Poet laureate, like the postmaster general or even the Queen of England, is a grandiose title that precedes a position I don’t quite understand. Rollie Pemberton, 26, served as poet laureate for the Canadian city Edmonton, from 2009-11. And, while it’s not clear what exactly that role entailed, it appears to have only helped his growth as an artist.
Pemberton, better known in hip-hop headphones as Cadence Weapon, returns to the rap world with Hope in Dirt City, his first record in four years and one of 2012’s most engaging hip-hop releases.
With an exotic array of samples, grooves, percussion and production, it’s instantly immediate his father’s love of music has rubbed off. (The senior Pemberton was a pioneering DJ, hosting the influential hip-hop show Black Experience in Sound.) He’s constantly stretching the parameters of what constitutes prototypical hip-hop production. He seamlessly stitches together beat-stretching jazz, screaming sax solos and sounds that range from the obscure to ska, but the scattershot beats always lay a great bedrock for his unfaltering flow.
Cadence Weapon regularly rips off dense reams of rhymes that reward multiple listens. You’ll need them to pick apart all of the sly metaphors and tricky wordplay, all delivered effortlessly. His simile game is both street-smart (“I’m always posting up like OBEY.”) and storybook (“Dressed in all black like Hamlet.”). One song, “Cheval”, features an extended metaphor comparing women to horses, which sounds better on the album than it reads here.
And, like any self-respecting, independent rapper, there are ruminations on the machinations of the music industry. But, instead of simply serving sizzling send-ups of clichés, Pemberton does well to take unique angles. “Hype Man”, for example, shifts from the typical, middle phalange flinging rapper to that of his full-time assistant: a would-be rapper and soon-to-be Stan.
Indeed, Cadence Weapon frequently shapeshifts to different “characters,” taking on multiple personas throughout the record, which unfortunately provide only fleeting glimpses of who the real Cadence Weapon really is. A forgivable offense, though, considering how visceral his vignettes appear. And, while his ideas are certainly well-formed, his songs aren’t always so polished. “Jukebox”, for one, could’ve benefited from a slower build-up, but it’s wavy ranginess is condensed into a sub-three minute slapdash.
These are relatively minor stutters from an otherwise excellent and confident spokesman, waxing poetic on wax. Maybe more rappers should consider taking a poet laureate-like sabbatical.