Cadence Weapon Is the Black Hand
lberta, Alberta, where you been so long? As place, class, and race figure pivotally in the ongoing authenticity fracas fomented by critics and artists alike, Stylus’ own Rollie Pemberton hails from a province best known for its hockey teams and rollicking Conestoga wagon races. For American audiences, let’s face facts: thanks to the ongoing subsidies dedicated to the nostalgic revival of that conservative chimera, the placid small town, America is less urban today than it was a century ago, which with the consolidation of MTV’s homogenized youth culture programming by the early ‘90’s, meant the direct importation of gangsta rap into tract homes with driveways and garages in ways that disturbed the Executive Office, resulting first in banned records and then Tipper Gore’s ubiquitous parental advisory sticker. The rise of gangsta rap in the early to mid ‘90’s is coterminous with the ostensibly self-defeating aims of grunge rock and fashion, a subculture of absurd alienation and self-loathing, an atomistic, introverted movement priming a generation (and conveniently, a marketing demographic) allegedly hell-bent on undermining the GDP, each affecting across conventional race boundaries. Those were tumultuous times at home—but as Rodney King was beaten and Los Angeles burned, Washington blithely waged war in Iraq and cultural consumption continued apace, and before you knew it happy days were here again.
A quick decade passes, and everything old has become new again, except those once deemed horrorshow are either dead or recast as toothless Stepin Fetchit caricatures of their former vicious incarnations, the “where are they nows” a cautionary bromide indicting their prior convictions. And while industry executives conflated grunge with resurgent album rock, mainstream hip-hop remained inventive, recovering from the deaths of the genre’s most prominent artists, to say nothing of Sean Combs’ grotesque parasitism. Cadence Weapon’s mixtape demonstrates the breadth of that history, which at a meek nineteen years old spans his lifetime. His beats reach back to Superfly on “Poulet De Funk” and LCD Soundsystem’s open water on “Sharks,” and the transitions from funk to metronomic motorik match his lyrical venom, drawing comparisons to Jay Z and Pharoahe Monch. Cadence intermittently breaks character, with the rhymes straight reppin’ Kaplan AP History prep style (try googling “Carpathian”)—but tracks like “8 Ounces” are high-fivin’ street corner summertime jams and dance mixes like “The Gorilla is for Sand Racing” barbeques breakbeats with a loop that just kills. Of the remixes, including tracks by Gwen Stefani, DFA 1979, and M.I.A., it’s Sway and Tech’s “The Anthem” that mesmerizes with Cadence Weapon’s iron-masked beats and samples.
For a mixtape, Cadence Weapon is the Black Hand sounds almost too polished to be a debut. Rather than take on materialism’s world historical complex, or unwittingly fall into the traditional underground stylistic well that doubles as a critics’ ghetto, Pemberton sticks to what he knows: Edmonton and his place in it, reflected in his party raps about drinking and going to the mall. The album’s tipping point might be its final track, the downcast elegy “Julie Will Jump the Broom” which in somber two and half minutes communicates the narrator’s heartbreak when he learns that his true love is pregnant with another man’s baby, and will marry him instead. When Cadence stutters, it’s not for lack of words or that Pemberton’s bankrupted his epistemic checking account, but because he has too little space and time to say what’s bugging him. Cadence Weapon Is the Black Hand bears the hallmarks of artistic humility; absent are the “Vote Paul Martin or die’s,” in spite of Canada’s perplexingly accommodationist coalition government. Should this be seen as a shortcoming? Stakes is high after all, right?
Critics who treat hip-hop as a perfunctory populist art form that unselfconsciously accepts its own decadence, rather than become a revolutionary force and vehicle of unrest, militance and vigilance, lament its death. They find it guilty of the same sort of paternalistic Booker T. Cosbyfication that goes on in political discourse, a chastisement for bad behavior and a further withering of the welfare state, wearing but a liberal bowtie and three-piece suit. Today the material conditions are essentially identical to those in 1992: a war in Iraq, a President Bush, a sputtering economy, and a schizophrenic political opposition—but as times change, those accidental coincidences accrete neither gravity nor meaning, and the expectation of extramusical exploits as the aesthetic factor determining success seems farfetched—by that standard how would the corresponding indie rock cohort fare? That hip-hop’s equivocal politics are shot through with homophobia, misogyny and consumerist fetishism, factors that often resonate either as wrongheaded aspirations for the American dream’s utopian mystique or as a collective, hopeful ride toward a big crunk candy mountain in jalopy whips. Like the communist organizers in Ellison’s Invisible Man, those racialized expectations and double standards stereotypically embody the New Left’s empty wish fulfillment, detachment, and ideological poverty, inasmuch as the hopes of that era be realized vicariously in the social upheavals of those to come, preferably with some marginalized Other as the avant garde, and in so doing attempt to chauffeur the ailing trustee past the sharecropper’s shack, resplendent in its utter depravity.
Reviewed by: J T. Ramsay
Reviewed on: 2005-02-24