Daniel Caesar is bold now. The biggest indicator of his musical shift from “gee whiz” wunderkind to self-mythologizing manspreader is the cover of his latest self released project, Case Study 01. In keeping with the Psychology 101 theme of his previous album, Freudian, Case Study borrows a practical term, but the differences are as stark as the photography gracing each album’s art.
Where Freudian is a long shot, framing Caesar as a figure in the distance climbing some inscrutable obelisk, Case Study is a close-up shot in silhouette, towering, larger-than-life. But the biggest change is the placement — and size — of the Parental Advisory label. On Freudian’s cover it’s almost an afterthought, an “oh yeah, I may talk about some sex and cuss and stuff.” On Case Study, the message is clear: Daniel Caesar f*cks and all that humility stuff has gone out the window.
The new stance is even evidenced by the first few seconds of album opener “Entropy.” The first voice on Case Study is not Caesar’s, but J. Robert Oppenheimer’s words from an infamous interview referencing Hindu scripture about the decision to drop the first atomic bomb. As Oppenheimer reviews Hindu god Vishnu’s ability to take on a more-impressive, many-armed form, it’s hard not to notice Caesar doing the same thing from the outset; his versatility and eclecticism are well-documented, but now it’s time for him to flex.
This is a far cry from his prior projects, on which he presented an almost shy, tender demeanor. While Freudian had its brash moments, such as the suggestive come-ons of breakout hit “Get You,” for the most part, that previous effort was like high school reckoning of what “making love” must be like in the journal of a quiet, disconnected kid — an observer, not someone in the thick of things. It was first girlfriend stuff, the dreamy sense that moments could last forever, almost nostalgic in a way.
Then Caesar went through something of a rough year. After being nominated for numerous awards for Freudian, including multiple Grammy nominations (he won Best R&B Performance earlier this year for “Best Part” with similarly noir-ish singer H.E.R.), he found himself getting repeatedly kicked in the pants throughout the early half of 2019. Meeting idol Dave Chappelle on John Mayer’s Instagram Live “show,” he had to confront criticisms of his sound in real time before an audience. Initially standoffish, he seemed to sublimate a half-dozen counter arguments in favor of keeping the peace — a stance which he would later expand on during his own livestream with fans to disastrous effect.
By now, it’s entirely possible more casual music listeners have heard of Caesar as a result of the controversy surrounding his statements — which echoed similar statements made by rapper Kanye West and political commentator Candace Owens — calling Black people “sensitive” and parroting the age-old directive to “move on” as if it were some brilliant epiphany. After social media lit into him, he made his apologies — but the damage was done.
If Case Study was meant to function as a kind of supplementary mea culpa for his out-of-pocket observations, it’d be a bad one. It’s still peppered with the sort of plantation talk that Kanye doubled down on when he was getting dragged for the same reason, which isn’t a good look for Caesar (who even imitated Kanye’s heel turn right down to the hair dye job). Those prickly moments detract from an album that should have been hailed as a triumphant improvement over his previous work.
Where Freudian dreamily contemplated thorny subjects like the intersection of religion and sexuality, Case Study gets happily lost in the weeds in the best way. This time around, he tackles those subjects with swaggering aplomb, expanding his sonic palette along the way. The highlight is “Love Again,” featuring ‘90s chanteuse Brandy, a charmingly old-school duet that finds the pair challenging the gender stereotypes that cause friction throughout many relationships.
“Frontal Lobe Muzik,” featuring Pharrell, brings a sense of fun and frolic to the normally self-serious Daniel Caesar proceedings, while the dense “Superposition” makes use of John Mayer’s expressive guitar work to evoke the sort of song that would have fit comfortably on Mayer’s 2006 album Continuum. “Restore The Feeling” is a cocky summation of Caesar’s transformation, a surefire hip swiveler. Where the centerpieces on Freudian featured gooey, romantic navel-gazing, “Restore The Feeling” features a sizzling greased-griddle verse from Canadian rapper Sean Leon that re-casts “Daniel Caesar, soul man” as “Danny Caesar, the local superstar.” It’s easy to imagine that guy in the strip club on a Tuesday, no longer falling in love with the dancers as he did on 2019 loose single “Who Hurt U?”
Even with Caesar’s newfound physicality, Case Study is still a thoughtful, beautiful-sounding album. If nothing else, it proves he’s still a smart, intriguing songwriter who could wring twice as much romance out of a couplet as any of his contemporaries. But there’s also a sense that maybe he’s trying a little too hard here as well. The tough-guy talk on “Cyanide” is a bit much, and the vague suggestions of hard living on “Entropy” are unconvincing. Besides, we don’t come to Daniel Caesar for faux-patois and (snicker) Canadian roadman jive — that’s what Drake is for. We like Danny C because at the root of everything, there’s a sensitive kid who observes and listens, who reflects the quiet thoughts we all have but can’t always share. He just has to remember to think them all the way through before he opens his mouth, and prove he’s thinking with his head and not other body parts.
Case Study 01 is out now via Golden Child Recordings. Get it here.