Review: Daniel Caesar, ‘Case Study 01’

Caesar’s follow-up album misses the magic of his best work.

Contemporary R&B has seen a spectacular comeback in the last two years. One of the prodigies responsible is Daniel Caesar. Caesar composed an entire wedding soundtrack with the 2017 debut album Freudian, a masterpiece of silky R&B ballads mixed with gospel soul perfect for the walk down the altar. It was clear Caesar knew what he was doing, honing a style without compromise of a major record label. Social media incidents have since set back the singer, and as always in cancel culture it is up to the quality of the music that will win fans back over.

Creativity, Daniel Caesar may be doing one thing too many. Case Study 01 is not as majestic compared to Caesar’s previous work. There is a lack of emotion, compelling concepts of love and above all, great songs.

Daniel Caesar’s formula is very delicate. It is easy to perform the same trick, something Caesar would have got away with considering how likeable his debut contribution was. At face value, all the pieces are there. Ten tracks amounting to 44 minutes, plus selective guest appearances that inhabit a similar stylistic realm. Yet a majority of Case Study 01 feels hollow. It is lacking the sincere romance that is often so effortlessly present in Caesar’s music, never fabricated nor unnatural.

A handful of songs are an exception to the flaws. “Too Deep to Turn Black” is the beautiful, tender balladry expected of Daniel Caesar. Its minimal guitar strums are an afterthought to his gentle voice, maximised by the female vocals by Arianna Reid on the hook, and the juvenile aura. It is no surprise “Too Deep to Turn Back” lyrically focuses on God and religion, a theme that brought out the best of Freudian (“Submit to me, come get down on one knee / I’m your saviour and I’ll give you everything that you need”). This is where Caesar feels at home, deep in his gospel roots.

“Love Again” shows just what Caesar can create when pairing up with a fellow R&B vocalist. The groovy production is another homely trait, but Brandy is the one who steals the show, using her unmistakable vocals to promise the fundamentals of love.

Elsewhere, Case Study 01 probes in other genres with mixed results. “Cyanide” powers through a memorable hook by the forgotten Kardinal Offishall that makes up for Caesar’s unconvincing Patois. And no matter how many average beats Pharrell continues to produce (this decade) they will never tailor to the artist’s aesthetic, always his own (“Frontal Lobe Muzik”). On these songs, Caesar’s love-me-tender is cloaked. Singles like “Who Hurt You?”, which for some reason does not end up on the tracklist, are exactly the kind of songs Case Study 01 lacks; heartfelt, infectious and conceptually creative. The vocals are there, but not the identity.

Case Study 01 needs to work harder than it does to capture the allure of Caesar’s best work. The production is often there, but the ideas and choruses fall flat for far too many tracks. Risks were taken but with low pay-off, indicating the singer should get back to the drawing board with a greater focus on songwriting than invention.

Rating: 6 / 10

Best tracks: “Too Deep to Turn Back”, “Love Again”, “Superposition”