You know, snobbery just isn’t what it used to be. No more than six or seven years ago, music journalism pretty faithfully engaged a particular rhetoric, wielding a relatively appreciable dogmatism that bore no qualms in dispensing proclamations of acceptability, authenticity, and so forth with pontifical self-assurance. It was, generally speaking, a brand of appraisive, self-approving elitism that seemed much more delineated then. See, back in 2005, it was common knowledge that Sufjan Stevens was cool, and it was common knowledge that The Mars Volta weren’t. As a practice, this was indeed entirely self-approving, and it was easy to be so dismissive. Because that’s primarily what it was all about: something was either cool or it wasn’t.
Nowadays, though, it’s a wider scope through which we’re obligated to look, as our conceptions of legitimacy within the sphere of popular music have evolved so far beyond any substantiative litmus. It’s a paradigm shift that has been hashed about plenty, but the real cultural study lies in the amount of time it took for poptimism to succeed rockism. Whether time is actually moving quicker or we’re simply moving quicker through time, the last few years in particular have seen that scope become exponentially more inclusive, enabling the likes of, say, Lana Del Rey. In order to be taken seriously, that is, we now have to take everything seriously.
And maybe that’s just the shapeless nature of this whole business: it’s a shift that, while maybe somewhat reactionary to the pretensions of the old guard, is probably not much more than another phase within the evolution of cultural relevance. But this is undeniably a business rife with novelty, too, and our clinginess at the moment is raging. The extent to which this persuasion has influenced our perceptions of several of today’s most conspicuous artists speaks to its general acceptance, but would it hurt to give momentary pause and perhaps even consider whether we’ve really worked out the logic of this new period of criticism? Maybe I’m just flapping my gums, but we’ve invited Lil B to deliver a lecture at New York University, for heaven’s sake. The term “cloud rap” has been effectively assimilated into our vocabulary, inspiring think pieces and aggrandizing and unchecked discourse.
With his poem “Monday,” Billy Collins — in his remarkably unembellished style — offers an analogy: “…it should go without saying/ that what the oven is to the baker/ and the berry-stained blouse to the dry cleaner,/ so the window is to the poet.” It is a decidedly extrospective acuity that the poet is called to draw upon, Collins suggests, as the world beyond our windows demands some annotation.
Having recently completed his tenure as poet laureate for the city of Edmonton, Rollie Pemberton has probably been gazing out of his window quite a bit, employing that acuity these past few years in highlighting the personality and lifeblood of his Alberta hometown. But, theoretically, his poetic sensibility has served him well in carrying out the functions of his day job, too: we can assume that Pemberton, a.k.a. Cadence Weapon, has been spending some time looking beyond his immediate world, evidently surveying the current states of both popular music and the contingent that has sought to critique it. In a conversation with Maisonneuve recently, Pemberton theorized, “I think critics have too much over-eagerness to embrace things they don’t totally understand, in order to not be left behind. There are so many times when I read reviews of Lil B or something — some of the more blog-rapper-type people — and it’s really over-intellectualizing what they do… You’re trying to squeeze blood from a stone. It’s just not there for me.”
What a party pooper. Pemberton’s ambivalence toward the inflated assessment of today’s pop landscape won’t find too many sympathizers for the time being (some of the loudest poptimist commentary comes by way of our most eggheaded critics: Sasha Frere-Jones, Kelefa Sanneh), but it’s an observation that certainly accounts for some hard truth: we haven’t given ourselves too much breathing room. And whether or not we decide in six or seven years that his concerns were surprisingly prescient, the fact of the matter is that we’ve said quite a bit in a comparatively short amount of time.
With this in mind, Hope in Dirt City feels like, above all else, a statement. Upper Class is billing it as “a groundbreaking achievement in hip-hop,” claiming “Cadence Weapon has returned to bring rap back to its essence.” And while it goes without saying that such ascriptions of messianic reimposition are at the least overstated, this album does engage with its accounting for some of the genre’s original building blocks. As Pemberton sings, bellows, and raps his lyrics with characteristic volubility, the music hopscotches across elements of disco, funk, soul and R&B. Of course, Pemberton’s reexamination isn’t as special as the forethought and mindfulness with which he evidently does it.
The anticipation of this album has been marked largely by a preoccupation with his very involved production technique: the process saw Hope in Dirt City begin with a synthetic groundwork that eventually served as a point of departure for more organic reinterpretations at the hands of several session musicians. These recordings were in turn filtered through more computers to create a patchwork of live and prefab samples. Upper Class breaks down the process: “Pemberton applies an interesting approach to production using samples as a foundation for writing the album, then working with live instrumentalists… to reconfigure his original compositions. Pemberton then turned the band-recorded tracks into samples for the album to ‘achieve a listenable, honest approach to integrating a live band into his setup.’”
In a conversation with Paste, Pemberton cited his frame of mind throughout the record’s gestation: “I wanted to make it ambiguous between where the sample ends and the live band begins.” Accordingly, the end product certainly upholds this ambition: Hope in Dirt City presents some of Pemberton’s most complex material to date. Most of the songs still bear the characteristically breakneck rhythms that garnered a nod from the Polaris Music Prize committee back in 2006, but unlike Breaking Kayfabe and Afterparty Babies, this album is swathed with layers of full-bodied instrumentation. Given its vested interest, Upper Class advertises it as “a unique hybrid of psychedelic soul, old school rap, IDM and mutant disco,” but — before each of these genres is given time to manifest — Hope in Dirt City most notably flaunts a bulk that recalls none of the thin, electronic skin and bones of especially Breaking Kayfabe.
All in all, that ambition seems pretty self-contained. And “Dirt City” is itself a reference to Edmonton, a place that obviously provided a range of experiences upon which Pemberton now reflects from his current home in Montreal. But throughout his career, Pemberton has exhibited to the public an uncommon conscientiousness. Whether he’s acknowledging the infusion of geek culture into contemporary hip-hop or documenting the intricacies of a city most famous for housing the continent’s largest shopping mall, he has always seemed to demonstrate an impressive degree of awareness. And with Hope in Dirt City, Pemberton seems to be asking us to curb whatever exegetical gobbledygook we’re poised to dispense and just listen.
Not everything works here, but some of it does, and, more importantly, Hope in Dirt City feels like Pemberton is going somewhere. That is, it feels like he is going somewhere that most artists, at least for the time being, aren’t. In a recent profile in The Gazette, Pemberton is quoted as saying, “I’ve spent the last few years exploring different aspects of my personality,” comparing himself as a singer-songwriter with two of his more influential countrymen, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. “I would love for people to perceive me like that one day — like a Neil Young. He made music on his own terms and people rolled with whatever changes he made creatively. I hope that people who listen to my music roll with my punches.” With Hope in Dirt City, Pemberton’s intentions are actualized, as he seems like he is indeed well on his way to making music on his own terms. But I’m not so sure that we’ll simply roll with or tolerate or adjust ourselves to those punches: rather, it’s his punches that will keep us listening.