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Inside Cadence Weapon’s ROLLERCOASTER  

Did Rollie Pemberton just enter his Eno era??

by Sierra Riley

Photos by Mat Dunlap | Design by Erik Grice

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable, and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.”

This quote from musician/composer Brian Eno is paraphrased by Rollie Pemberton (aka Cadence Weapon) at least thrice in our hour-long conversation. We are on a video call that cuts out and sputters at regular intervals. The shoddy wi-fi punctuates Eno’s/Pemberton’s point well: failure inevitably becomes the hallmark of a technology. Isn’t that what lives on in our collective memory of Skype: the pixelated image of a loved one, frozen in time and space on a computer screen? 

Pemberton turns his camera off as he moves into another room with a better connection. In the temporarily silent space of the virtual meeting room, I wonder if the nastiness of social media will one day be looked back on like a glitch. Is there a future wherein the attention economy is a distant recollection? I can picture it now: sitting down with the grandkids by the fire, saying, “When I was your age, we used to doom scroll for hours!” 



I’ve been thinking deeply about my relationship to technology since listening to Cadence Weapon’s latest release. The screen reanimates, and there Pemberton sits: a rapper, producer, activist, author, former poet laureate, and new father. He smiles as he tells me about his recent move from Toronto to Hamilton, Ontario, where there is more space for his family to grow. He speaks with confidence about his goals and artistic vision. After winning the 2021 Polaris Prize for his fifth studio album, Pemberton is going for more than trophies and accolades with his sixth. On ROLLERCOASTER (out Apr. 19 via MNRK), he’s imagining a new world for himself, and now, his son

“I try [to] have a higher standard for myself for every release that I make,” he explains. “I’m fighting against this tidal wave of commodification, and I hope that [ROLLERCOASTER] gives people this idea that you don’t have to do things the way everyone else is doing them, and you don’t have to do what [media conglomerates] tell you to do.”

That’s the thesis of both the album and its lead single, “Press Eject”, in which Pemberton sings, “I don’t want to play your game, don’t want to say what you want me to say, don’t want to pay for the space that I made, it works better when you show your face” over a discord of hyperpop synths and pounding beats. This frustration with the omnipotent algorithm is articulated throughout the album, with many tracks taking on the same sonic and political identity as the single. It’s intentionally overstimulating and repetitive, replicating the social media experience: recycled content, videos auto-playing on max volume, targeted ads, click-to-buy, then pull-to-refresh. 

To remind listeners of their agency as consumers, ROLLERCOASTER is broken up by stripped-down acoustic tracks produced by and featuring Bartees Strange. “When I played [track one] for my mom, she was like, ‘Who’s that singing? Aren’t people going to be confused?’ and I was like, ‘It’s cool, mom. It’s art.’” Pemberton wanted that bait-and-switch. He set out to subvert expectations at every turn. Even songs that lean hip-hop are devoid of genre-typical braggadocio. On “Shadowbanned”, myst milano chimes in with a fervid flow that moves against Cadence Weapon’s spoken-word poetry like flint on stone. Then, Austra’s feathery vocals accompany the rapper’s on “Alarms,” a song that laments the unrelenting notification bubble, with an earworm hook that may catch longtime fans by surprise.

The 37-year-old artist was once critical of mainstream music. Songs made for a 10-second soundbite, to him, were a “personal offense.” But he’s changed his tune since the heyday of ringtone rap, and he’s here for its resurrection in the form of TikTok music. Though he tries to stay “as analogue as [he] can,” Pemberton clarifies that he isn’t anti-tech, rather he’s pro-community. In the same breath that he condemns the grotesquerie of AI art, he praises alt-pop queens Caroline Polachek and Charli XCX for their expert use of social media. 

“[Polachek] does something that’s really hard to do with some of these platforms: she has brought very artful imagery and visuals in a way that is appealing to anyone,” says Pemberton. “And Charli XCX is the same way, but in a different style […] really involving fans in the experience.” 



For Cadence Weapon, it all boils down to connection. On ROLLERCOASTER, the rapper harkens back to the community he found on the early web. It was here, on public forums and websites like rapmusic.com, that he began his career. “It was just a bunch of underground rap nerds talking about music,” he reminisces, his expression brightening. “People weren’t fixated on the internet being an online representation of your life. […] It was a lot slower. There was no profit directive. Nobody was making any money from this.” 

Pemberton looks to Web 3.0 as a utopic model for decentralized ownership. “One voice with a thousand minds,” the rapper says, referencing the opening line of “Press Eject.” “That is the power of the internet to me: you can connect with a bunch of like-minded people and build a movement and organize in a way that is much easier than in person.” 

On my first listen of ROLLERCOASTER, I was reminded of Jenny Odell’s 2019 bestseller How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, a text that is less a self-help book than a political manifesto. I asked Pemberton if he’d read it, and he revealed that the book was one of his influences in the album’s creation. This wasn’t entirely surprising to me. ROLLERCOASTER can be read like a techno-revolt manifesto in its own right. Almost every lyric is a call to action. He asks listeners to question the status quo. He urges them to reject a system that commodifies suffering. He invites them to rediscover community.

“It can be found online,” Pemberton assures me, “and we can find it again.”