Poetry and rap aren’t so different, with both widely using rhyming, rhythm and metaphors. So it’s not hard to believe that Edmonton, Canada’s former poet laureate Rollie Pemberton, better known to the hip-hop world as Cadence Weapon, has no trouble penning innovative, ear-catching hip-hop lyrics. But on his latest album, Hope In Dirt City, Pemberton’s strongest asset isn’t his lyrical flow–it’s his wild and complex genre-crossing production.
On his first two Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums, Afterparty Babies and Breaking Kayfabe, Cadence Weapon laid witty, blistering lyrics over hard-hitting electronic samples. But on Hope In Dirt City, he took a new approach, adding live instrumentals to the album’s core samples. The result is a smoother, more mature sound that varies with each song evoking hints of soul, funk, old-school hip-hop and some dance music for fun. Standout tracks “Jukebox” and “Small Deaths” highlight his new musical approach, where instead of depending on novel rhymes, he’s letting the music do some of the talking.
But don’t think that means the poet took it easy doing what he does best: His lyrics, though not as fierce and tongue-twisting, are still inventive and clever. His opening track, “Get On Down,” is easily the most upbeat and self-boasting, showing love to his earlier work. He fires through lines, at one point describing how he’s “flyer than a Cessna.” From there the album moves at a much slower, mellow pace starting with the first single, “Conditioning.” The track starts slow, dark and distant, but it shows Cadence Weapon’s versatility as it crescendos into frantic shout-singing over top of soul-song clapping. It’s not long before he’s truly screaming on the following track, “Jukebox,” warning DJs, “You get your jukebox away from me!”
It’s tough to match Cadence Weapon’s sound; he’s like a fly stuck inside a room that you can’t catch, zooming corner to corner, touching a multitude of genres along the way so that no two songs sound the same. On “(You Can’t Stop) The Machine” the funky electronic beats and group chorus sound like a shout-out to late-era Beastie Boys. “There We Go” has the psychedelic rap feel of a Kid Cudi track. Some songs are heavy enough that you could imagine seeing Cadence Weapon as support at a Rick Ross show.
But in the end, Hope In Dirt City is simply a portrait of Cadence Weapon’s very own Dirt City–Edmonton–and his discontent for the rap world. Throughout the album he speaks of his nightlife experiences (“There We Go”), love lost (“No More Names”) and his general disgust (“Hope In Dirt City”) in Edmonton. He also targets what he sees as nuisances of the rap world: DJs (“Jukebox”), Auto-Tuners and the music industry (“The Machine”), and even hype men (“Hype Man”). It’s obvious that Cadence Weapon thinks he is the “hope” in Hope In Dirt City, and he’s whipped up his own unique blend of hip-hop to clean up the trash.