Review: Daniel Caesar’s Case Study 01

Graphic by Bei Chan

The R&B soul act’s second album, a contemplative piece on love and forging an identity after love, betrays Caesar’s aimlessness. 

The Toronto artist’s 2017 debut album, Freudian, received enthusiastic critical reception and several Grammy nominations. An undulation of his early adult years braced by gospel hums and Caesar’s own timorous voice, the album gives us insight to the depths of his vulnerability. It is no wonder that its more experimental successor, Case Study 01 — after two years of Caesar remaining relatively noiseless until its release — would encounter some carping. 

The album’s sound, while remaining reluctantly Caesar, shifts from dreamlike to downright extraterrestrial via the pleasant tinkling of chimes, acoustic guitar, and vocoder distortion. Coupled with Caesar’s attempt to diversify his sound, the alternative approach to love in Case Study 01 has led some listeners to find Caesar’s new “persona” to be martian-like — but that’s not a bad thing. 

Caesar has reinvented himself, albeit unconvincingly, by assuming a persona that contradicts his previous album. 

The first track on the album is aptly titled “ENTROPY”, meaning a lack of order or predictability. It opens with a sample from an interview with the American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, on the decision to drop the atom bomb. Oppenheimer draws from a story in the Bhagavad Gita, in which the Hindu deity Vishnu says “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. While morbid, this is certainly an effective metaphor for Caesar’s transition from his old life to his new one (“only forwards, never backwards… raise my jersey to the rafters / let moths consume me in the light”). Caesar has reinvented himself, albeit unconvincingly, by assuming a persona that contradicts his previous album. 

Case Study 01 follows an arc that at first projects an image of the singer as a heartbreaker, but eventually returns to the syrupy, familiar fantast by the end. He is dismissive of women, departing from the empathy for them that had once made him such a refreshing act, with lyrics like: “It’s you baby girl I’m trying to breed… I’m not a monster / I’m just a man with needs” and “I don’t feel like talkin’ unless it’s ‘bout me, or philosophy / Can we just get down to business? / And then when we’re both finished, then we’ll have a reason to speak”, which inches near chauvinism. These lyrics come across as insecure instead of impressive, lacking the self-assuredness that we have grown to associate with him, sustained by his defenceless honesty. Caesar shifts from “You are the reason / The reason I sing” in his first album, to “I’m my own reason why I sing”, these lyrics are purposefully performative, we are meant to experience his growth alongside him. 

The album’s purpose remains mostly deceptive until Caesar’s final song…

Arguably, his second album is a perfect portrayal of this particular interval in Caesar’s life, playing out just the sort of perfunctory ego-bolstering necessitated by a nasty breakup; an urgency to prove that you are doing alright whether or not it is the case. In fact, the album’s purpose remains mostly deceptive until Caesar’s final song “ARE YOU OK?”, an apology letter to his former lover, where we, at last, hear the tenderness he really held for her. A psychedelic dreamscape, the song is comprised of slow-building acoustic guitar, synth pads, and bone-chilling echoes in the background until it goes silent at the four-minute mark before starting up again. It sounds marvellously unfinished. Case Study 01 is certainly not as polished as Freudian, and far more inauthentic, but that seems to be entirely the point. 

1 Comment

  • Thanya says:

    I have a newfound appreciation for the album after your article! I am super guilty of just listening to music without paying much attention to the lyrics 😩 Looks like I need to have a Case Study 01 listening sesh ASAP.
    Thank you for the insightful article 🙏🏾 Can’t wait to read more from you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.