Daniel Caesar's Surprise Album is a Risky Case Study on More Than R&B
Evan Dale // June 29, 2019
If Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 untitled unmastered taught the modern music world anything, it’s that the experimental, unexpected, and unperfected projects – brimming with grit and honesty – can be different types of masterpieces, necessary and telling to a transcendent artist’s lifelong collection. Enter Toronto lovechild and vocalist of all things seductively high and madly in lust, Daniel Caesar whose latest project, CASE STUDY 01 is absurdly undervalued by its title. The truth about Caesar’s much-anticipated follow-up to 2017’s renowned classic, Freudian is that by the hand of just about any other artist in music, CASE STUDY 01 wouldn’t feel grimy or experimental. Caesar’s crystalline vocal delivery and ever-emerging range alone make sure of that. But held against the light of Freudian which is still shining as one of the most key, traditionalist R&B projects of the modern cloth, CASE STUDY 01 is a brash change of pace without any sacrifice to its expected quality.
Where Freudian stood as a linear-directionally tell-all coming of age tale, unparalleled in its youthful relatability and storytelling mastery, CASE STUDY 01 is a patchwork of vibrant stylistic experimentalism still tethered together by the same elements omnipresent throughout all of Caesar’s catalogue – threads of unendingly impressive vocal bouts and impossibly emotive explorations. Yet, it displays ranges outside of Daniel Caesar’s established R&B dominance where he may very well sit alone upon the throne even amongst the modern generation of new-wave golden era stewards. That raw risk taking is what makes his CASE STUDY 01 so important and courageous. And without cutting away what he’s known to be capable of, the surprise album surprises in more ways than timing. It surprises in its exploration of stylistic nuances; it surprises in its patchwork sensibilities; it surprises in its merging of unexplored artistic realities; in its foundational bricklaying upon what were already skyscrapers.
CASE STUDY 01 opens where Caesar’s explosive social media lead-in to the unexpected project left off – a muffled, mysterious, and otherworldly reading of a familiar lines across seemingly all stylistic pedestals:
I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita
Vishnu was trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty
And, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says,
‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’
ENTROPY opens the album in a strange light for students of Caesar’s more recent deliveries. It isn’t clean, pristine, and classically R&B akin to nearly everything he’s done since 2015 breakout single, Violet. Instead, it feels much more like Violet and earlier work itself, where undoubtedly his vocals are on a platform for all to hear but done in a way highlighting his risk-taking nature where crackling, vinyl-reminiscent production steals the track’s shine. And though the entire album is of course strewn with signature R&B ballads that would make even the best vocalists jealous, several of which appear on the album itself (see LOVE AGAIN featuring Brandy & SUPERPOSITION with John Mayer), just as many are bold and indefinable by an preconceived standards of Daniel Caesar’s catalogue. And much of that direction is steered by the vibrant experimentalists that Caesar invites to guest spot. FRONTAL LOBE MUZIK is an up-tempo hip-hop adjacent track that sees both Caesar and one of modern music’s strongest experimental influences, Pharrell stepping away from any sort of comfortability they know. Caesar picks up a rare hip-hop cadence garnishing the track with a texture he’s never pursued before while Pharrell is removed from his normative position as any track’s sensual and emotional relief, instead playing the part of its dark and low-fidelity shadow. RESTORE THE FEELINGS invites the indefinable artistry of Sean Leon to make an appearance where Caesar takes on a slow and steady myriad of vocal runs that open the shared stage for Leon and Jacob Collier – both of which own more artistic differences than similarities – to come together for something completely unexpected: left-of-center acoustic R&B à la styling of emotive silk underground wunderkind, Dijon.
Featuring artists aside, the stage still shines brightest for Caesar who, through risks and raw invention delivers something as unexpected as its title begs for. There is no doubt that he could have pulled together another classic, traditional R&B album reflecting of Freudian or last year’s raunchy baby-maker, Who Hurt You, but the simple fact that he did something else entirely and did it at every level as well as Freudianis what will come to cement his name in the hall of fames of any and every vocally-driven styling. All the great R&B vocalists of the modern golden era – from The Weeknd to Bryson Tiller – have had trouble keeping their lofty positions in the spectrum’s house of royalty because they failed to evolve. As they became worldwide figures and the sounds they invented turned to pop, they became complacent, stale, and uninventive. In result, their more current releases feel like pop music only because pop music followed their direction. Daniel Caesar is attempting to and seemingly successfully avoiding that.
CASE STUDY 01 is imperfect and that’s what proves its worth, and furthermore Caesar’s worth as an inventive, courageous risk taker pushing the boundaries of R&B and neo-soul. It proves that Caesar is more than capable of exploring other lanes and is aware of the state of the world’s modern emergent scenes. The album’s second track, CYANIDE is a Caribbean-inspired ballad that not only celebrates his home city, Toronto’s vibrant Jamaican musical roots, but also floods the album with the Caribbean and afro-futuristic nuances spurring continuously more inspiration on global pop, hip-hop, and electronic. In neo-soul and R&B, it’s still a lane relatively unexplored, but sure to be explored further because of Caesar’s success and influence with it here. Along with RESTORE THE FEELING as mentioned earlier, CASE STUDY 01’s closing track, ARE YOU OK is Caesar’s take on the exploding, emotive realm of acoustic R&B.
And if for some reason all of the risks taken and changes of direction aren’t enough for his foundational Freudianfanbase, LOVE AGAIN, OPEN UP, & COMPLEXITIES are not only on pace with the Freudian direction, but are more modern, refined takes on what made Daniel Caesar a global figure in the first place.
In may be hard to believe, but Daniel Caesar has gotten better. He’s also gotten more wide-ranging and riskier, which is why CASE STUDY 01, once it earns the respect it will undoubtedly come to earn, will go on to be one of transcendentally-driven 2019’s most important projects, further elevating his relevance and influence until yet another classic comes to form.