Cadence Weapon’s Hope in Dirt City was our Polaris shortlisted album of the week. The record was high on Polaris juror Alan Ranta’s ballot this year. The music writer explores the artistic strengths of Roland Pemberton’s latest work, and why it's a strong contender for this year's prize.
It's hard not to get swept away by the energy of Edmonton's two-term poet laureate, Roland Pemberton. When you see him perform as Cadence Weapon, Pemberton works hard, verbally attacking his ever-expanding catalogue of beats like a shadowboxing heavyweight champion.
Yet, one doesn't need to see the rapper live to appreciate the effort he puts into his music. Hope in Dirt City, his third consecutive album nominated for the Polaris, and second to make the short list, clearly demonstrates Pemberton's drive.
Writers have criticized Pemberton's voice for being on the monotone side, but his delivery on Hope in Dirt City has never been more theatrical. He moves from rapping hoarse proclamations to vocally exorcising demons, intermingled with flashes of whispering and even crooning. His voice elevates to soul singing on "Conditioning" and breaks into histrionics on "Jukebox."
Pemberton also expanded his musical process for this album, setting it apart from his own catalogue as well as most other hip-hop albums. First, Pemberton would create his ideas with samples. Then, he handed those ideas over to a session band to rework. Pemberton then turned those "live" reworkings back into samples for the final product. The meta-beat outcome reflects the shuffle of the iPod generation, touching on a myriad of styles, all unified under Pemberton's guiding hand.
"No More Names (Aditi)" is a dreamy pop downtempo drifter that perfectly suits his voice. "Cheval" heavily samples soul/funk pioneer Curtis Mayfield, bringing to mind hip-hop's golden age, while "Small Deaths" provides shuffling reggae. "Hype Man" features a footwork-like contemporary electronic instrumental, while the heavy bass and gnarly synths of "(You Can't Stop) The Machine" hit harder and longer than "Oliver Square," and has a highlight reel verse from Buck 65 to boot. At the album's climax, "Crash Course for the Ravers" morphs David Bowie's "Drive in Saturday" into a tripping future disco-come-vintage synth, symphonic funk boogie complete with a saxophone solo explosion.
This album is by no means perfect, but the best things in life rarely are. Though Hope in Dirt City is the most accessible and consistent album in the Cadence Weapon catalogue, while still expanding his aural universe and artistic toolbox, not all of the featured styles will appeal to everyone. However, everyone, even those who aren't familiar enough with the poet laureate's work to recognize that this is the most singularly ambitious – yet focused – Cadence Weapon album yet, should be able to find a few things to admire about this record. And that may be its greatest strength.
Certainly, in context with Feist, F--ked Up and Kathleen Edwards, each of whom shortlisted with a third or fourth album that pushed each artist's aesthetic to a more refined place, no one should be surprised if Cadence Weapon takes the prize in September.
You can stream Cadence Weapon's Hope in Dirt City at CBC Music until Wednesday, July 25, at midnight PT. On Thursday, be sure to check out our next feature album: Japandroids' Celebration Rock.
Listen: Cadence Weapon's Hope in Dirt City
2012 Polaris Music Prize short list announced
Cadence Weapon on CBC Music
Can Hip Hop win the Polaris Prize?
on Jul 24, 2012