Bots and online activists. Tech gentrification and algorithms. Phone addiction and wellness culture. Through his urgent rap anthems, Cadence Weapon captures these dizzying contradictions of modern culture and technology with both precision and irreverence. The Hamilton-based rapper, producer, former poet laureate, and author of Bedroom Rapper (2022) also known as Rollie Pemberton got his musical start while careening through the rap internet as a teenager in Edmonton, Canada. He emerged as an artist who gave voice to issues of systemic inequality and racial disparity, particularly among Canada’s Black communities, with his fifth album Parallel World, which won the 2021 Polaris Prize.
Now, with his sixth studio album, ROLLERCOASTER, arriving April 19 on MNRK Music Group, 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. The impetus for the project was a February 2022 trip to Los Angeles, where Pemberton witnessed technology’s growing influence on society, as seen through the “optimization” of every human interaction and transaction. “I was observing parallels between the fraudulence of certain institutions and the fake news of the internet,” he explains. “With bots and people being willfully false for profit, the internet has led to a total obfuscation of reality.”
There, Pemberton began to craft the songs of ROLLERCOASTER, a polemic against the internet’s growing chaos. It exhibits his growing skills in merging socio-political commentary and insurgent rap with humor and pop sensibility, resulting in an album that builds a world in and of itself. Throughout, he raps of the adrenaline rush that comes with online shopping (“Exceptional”) or being sucked into an information wormhole (“My Computer”) and the anxious mania of maximizing productivity to crippling effect (“Alarms”). His vivid tableaus of red notification bubbles, GIF memes, and bad faith arguments straddle the line between thrilling and horrifying, serving as a cautionary tale. “These platforms are designed to make us really angry, hate each other, and eventually make us hand over our money,” he explains. “It’s becoming inherently more extractive. People talk about my music as being dystopian, but it’s just reality, baby.”
Yet Pemberton reminds listeners of their agency on the techno-revolt anthem “Press Eject,” which sees him rejecting the rules of the internet. “I don’t wanna play your game […] / Don’t wanna pay for the space that I made / It works better when you post your face,” he sings over corrosive drums and squelching electronics. “I wanted to write an anthem for people who are fed up with the way the Internet has become,” he explains. “I want to remind people that there are platforms that have come and gone, because they’re vulnerable if we aren’t on them. I’m encouraging everyone to be more empowered and thoughtful about how we engage with social media. Maybe we can create a better situation for ourselves.” The hyperpop and electro-inspired production of ROLLERCOASTER replicates the internet’s “sensory overload.” Its credits include Grandtheft, Jacques Greene, Machinedrum, Cecile Believe, Martyn Bootyspoon, Loraine James, Taydex, Wesley Singerman, myst milano, and Harrison—a combination of tried-and-true Canadian collaborators and “fellow Black weirdos,” as Pemberton puts it. Acoustic interludes from Bartees Strange break up the discord, reminding listeners that they can get back to a more “organic” mindspace, that maybe they should, indeed, touch grass. “He was this siren beckoning you into the album,” Pemberton says, “this mysterious voice that you hear every so often.”
There’s a personal bent to ROLLERCOASTER, due to Pemberton’s long ambivalent relationship with technology. As a budding teen musician in the prairie city of Edmonton, the internet was his connection to a community of rappers on message boards and an endless resource for new music. As a university student, he began penning online reviews of alternative hip-hop albums, while making his debut 2005 LP Breaking Kayfabe, which set the foundation for the rest of his multidisciplinary career. “This project also acts like a love letter to the old internet, before capitalism knew how to make it profitable,” Pemberton says. It’s name is a nod to Pemberton’s childhood nickname given to him by his parents. “It was who I was before I was just a username,” he says. He also honors his late uncle Brett Miles, one of his musical mentors, by sampling him on “My Computer” remarking in an interview, “I always saw Rollie on the computer.”
Pemberton’s most revealing moments arrive at the very end of ROLLERCOASTER with “tl;dr,” popular online lexicon for “too long; didn’t read.” Since it features him reeling off candid observations about racist trolls and the commodification of trauma, he decided to make it the last track, usually the least-streamed song due to shortening attention spans, as sort of as a “reward” for those who made it through to the end. “No amount of copaganda will make me forget about all of the trauma / And everyone online wanna mine it for commas,” he raps on the track.
Despite its bleak portrait of today’s digital attention economy, ROLLERCOASTER still fits into a long lineage of Black electronic artists using music to forge Black futures—much like the seminal Detroit techno duo Drexicya, whom Pemberton references on the album. (“On a wave like James Stinson, better pay attention,” he raps on “Lexicon.”) It goes hand-in-hand with his work outside of music, as he frequently uses his platform to shed light on musicians rights and financial realities. He recently spearheaded the #MyMerch campaign with UMAW (Union of Musicians & Allied Workers) and FAC (Featured Artists Coalition), which seeks to eliminate venues taking merch cuts from artists. “I feel I have a responsibility to use my skills to help people and build organizational power for other artists and music workers,” he says. By illuminating the current issues of the world, Pemberton inspires others to join him in the fight for a better one.
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