Why Cadence Weapon Should Win the Polaris Prize

 by Eleni Armenakis

Hope in Dirty City is Cadence Weapon (Rollie Pemberton)’s third full-length album, and has garnered him his third Polaris nomination. It’s also his second album to make it through to the short list, suggesting a career that debuted strong and has only continued to improve.

Reviews of Pemberton’s first two albums heap glowing praise onto the Edmonton-born artist, touting his wealth of musical knowledge, his decision to pursue hip hop despite growing up in a city (the eponymous “Dirt City”) that doesn’t harbor a strong rap presence, and finally, for going against mainstream hip hop—pushing the boundaries of alternative with introspective and creative lyrics.

But when it comes to a discussion of Hope in Dirt City, critics across the board are blown away by the personas Pemberton adapts, the visuals he creates, and the way he bends words to suit his meaning. It’s obvious his two year stint as the poet laureate, an appointment that he says was the proudest moment of his life, has paid off. Sworn in on May 26th, 2009, the position meant Pemberton had a responsibility to serve as an ambassador of the literary arts and to create original content. Some of that content went on to become Hope in Dirt City, an album that reveals a maturation of the artist, and a growing comfort with the notion of poetry.

It takes a few listens to really discover everything Pemberton has done with Hope in Dirt City, including working with a live studio band, and uncovering the personas and rhymes that he’s artfully woven into every track—months in I’m still discovering new elements that impress me.

“Hype Man” is an obvious starting point. Pemberton acts out both sides of a conflicted relationship—the egotistical rapper who sees his entourage as a collection of employees instead of friends, and the unwitting hype man who hasn’t realized how expendable his so-called friend considers him to be. Beyond the words, Pemberton conveys personality with his delivery—from cocky MC to pathetic-hanger on—flawlessly. On “Jukebox”, Pemberton again slips into a character, creating a vivid portrait of artistic ennui, but the song is anything except boring with an amazing sax solo by Pemberton’s uncle, Brett Miles.

It’s this extra sense of energy and force that is most striking in Hope in Dirt City. “Conditioning”, the second track on the album and the first single, heralds new things from the rapper. The energetic, angry delivery of the chorus is a marked departure from the talk-rap Pemberton has become well-known for.

Not that Pemberton completely abandons his signature style. “There We Go”, a musically mellow track packs a heavy punch with Pemberton’s delivery. Vicious lyrics, like “She use to be the hottest girl in Ajax, but in Montreal she’s only an 8 ½,” carry more weight with his deadpan and indifferent delivery—a construct that goes beyond just spitting lines.

If the Polaris Prize is meant to go to the artist that displays the most creative artistic achievement, it can do no better than an artist that has doted attention on every element of his album—from the introduction of live music and stunning solos, to lyrical creativity, to the submersion of the artist into a role—Cadence Weapon has pushed his own art to a new level. Surely that deserves some kind of reward.

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