad [Teddy Pemberton], who is originally from New York. He marries this woman from Edmonton and move[d] over there. It's a bit of a culture shock. But, you know, he ends up creating this successful radio show on CJSR-FM [a campus community radio show based out of the University of Alberta] called The Black Experience in Sound. He was single-handedly responsible for playing rap on the radio [in Alberta].
Still to this day, in Edmonton, people [say], "Your dad is why I got into rap." That was a big background for me; that was what I was just hearing around the house: all kinds of funk, R&B and early rap. He was very theatrical. He would open his sets with the 2001 Space Odyssey [theme song], go into "New York State of Mind" by Nas, and then end with Phyllis Hyman. He [had] a mashup DJ mindset because he played everything. He would play Jimi Hendrix — he snuck into Woodstock when he was a kid and [was] obsessed with him since. Maybe that's why I'm a little eclectic with my music. That's what's normal to me.
What do you hope Parallel World will offer listeners?
I made this album want[ing] there to be multiple ways of reading every song. I wanted it to be audio essays. I've been enjoying all the responses by listeners because they're seeing all these things that I never intended. I love that people [are] finding their own depth in what I do. But specifically, that idea that this album is so dystopian, noisy, [and has] dark themes. I'm reflecting the world back to you. This is what it's like. This is how the world sounds to me. It is dark — have you looked outside lately? I want people to take something from every song.
I've left all these breadcrumbs of literary references — like you picked up on. I want people to learn something. I want it to live in people's lives outside of the music.
You recently wrote about your experience as an emerging Black rapper in the Canadian music industry. What compelled you to share this story?
I think I was a little emboldened by seeing Britney [Spears] speak out. I saw some parallels in my situation in hers. I'm in a place in my career where I'm not as vulnerable as I once was, and [I want to] move forward with my life, so I don't have these old records hanging over me. It took me therapy to get through and [say], "This isn't your fault." I never [want to] hear another person say they had [a 360] deal. I want to be a cautionary tale for people. The fact that I've been able to come back, be relevant and work myself up to a similar level that I once was showed people you can do more than you think. I want to inspire younger artists to [understand] there's a lot you can do without a manager. You can go far — like a shortlist [nomination] for Polaris with no manager.
Don't miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.