Cadence Weapon vs. the Algorithm: "Tech and the Music Industry Are at Odds with the Spiritual Power of Music"

Rollie Pemberton recalls the golden age of the internet and hits back against its current state on new album 'ROLLERCOASTER'

Photo: Jodi Heartz

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Apr 23, 2024

Recalling how Cadence Weapon found it "so hard to connect" in the impassioned call to action that closes his 2021 album Parallel World made it all the more important to take a trip to his new home base of Hamilton, ON, to talk about follow-up ROLLERCOASTER in-person — a move that not only eliminated potential technical difficulties like weak signals or video call time limits, but one making for a productive way to limit hours online on both our parts. Though a self-described optimist, the artist born Rollie Pemberton finds that logging on carries a "heavy, dreadful" feeling of late — either as an award-winning musician, or your average internet user.

There are positives and negatives to Pemberton's plugging-in. In terms of the former, recent successes include scoring sweet threads to fill the racks of his burgeoning vintage clothing business, and beating out the competition as the highest bidder for a set of patio furniture just down the highway. As a new parent, Pemberton and his wife have found a purpose-built app through which they share photos of their child with family, without making their Facebook friend lists party to every milestone. 

Then, there's the latter: "A friend of mine hit me up to say, 'Hey, did you know you're being used in this ad campaign?' I'm like, 'What?' I get an email forwarded to me from this company making retro shirts, and they are using a photo of me as a child, where I'm holding a Nintendo 64 on Christmas Day, [advertising] a sale. They didn't talk to me about it; they swiped it off my Instagram, where I must have posted it years ago. That was so destabilizing. It's the white ownership of this company taking my Black boy joy, literally, and profiting from it without giving a fuck at all."

For Pemberton, finding himself as the unauthorized face of an email marketing campaign is one of the many bits of outrageous online indignity at the core of ROLLERCOASTER. On his sixth full-length album as Cadence Weapon, the artist observes the ups and downs of our excessively networked lives, both as a creative plying his trade within the immensely extortionate, wildly inequitable attention economy, and as an everyman wholly captive by it. Algorithms, music industry fakery, wellness apps, nostalgia, nepotism, censorship, our withering attention spans — no matter which lane on the information superhighway, it's clear to Pemberton that there is increasingly little enjoyment, let alone reward in the journey. "Our likeness, who we are, our souls really are being put into this machine, and all these companies are profiting off it." 

Being online didn't always used to feel this way. Over coffee in Hamilton, Pemberton notes how our millennial cohort is the "rare" generation to have experienced a freer, more open web before the fraught, daily cycle between the handful of wares from Silicon Valley's tech titans became commonplace. In his 2022 memoir Bedroom Rapper, he writes vividly of how hours surfing the internet of old proved instrumental to a love of learning as well as his musical pursuits; foundational to a future beyond his attic room in Edmonton, AB. On ROLLERCOASTER, from Pemberton's vantage point amid the siloed apps and platforms of the present, using the internet in ways careerist and casual is nothing but frustrating.

"Initially, it felt like, 'Wow, this is what I've been waiting for,' as someone in a very isolated, northern city that doesn't really have rap infrastructure," he explains of tapping into vibrant online communities. "Suddenly, I could be in contact with people in New York, L.A. or England on message boards, like networking in a macro way. There are all these people I knew from blogs; I would go play SXSW or something and meet them in real life. Now, it's as if we're all pawns in this corporate infrastructure, where everything is designed to extract as much money from us as possible, as quickly as possible, with as little friction as possible. It's very annoying, because it's not just products; it's ourselves as well."

ROLLERCOASTER's first big drop comes with Pemberton's call for listeners to "Press Eject" and extricate themselves from a world of big tech conformity, born of a concern that the products in question are becoming inextricable extensions of our being. "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," he affirms in the hook, eerily noting of the algorithm, "It works better when you post your face," before Grandtheft loads up pummelling drums fit to grab a sledgehammer and smashing up your nearest data centre to. In his verse, Pemberton's frustrations lie with extortionate platforms limiting his reach until he opens his wallet: "Working every night, grinding for some likes / Unpaid labour, we should go on strike." 

Pemberton reflects, "These platforms are always trying to tell us, 'We're helping you connect with your friends. Network with people and find an audience.' But they're worthless without people — totally worthless. Myspace, Friendster, these platforms are here today, gone tomorrow. If there aren't people, they can't get [venture capital] investments: 'How many users do you have?' 'How many downloads?' That's us, right? I think that gets lost, people recognizing their value."

The nervy "Shadowbanned" — featuring a standout guest verse from myst milano. assessing the creeping techno-fascist future — takes a similar stance, as Pemberton wonders what digital misstep he made to land in "Twitter jail" and have the visibility of an Instagram post throttled. He ultimately comes to realize, "They only want me doing what they're wanting from me."

"The internet has really homogenized so much about life," Pemberton posits. "We're getting to a point where streaming companies and social media platforms encourage a sameness, an accessibility in a way that is detrimental to art — and actually isn't art at all. They would love it if everyone just made elevator music to soundtrack 'content,' as if [musicians] are 'content soundtrack developers.' I don't believe that."

Sharing a more bewildering algorithm anecdote, he recalls, "It's funny when I do break through to certain people with posts, they'll be like, "Oh man, I love 'Sharks,'" one of the more popular songs from his 2005 debut Breaking Kayfabe. "It's like they haven't heard anything I've done in 20 years!"

On the Polaris Music Prize-winning Parallel World, the Korea Town Acid-produced "Play No Games" evoked a vision of Pemberton as the protagonist in a sandbox RPG, racing frantically from checkpoint to checkpoint. With ROLLERCOASTER, he sounds as if he's fully inside the computer circuitry, making use of vocal pitch shifting and correction effects, and writing with an economy of words leaving lyrics no longer than lines of code (save for "Lexicon" which miraculously features the word "verisimilitude"). We get clever references to British reality TV, NBA figures, the scourge of NIMBYism, a family of circus daredevils, Drexciya's "Wave Jumper" and Curtis Mayfield as if the artist is feverishly clicking Wikipedia's "random page" link. "You don't want to go versus my verses" is right. 

A fitting progression from the charged-up electro productions that form Breaking Kayfabe and sophomore LP Afterparty Babies, ROLLERCOASTER's 14 tracks are scored at the speed of information overload by a talented suite of electronic synthesists. Pemberton once again teams with Jacques Greene for "Exceptional" and "Sting," both propelled by darting synths and metallic percussion to race even faster than "SENNA." The Machinedrum-produced "My Computer" sidesteps the American's drum 'n' bass and jungle acuity in favour of an unrelenting, industrial stomp, while Loraine James's pressurized, pounding "EFT" would have lesser MCs fleeing the booth. 

Cecile Believe's gently blinking octaves guiding "Blue Screen" evoke system error pop-ups, while Casey MQ's "Alarms" brings to mind a never-ending stream of red notification dots. Even Harrison's plaintive piano figure on stunning, clear-eyed closer "tl;dr" occasionally warps alongside deftly layered keys and rubbery bass bursts. A trio of interludes come from Bartees Strange, who opens ROLLERCOASTER with a more organic sound palette beginning with a bleary look at a smartphone: "I awoke to a beacon, it guides me." By the time he gets to his third turn, "You Are Special to Me," he's "too in the machine … harder to leave than you think."

Talking tech-wary rhymes of decades past, I ask Pemberton if he had Outkast and George Clinton's "Synthesizer" on the brain when writing the album's material, and learn he was more in the headspace of Deltron 3030's "Virus." It would be wrong to conclude that ROLLERCOASTER is anti-tech, considering how the artist has wielded his ones and zeroes, like bringing his career-altering contractual situation to light in tandem with Bedroom Rapper, and supporting his peers through the #MyMerch venue cut campaign and calling for fair festival pay. What the latest Cadence Weapon album does make clear is that he will remain uncompromising in the face of unrealistic expectations foisted upon creative industries by C-suite dullards and their armies of bean counters and "disruptor" acolytes.

"I just believe so much in music, and the power it has to change people's lives — it's changed mine," he expresses. "I just get worried about how tech and the music industry are at odds with the spiritual power of music. It's so capitalist and corporate. Anytime an app, or band, or individual does something with money as the prime objective, the vibes leave the room — 'God leaves the room' is what [Quincy Jones] said. I always remember that, and it's true. But you have all these people in the ecosystem of being a musician — label, management, agent, publicist, the entire chain — that are recommending you do other things," he laughs. "'We have to do this for the tech company.'"

He continues, "I guess I'm trying to encourage artists, especially young artists, to follow your heart, your own community. I just never really feel urgency to stay relevant. I kind of always feel like I am, because I'm me. It's the same with fashion, that's how I feel about it. I don't do trend shit anymore with clothes. Now, it's all high-quality garments," he says, pointing to his sweater. "Made in Norway. Vintage I got in England, L.L. Bean. I don't do Zara, you dig? I want to be consistent, and I'm just way happier this way. Just stay with your North Star."

Before I make the drive back, Pemberton and I stay offline and trek up the block to the Hamilton Antique Mall for a brief browse. He snaps a pic of a Snoopy-themed cooking utensil set (complete with doghouse holder) for his wife, and spies a stylish French language New Brunswick crewneck for friend John Batt, "the most Canadian guy ever" best known on Instagram as On our way out, we bump into a fellow Hamilton vintage picker of Pemberton's who excitedly shares word of his latest score: a giant metal Nike swoosh he saved from further languishing in a shop a few counties away.

Though he's only just beginning to author this new chapter in his life, Pemberton feels there will come a day where he pulls the plug on his social media profiles and keeps his screen time minimal, but his newsletter and Hazlitt column will surely be around a while yet. "My posting days are numbered, for sure," he tells me, "Especially Twitter — it's just not fun. I was thinking about shutting it all down right after the album comes out; I think I'd be a lot happier." 

For now, there is music and ideas to share, and auctions to win: "If you're reading this, you might be up against me. And if you are, know I'm hard to push around."

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