Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
I have a theory that in the world of hip-hop, people are separated into those who care mainly about the skills of the emcee and those who care mainly about the skills of the producer. There are occasional overlaps, of course, but someone who loves hip-hop for the flow and the lyrics can almost always forgive a weak beat, just as those who love hip-hop for the beats can forgive a weak flow. I sit firmly in the former category, having been drawn to hip-hop in the first place as a result of the way the best emcees can dance around words and rhythms, toying with language in a way I don’t think rock music is often capable of. But nonetheless, the albums that I wind up loving are almost always the ones that feature the best of both words: the best emcees have almost always been accompanied by equally excellent producers who are able to push and provoke the words, forming a symbiotic relationship between beats and rhymes.
These are the albums I force on friends, particularly those not immersed in the scene or who have limited themselves to the occasional ironic enjoyment of club anthems from the likes of 50 Cent. These are the albums that I inevitably play in the midst of heated discussions about the worth of the genre. Because when you get down to the heart of it, hip-hop is the graphic novel of the music world; despite mammoth sales and the rare works that the Rolling Stones of the world deem okay for the masses, true hip-hop continues to be a genre trolling the outskirts of professional criticism and cultural acceptance with its image continuing to be seen as something juvenile, violent, sexist. And while there will always be examples of those tags, just as they will always exist in the mainstream rock world, there are countless works going unnoticed that are the opposite. But like graphic novels, hip-hop is in an unique position to use multi-media devices to get its point across; where the graphic novel utilizes pictures to say more than words could, hip-hop can replicate and refit any sonic portion of history to its advantage. Yet society continues to view it as a dumbed down, self-serving commodity rather than a highly adaptive and evolving form of art.
Perhaps more than anyone, Cadence Weapon is an artist who not only acknowledges this cultural disconnect but has also made it a significant element of his work. In a sense, Cadence Weapon is a post-modern emcee, aware of the history of the musical realm he works within and able to comment on it and more culturally accepted works with equal aplomb; and unlike contemporaries like P.O.S. or Sage Francis, Cadence Weapon is stylistically diverse. Afterparty Babies, his most recent album and his first masterpiece, references a dizzying number of elements of pop culture, from the often video game influenced production to jokes about Tina Fey to lyrics that jump from mentions of the Dead Kennedys to A Tribe Called Quest to Fleetwood Mac to Bob Dylan to Nabokov to Ian Curtis to Iggy Pop to The Venus in Furs and so on. Cadence Weapon wields pop culture detritus like a scalpel, using trivia as a weirdly effective meta-commentary on the obsessions of society and what they might ultimately mean. You could even view Afterparty Babies as a concept album of sorts, complete with an origin story and a climactic come-uppance.
“Do I Miss My Friends?” finds Cadence Weapon remembering when things were simpler, when he and his friends were just a group of slackers gathered in “the forfeit towns/ Where they misbehave/ Where they skip the bills/ And they radio slave” but now he’s “a cutthroat boy” and they can only be friends when he leaves the stage. The song introduces many of the album’s prevalent themes: our generation spending beyond its means and obsessing over pointless high culture, the disconnect between the artist and his roots, the short attention span of fans, relationships that inevitably fail due to poor communication, and Cadence Weapon’s inability to really embrace the promiscuous, disposable encounters so typical of the music business. The juxtaposition between Cadence Weapon’s heady narrative and the simple beat is what makes the song such a success; fooling the listener into thinking his music is just another easily digested back-packer trifle, Cadence Weapon is free to make acidic remarks about the world he works in that will only be revealed through repeated listens over time. This could explain why the album went largely unnoticed by fans and critics alike, but it’s difficult to think of another work that was as subtly subversive.
But still it’s a pity that the album didn’t find its way on more iPods and in more clubs. “In Search of the Youth Crew” is a tried-and-true should-have-been club anthem (aspiring DJ’s take note, I have never failed to energize a room with this track), immediately enjoyable but dangerously dark with its underlying comment on the sinister Humbert Humbertisms of North American culture. “True Story” follows that idea to the future, detailing what the My Super Sweet 16 girls will inevitably find themselves becoming in five years time. Here the beat is darker, throbbing with need and abuzz with synths straight from the dungeons of Final Fantasy. Cadence Weapon has always had a bizarrely rhythmic flow, somewhere in-between Subtitle and Q-Tip, but where his debut Breaking Kayfabe was merely interesting due to its somewhat repetitive, sterile production, the chaotic, beautifully derailed beats on Afterparty Babies (crafted by Cadence Weapon himself) are more than capable of handling their own but in the hands of Cadence Weapon they become something more. Cadence Weapon weaves in and out of the chirps and bleeps masterfully, giving the production room to breathe and build tension, finally realizing the potential he’s always shown
Witness centerpiece “Real Estate” which has Cadence Weapon sitting atop a wonderfully chintzy kick and snare beat, simple but driving, anchored by a bit-crushed organ and a warped vocal sample that hangs around the edges. Cadence Weapon lives up to his moniker on the track as his flow begins as something syncopated and slightly confrontational before gaining a slight sing-song cadence part of the way into the first verse. “Real Estate” speaks specifically of the inherently racist structure of hip-hop and the equally racist real estate world, drawing parallels between the business of superstar rappers trying to stay true to the streets while also attempting to appropriate stereotypically white status symbols and the attempts of black families struggling to move up the social ladder only to be blocked from entry in historically white, upper-class neighborhoods. When he speaks of the divide between the more “authentic” Southern rap scene where “it’s okay to have gold in your mouth” and the Northern underground where “the rappers over here/ Don’t ever say def,” Cadence Weapon isn’t making a judgment call but instead asking for a sort of unity.
Status symbols and consumerism in general are the primary targets of Cadence Weapon’s Afterparty Babies, with songs like “Messages Matter” highlighting hook-ups as a latter day barter system and “The New Face of Fashion” acting as a lecture to a younger brother approaching the scene as competitive posturing rather than community. Cadence Weapon’s dismissal of the concept of hip-hop as commodity is refreshing, hearkening back to the era of the Native Tongues movement and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising in particular, especially on the Prince Paul-esque “Unsuccessful Club Nights.” These songs wouldn’t ring as true without Cadence Weapon’s ability to spin his lyrics and jabs out of his own flaws and weaknesses, like his statement on the anti-social networking technology “Messages Matter” that “people don’t laugh anymore/ They use acronyms to make their opinions known” followed by his own admission that he seeks out casual encounters with girls who use his lyrics for their screennames. As serious as the issues are that he’s addressing, Cadence Weapon never leaves his sense of humor behind, choosing to relate rather than preach to.
Whether it’s his background as the son of a pioneering hip-hop DJ or his previous career as a ferocious critic, Cadence Weapon has a knack for observation and an enviable ability to fluidly navigate tone and emotion that most of his peers lack. That these skills are paired with impressively expressive production style more influenced by IDM and house trends than the average hip-hop single, makes it even easier to recommend Cadence Weapon to listeners who have shied away from hip-hop in the past. The attention to detail in both the flow and the production mark Cadence Weapon as an artist poised to conquer the world: ahead of the pack and evolving at a ludicrous pace, it’s only a matter of time before more listeners catch on to how ahead of the curve Cadence Weapon is.
by Morgan Davis