For a genre that’s so thoroughly based on language, hip-hop can withstand a lot of nonsense. Some emcees succeed with narratives and agendas, but there’s also a seat at the table for those who focus on the sound and tempo of their prose and demonstrate vocal presence. Rollie Pemberton, the nineteen-year-old Edmonton-based emcee/producer behind Cadence Weapon, is getting ready to take that seat. His mixtape, Is the Black Hand, fits the bill for the format perfectly (except, of course, for the part where a mixtape is mixed – because this one isn’t). This collection of original compositions and remixes shows Pemberton’s versatility both on the mike and behind the decks.
Pemberton is no stranger to the rhythm of language; he’s logged time as a scribe for Pitchfork and Stylus. And his success in that field is paralleled by his language control on this record, the precursor to his official debut full-length, Breaking Kayfabe (released by Upper Class in December). Cadence Weapon is a great moniker for a guy who makes lines as pedestrian as “Think I just started rap/ Take me serious/ Like my mom’s heart attack” sparkle with life on record. His unflagging encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture – he references Bill Hicks, Radiohead, and HBO’s The Wire – recalls the playfulness of MF Doom. But he drops it all with an unabashed swagger as he goes from Aesop Rock empty-lung wordiness to an enunciated Edan delivery, sometimes even within the same song.
Despite the occasional similarities Pemberton shares with those names, he’s no mainstream-cursing backpacker. He gives Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” an electro breakdown treatment, and he drops a rattling, kitchen-sink melody on the Beastie Boys’ “Ch-Check It Out” – both of which one-up the originals in both style and inventiveness. The stabbing opening chords of “London Calling” punctuate Cadence Weapon’s mix of M.I.A.’s “Galang,” and he adds a touch of stop-action glitch samples for good measure. His palette of production sounds is even more varied than his shape-shifting lyrical abilities.
But Pemberton isn’t trying to outmaneuver his peers by getting as obscure as possible or by trying to cram dictionaries into his verses. To borrow a saying related to his other artistic efforts, good writing is good because it uses the right words, not the fanciest. (The funky soul sample base of “8 Ounces” isn’t the most complex song on the record, but it’s one of the best.) If anything, Cadence Weapon is a reflection of the omnivorous Internet generation, those who grew up with a million pathways at their fingertips. That he’s able to corral them into a cogent sum bodes well for his future.