TORONTO - By the time he was out of his teens, Rollie Pemberton — a.k.a. Cadence Weapon — had a much-hyped debut album, a Polaris Prize short-listing and a captive crowd eager to see what he was going to do next.
At 26 years old now, he's glad that period — of magnified attention and rigid expectations — is in the past.
"I'm glad that I had the experience I had when I was younger ... because I got that whole thing out of the way — I made all the mistakes already that I could possibly make," the Edmonton-reared rapper said in an interview this week from a sunny Toronto patio.
"Now I can just work on refining the music. I don't have to worry about ... the critical thing, or whether people will buy it. Now I just make music and I can just chill on it because I already went through the hype thing and these people dissecting the (music) and all these people thinking that I suck, and then people liking me again.
"I feel like I'm unfaze-able at this point. Like I can't be bothered."
It's that attitude that has enabled the creative fearlessness that's powered Pemberton's dogged experimentation since dropping his 2005 debut, "Breaking Kayfabe" — but three albums into his career, it seems that aural alchemy has finally led Pemberton to a formula he likes.
On his debut, Pemberton layered his laconic rhymes over grimy, booming synths, while 2008's "Afterparty Babies" probed the edges of house and electro. Though both records showcased his fierce intelligence and endearing sense of playfulness, Pemberton's latest — the recently released "Hope in Dirt City" — marks the first time the rapper doesn't sound as though he's obscuring his intentions in irony or musical trial-and-error.
"I'm more clear about who I am and presenting myself in a straightforward way," he said. "In the past, I feel like I've done a lot of playing more characters and experimenting with the sound, and I think it's been very hard for the listener to understand if I'm being honest or if I'm being sarcastic or ironic or whatever.
"With this, I didn't want there to be any surprise. I didn't want anyone to think I was joking about some of these things."
Still, that's not to say that "Hope in Dirt City" is any less eclectic than Pemberton's previous work.
He sprints from the trad-rap rat-a-tat of "Get On Down" (intended, in part, to prove that Pemberton can flow as frantically as a more conventional rapper) to airy dub ("Small Deaths") to slouched southern rap ("Hype Man") to neon-hued funk-pop ("Hope in Dirt City").
It's the sound of Pemberton's myriad influences being filtered through his viewfinder — which has become cracked in an increasingly distinct way. Consider how the downcast haze of "There We Go" was somehow inspired by Pemberton's fondness for Southern party rapper Soulja Boy.
"In the end it's still kind of weird," he concedes with a laugh. "That's the thing. Whenever I try to do something that's like something else, it ends up coming out weird still. It ends up coming out still like me. I could try to come out with a Wiz Khalifa club banger and it would still come out a little off."
The record has been in gestation for years, with its supple instrumentation proving particularly time-consuming. Pemberton made the unusual choice to work with samples, then enlisted a live band to replace most of the samples and then he sampled the music produced by that band.
It was a "confusing process," he admits, but one that may have finally given him a path he'd consider following in the future.
"My thing is I always want to do something different — I get kind of bored by things. I've got that kind of attention span," he said. "But I feel like I've at least hit upon a process that I enjoy."
Thus far, the critical response has been warm. British mag NME scored the album an eight out of 10, praising Pemberton for his "soulful and hazy" delivery, while the BBC called the record "entertaining and inventive."
The overwhelming sentiment seems to be that Pemberton has the opportunity to explode his profile and build his fanbase.
And he wants to make the most of it — but as always, he'll only do so on his terms.
"If you stay true and work as hard as you can, things will work out — it seems like routinely changing your style completely and alienating your fanbase, that doesn't work out," he said.
"It's a good time for me right now, because I feel like I have people really watching what's going on. They're checking out the record and I have a captive audience.
"I want to make the most of it. So that's what I'm going to try to do — really freak people out."