In the rap world, Rollie Pemberton's days are numbered–at least, that's what he thinks. "Nas was 18 when Illmatic came out," says the 21-year-old emphatically on the phone from his home in Edmonton, Alberta. "And think about sports nowadays... there are, like, 17-year-olds in the NBA."
But sports guys peak before 30, and artists mature late into life, don't they? "That's accurate for every genre except rap," Pemberton fires back with wise-beyond-his-years wit.
Truth is, while MCs from Compton to Queensbridge might base entire careers on their plight to stay alive, surviving the Canadian rap game can be pretty damn grueling, too. It's not guns that plague hip-hop in the great white north–tenuous underground distribution networks, clueless record execs in the Toronto wings of major labels, and having to shake a wannabe-gangsta image are fences that have guarded Canadians' success south of the border.
Cadence Weapon's time has come. It's been over two years since sites like Fluxblog began sharing "Sharks," Pemberton's shit-talking pre-emptive strike on Pitchfork Media, a website for whom he penned a number of reviews as a budding music journalist. Word about the young rapper's off-kilter rhyming and beat-making style, more akin to Del or Antipop Consortium than Hot 97 hit makers, spread quickly. Then came a signing to Toronto indie-rock label Upper Class, who issued his Breaking Kayfabe debut in Canada. Most recently, he signed to Anti-/Epitaph, who will release his follow-up, Afterparty Babies, this fall.
The term "breaking kayfabe" is stage lingo for breaking character and letting the truth reveal itself; in Pemberton's case, that translates to trading in rap's fake promise of money and fame for real stories from the cold, desolate Albertan capital. Yet despite some very Edmonton-centric rhymes–such as "Oliver Square," an ode to the strip mall where Pemberton worked his first fast-food job–the disc's minimal, early-Warp Records-inspired compositions have broad appeal while managing to chart new ground for bedroom rhyme-spitters. "I wanna make it so that 'Canadian rapper' is not a bad term," he says sincerely. "But I was never thinking, 'Oh, will people in Canada like this? Will people in the States like this?' I was thinking, 'Will anyone like this?'"
Two years later, I can't help but wonder how representative Breaking Kayfabe is of what's going on with Pemberton now.
"I wouldn't say it's worse, I'd say it's different... Some of the beats [on Breaking Kayfabe] go back as far as five years," he notes. But, as he later riddles off his current iPod favorites–Digitalism, Para One, Sebastian, Switch–one gets the feeling that he really is prepared to cover as much ground as possible before rap's dreaded three-oh. "[The new album] is a 100 percent departure. It's a dance record–that's all I'll say."