Cadence Weapon on His New Album, Social Media, and Politics: “I Like to Stay Uncompromised”

Rapper, producer, author, and former poet laureate Rollie Pemberton - better known as Cadence Weapon - released his sixth studio album, ROLLERCOASTER, this spring via MNRK Music.

Having emerged as an artist who gave voice to issues of systemic inequality and racial disparity, particularly among Canada’s Black communities, with his 2021 Polaris Prize-winning fifth album Parallel World, Cadence Weapon returns with an urgency, addressing the dizzying contradictions of modern culture and technology with both precision and irreverence.

With ROLLERCOASTER, Pemberton expands his incisive commentary to the sprawling internet—a former utopian playground that’s turned into a capitalist junkyard—to remind users they don’t have to just “go along for the ride,” he says.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


I was going to ask you the obvious question of whether you felt any pressure after winning the Polaris Music Prize for Parallel World, but thankfully you answered in your Substack that, no, this wasn’t the case. So instead, how did you approach ROLLERCOASTER from a mental and creative standpoint, considering that there was no pressure?

When I made Parallel World, I really had the concept so deeply in mind. I wanted to be really political and I really just wanted to let it rip about specific socio-political issues. On this record, there is the theme of technology and social media and things like that. But I think the way I approached it was ‘I just wanted to make some fun music.’ That was a big part of it for me, to get out of my head a little bit, and just try and make really colourful, ecstatic fun music. I couldn't resist still having a concept and a message and everything. I was really influenced by a lot of hyperpop-type stuff, and electro and a lot of the kinds of stuff that I like to DJ musically, and then I was just thinking of ways to integrate that into my own music.

Every artist is now expected to introduce a new era when an album comes out. Was it nice to get away from that, focusing instead on growing beyond album cycles?

I feel, musically, I always try to be a little bit different on all my albums, and it just happens naturally. [I’m] really just following my muse at the given time. It was a freeing experience, especially [as] the last record added a different kind of pressure than you would expect. It became this thing like, okay, so I'm like ‘the voice of a generation’ and I speak for Black people in Canada. I started getting invited to talk on all these panels as the Black guy on the panel. I really don't like being pigeonholed. I don't like to be seen as the political rapper guy, or the underground rapper guy. That is something that makes me want to zig. You know, it really makes me want to subvert expectations. That's really a strong urge in me – what people would expect from me, I always like to do the opposite.

What about this record do you feel subverts expectations most?

I feel like a lot of the more electronic stuff, like “My Computer,” “Exceptional,” “Lexicon;” songs that are just straight electro; stuff that are super-fast. I never really had any songs like that. But it's interesting because when I would play live, I would rap over instrumentals like that. Or if I'm at a party, and I just got on the mic. I would rap over stuff like that. I always felt really comfortable doing, but I realized there wasn't a lot of stuff in my discography that reflected that. I feel like some people might be surprised to hear me on tracks like that, but it’s actually second nature to me.

One of the tracks that fits that mold is “Press Eject,” which also plays like a thesis statement for the record as a whole. The song is from an artist’s perspective of navigating success online and wanting to log out of its constant demands, but now we've all become content creators in some way that we can all relate. Can we really reject the online world though?

I think it's possible. The idea is to just be more mindful about what you're doing and more mindful about your experience, because it's easy to lose track of what you're doing. That's what I'm really talking about on the album. We have to use these tools - artists, regular individuals - and it's really about using the tools and not letting them use us. Because it can easily go the other way, where it becomes like, I work in the content mine and I gotta have this many TikToks this week, otherwise, the foreman is gonna fire me. That's what it starts to feel like, honestly. You're on TikTok or Instagram and it’s like I've got to up my content quotient this week. It just feels terrible. I do think there is a future for me where I just don't do it at all and I'm just out of it. I'm really currently very inspired by Cindy Lee and their approach to the way they released their album.

It's a good point you make about using these apps as a tool rather than them using us. Out in the world as Rollie and not Cadence Weapon, how do you go about trying to make it a tool that can be of some benefit to your life?

I really follow my wife's model, because she's a journalist and is really mindful about her online diet. I'm really into Twitter, that’s the one for me. I love just the thoughts and ideas, and sometimes there's some really good jokes and everything. But it also has the most negative effect on my quality of life and my mood. If I wasn't promoting my album, I probably wouldn't be super active on these platforms. It's just really easy to get addicted to it all. I swear, it's worse than cigarettes. A lot of these apps are designed to be very addictive. I read this really good book about this called Please Unsubscribe, Thanks!, and [the author Julio Vincent Gambuto] talks about how to disconnect yourself as much as possible. One of the things that he talks about is doing a social media audit, and looking at ‘how many people here do I want to see their content and unfollow them?’ It's like ‘do I need this app for work? Is it making me happy?’ If it's not, delete it. He goes as far as being like, give up your phone.

On the album artwork for ROLLERCOASTER, you’re upside down, hinting that maybe not all is right. But you're also out in nature. In the press photos, too, you're lounging on the grass. It feels like, ‘alright, I did throw out my phone, and you know what, it's still a bit weird, but I'm enjoying myself.’

I feel like the idea is ‘touch grass.’ Every time I get into a Twitter fight, I need to just think ‘Okay, go outside now, go to the park.’

With the new record, you've said that, you want to recapture what made Web 1.0 special. The sense of community, which is still present, but without commercial forces getting in the way. Is it possible to get back to that form of Web 1.0 that’s more community-centered?

There's a few things that are of that old spirit. I think Reddit is still a bit like that. It's one of the only places you can get actual information, searching something and “Reddit” in Google. There's that and there's Discord. Those feel like the kind of old-school communities where it's real people all interested in one thing, and it's not like there's a profit motive at all. So I like that. I think some of the websites that you see that haven't changed at all, like Craigslist, that's another example. It just is what it is and it's not another thing. Meta’s whole thing [for their apps] is just to swallow the other apps and it's gonna be like 50 apps and one app is the ‘everything app.’ And it's like, man, jack of all trades, master of none. So I think it's possible. I feel like the way the internet is going, it really is becoming just this all-consuming funnel to sell products. I think anything that you can do that goes against that is great.

What I'm talking about on this album is really to be more mindful about what you're doing online and to take a bit more control. It's easy to get into this feedback loop of ‘I'm opening Facebook, I'm opening Instagram, I'm opening TikTok, I'm opening Twitter;’ and that's all I look at. Go on your own adventure. Do your own path and actually find [and] learn something, or do something that's just for you. And it's not to enrich someone else. And it's not for somebody else to profit [from].

I went to go see a 25th anniversary showing of The Matrix recently, and while it was very 1999 in its tech lingo, at the same time it felt really current in its concerns. Just swap out some of the more dated references with talk of AI and it would sound the same. It's funny listening to you describing Web 1.0 from around that same time and thinking, ‘if only they knew what was coming, they wouldn't have been so pessimistic.’

One of the reasons I made this record was really for younger people who weren't around for it, and for them to really know that there's a different way of doing things; you don't have to just follow the walled garden that the social media apps want you to be in. I want people to be aware of their own agency.”

I’m absolutely certain so many people have asked you about this quote from [Resident Advisor editor and friend] Gabriel Szatan, after he wrote it as the last line in the foreword to your book Bedroom Rapper: “next step politics, right?” In “EFT” you rap about “MPs all up in my DMs.” And now former rapper Wab Kinew is the premier of Manitoba. I mean, I think you know where this question is going.

There's definitely been a lot of interest in me doing something. Parties have reached out to me about running for different ridings. I worked on a political campaign last year municipally in Toronto [for mayoral candidate Josh Matlow]. I was working on their social media. I learned about how the sausage is made and what it's like behind the scenes, and it's pretty fucking ugly. Politics is ugly – it’s way worse than music. You will never experience worse people than when you're in the political world. They're just terrible, scum of the earth. The disappointing thing is they may start with good intentions, but it inevitably corrupts them, the power. It doesn't matter what part of the political spectrum they're on, it's just inevitable that it will. It just drains the life out of you. So, I think I won't be running for office anytime soon. I also feel I can get more done outside of this system. I feel as an artist, I don't have to check-in with anybody. I don't have to tow the party line. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. I like to stay uncompromised.


Catch Cadence Weapon live in Montreal on May 2 at Le Système and on August 4 at the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival.


Photo by Jodi Heartz

Alex is the host of Ashes to Ashes, your home for modern pop in all its forms, Tuesdays 7PM-8PM